NRL in Las Vegas: Six previous rugby league attempts to crack the USA

Drew Darbyshire
Sean O'Loughlin James Graham England v New Zealand Denver Alamy

England duo James Graham (left) and Sean O'Loughlin (right) lift the Rugby League Football International Challenge trophy in Denver in 2018

The American dream appears to be on the horizon for the NRL – but rugby league is no stranger to the States.

The new NRL season gets underway this weekend at the 65,000-capacity Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas with a mouth-watering double-header featuring Manly Sea Eagles v South Sydney Rabbitohs and Sydney Roosters v Brisbane Broncos.

The NRL is pulling out all the stops to make rugby league a big hit in America. Here, we look back at six previous rugby league attempts to crack the USA…

The Denver test

Probably one of the most memorable times that rugby league attempted to crack the US sporting market, especially for us in the northern hemisphere.

England and New Zealand played a mid-season international in hot conditions in June of 2018 at the Mile High Stadium, home of NRL side Denver Broncos.

A crowd of almost 20,000 witnessed England’s 36-18 win over the Kiwis. It was an entertaining game, and regularly drink breaks were needed due to the humidity.

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State of Origin

There was even a State of Origin match taken to California back in 1987.

A crowd of just 12,349 watched New South Wales beat Queensland 30-18 at the Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach, California. It wasn’t an official part of the three-match series though: it was an exhibition game effectively played as an extra alongside the main series itself.

But that was probably the standout memory for Australian fans so far, with the best to come this weekend in Las Vegas.

The Sunshine State Challenge

We almost forgot this one! In 2001, Florida played host to The Sunshine State Challenge, where the USA team competed against Leeds, Halifax and Huddersfield as the Super League sides enjoyed a pre-season in the States.

The Sunshine State Challenge, a mini tournament if you like, drew a crowd of 6,700 in Jacksonville.

The Rhinos have been back to Florida five times since 2001, and their ties to American rugby league were strengthened when then then head coach Brian McDermott took on a similar role with the USA national side.

The Great American Challenge in Milwaukee

Sean O'Loughlin Wigan Warriors Alamy
Sean O’Loughlin wearing Wigan’s Milwaukee anniversary jersey at the 2019 Magic Weekend

Let’s take ourselves all the way back to 1989, long before the Super League and NRL banners kicked off! Milwaukee, in America’s mid-west, hosted a game between English giants Wigan and Warrington.

A crowd of nearly 18,000 watched the match at a baseball stadium, as a star-studded Wigan side beat Warrington 12-5. It was a friendly in name, but not in nature, and there were few attacking chances on a narrow pitch.

Wigan and Warrington celebrated the Milwaukee exhibition with special edition shirts at Super League’s Magic Weekend at Anfield in 2019 – 30 years on from the derby that went Stateside.

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Rhinos versus Rabbitohs

The Super League giants took on their NRL counterparts in Jacksonville in the January of 2008, whilst both teams were preparing for the season ahead.

Leeds edged past Souths 26-24 in front of a crowd of 12,500 at the Hodges Stadium in Florida. How cool would it be for something like this to happen now? Harry Newman going up against the likes of Latrell Mitchell in the US. Love it.

St Patrick’s Day tests

The Donnybrook Cup, also known as the St Patrick’s Day test, was an international match played between the United States and Ireland from 1995 and 2012.

The first test match between the Americans and the Irish took place RFK Stadium in Washington DC on 1995, with the most recent being in Philadelphia back in 2012.

A total of eight matches have been played by the USA and Ireland, all of which where in the States.

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