WASHINGTON DC — Paul Crossman should have been thrilled. Wearing the green t-shirt of his beloved Springboks, the 35-year-old South African stood on the second-level concourse of RFK Stadium, in Washington, D.C., watching his home country’s rugby team take a 20-17 lead over Wales, with only a little time left on the clock.
It was just the kind of on-field drama he’d traveled about 850 miles to see.
After moving to the United States in 2011, he’d remained a loyal rugby fan in a country obsessed with other sports — American football, basketball, and baseball. So earlier this year, when he learned that his Springboks would be coming to the American capital city for a Test match against Wales, he knew he had to be there.
He and his wife bought their tickets and caught a flight from their home in Palm Beach, Florida. Crossman was excited to show his wife her first-ever international rugby match.
Once they got inside the stadium, however, he felt something was missing.
The June 2nd event, Crossman said, lacked the life, the spectacle — the carnival atmosphere — of the matches he’d attended back home in South Africa. There were no tailgating tents in the parking lot, and not enough music blasting during breaks in the action. There wasn’t even a halftime show.
Crossman understood that international Test matches aren’t often played in America… “But if there is one country that knows how to entertain,” Crossman told ESPN, “it’s the United States.”
In the final minutes of the match, Wales rallied to beat South Africa 22-20. But for Crossman, the final score wasn’t the day’s only disappointment. He’d arrived with high expectations for the event but, he said, “it hasn’t really lived up to it.”
The Wales-South Africa Test match in Washington had been the subject of controversy since shortly after it was announced in February. The Daily Mail reported shortly before the game that World Rugby had allegedly been forced to bail USA Rugby out of financial strife, compounded by poor ticket sales for the game.
Both teams opted to leave some of their top players back home, and the match attracted critics. “I don’t know why it was organized,” the onetime Wales captain Gwyn Jones complained on the BBC in May. “It was purely money-raising and trying to spread the word in America.”
But for some of the serious rugby fans in attendance, the event’s most glaring shortfall was the stadium’s lackluster energy.
Only 21,357 fans braved the afternoon rain and made it out for the game, leaving the 46,000-seat stadium looking sparse. By way of comparison, when New Zealand and Ireland traveled to Chicago in 2016 for their international Test, the event sold out a 61,500-seat stadium.
A WalesOnline journalist, citing the shortage of local marketing for the event, wrote that the match would take place “without the bulk of the DC area knowing it’s even happening.”
Bad timing might also have been a factor in the poor turnout; the match was scheduled for the same day that the city’s professional hockey team, the Washington Capitals, played a home game in the championship finals.
Problems getting into the event left some fans frustrated. A Wales supporter named Michael — he wouldn’t provide his last name — said he traveled all the way from New York City for the match, but he spent the entire first half standing in line outside the stadium, in the rain, waiting to pick up his tickets from the will call booth.
“I’m outside the event 15 minutes early, and I get in at halftime,” he told ESPN. “It’s just silly.”
Those who made it into the stadium certainly looked the part. Men and women wearing red or green jerseys, some with national flags painted onto their cheeks, took slugs of beer and roared their approval for scoring plays.
The problem, says Kenyan-born rugby enthusiast George Ondiek, was that the crowd went silent during the breaks in the action, instead of singing and cheering throughout the entire game, the way African and European rugby fans do.
“It’s like they’re watching tennis,” Ondiek said of the RFK crowd. “The players must think they’re playing in a cathedral.”
Ondiek, who grew up playing rugby as a boarding-school student in Africa and now lives in the Washington area, added that there’s a fundamental difference in the way American fans perceive the game: “Americans view [rugby] as a spectator sport, not as if they are themselves part of the experience.”
Racheal Chimbghandah, who also grew up in Africa and now lives in the Washington area, told ESPN that cultural factors accounted for this discrepancy: “A lot of people don’t understand rugby here. It’s a learning experience for them, so they’re not as into it.”
Crossman blamed the event’s organizers for not creating a more entertaining environment. “Put a car on the field, shoot out some t-shirts,” he suggested. “Add the fun.”
He also noted that instead of a halftime show, event organizers arranged for youth rugby teams take the field and compete against each other.
“At halftime, they had a bunch of kids, which is great,” he said. “But the way to bring in kids [to the sport] is to entertain them.”
Not of the all serious rugby fans in attendance let the subdued crowd ruin their afternoon. Peter Morgan, a 64-year-old native of Wales, came all the way from Pensacola, Florida, for the match.
“You can quote me on this,” Morgan said, foreshadowing the ending and a painful liver. “If these guys [Wales] win today, I’ll be s–t-faced for a week.”
For their part, the American-born fans voiced fewer complaints about the experience. Jonathan Melendez, 38, began following rugby when his brother moved to South Africa for work, and he found the game’s action, and the stadium’s vibe, compelling.
“It’s been great for me,” he says. “I always wanted to go to a live match.”
And 28-year-old Codie Kriehn, who played rugby in high school and came up from Norfolk, Virgina, for the game, says matches like this will help the sport catch on in the United States. “The more international rugby games,” he says, “the better.”
Wales coach Warren Gatland and captain Ellis Jenkins saw their side’s narrow victory over South Africa as good preparation for their tour of Argentina.
Despite the criticism, Warren Gatland, the head coach of Wales, saw clear benefits to the visit. The city’s muggy conditions would help prepare his team for the next year’s Rugby World Cup, which will take place in Japan.
“The players afterwards said just how hot and humid it was, and we know that Japan could be similar,” Gatland told the media. “So I think these guys have got us off to a great start.”
The players, meanwhile, handled questions about the stadium environment with diplomacy. “The people in South Africa have their different ways of watching rugby and having the sideshows next to the field,” said Pieter-Steph du Toit, the Springboks’ captain, after the match.
“But yeah, it’s quite a great atmosphere today and the way the crowd got behind us was impressive.”
“It was [as] noisy as any sort of American sport is,” added Wales flanker and team captain Ellis Jenkins. “It was a really good atmosphere to play in front of.”
Springboks forward Oupa Mohoje said that despite the loss to Wales the side could be proud of how they performed.
The best way for American rugby games to evolve into more spirited affairs is for the sport to increase in popularity here. South African flanker Oupa Mohoje felt that although that would take some time, he was confident that the sport could indeed take hold in the United States.
“I think every single new team that comes in rugby, they go through this stage, and eventually they do compete against the world’s best,” he added. “And I’m really excited for America to grow.”
In the meantime, with a dearth of internationals on the horizon, American fans in certain cities can take in Major League Rugby, which launched in April, in order to bone up for the next time Test-playing nations visit US shores.