I am absolutely delighted that the big year has finally arrived. 2011. The Rugby World Cup. New Zealand.

As many of you know, I am a rugby fan from way back. I spent a little time on the field in my day, as well as a great deal of time in the stands. I have enjoyed every one of my rugby moments … including a great evening with Ministers McCully and Brownlee watching Canterbury best Waikato 33-13 in the NPC final while I was in Christchurch with Secretary Clinton.

So, my colleagues and I have been cooking up plans to participate in the cyclone of rugby hoopla about to hit Aotearoa. I like history. I like sport. I like seeing aggression channeled in innocuous ways. I like a good party. And the Rugby World Cup brings all that together and keeps the brew bubbling nonstop for several weeks straight. Quite a rush.

It’s not just me. Many of my Kiwi friends might not know that the United States has a long and proud rugby tradition. Although certainly played since the 1840′s, the first documented report of a rugby game on American soil was in May 1874, when Harvard University bested Montreal’s McGill University, 3-0, under Harvard rules. The next day Harvard and McGill battled to a tie, 0-0, under McGill rules. Harvard ended up adopting McGill’s rules, and the series sparked great interest in the sport in other universities in the Northeastern U.S. including at my almae matres Princeton and Yale.

1910 All-Americans tour of Australia and NZ. Photo credit: Jarrod Bergstrom, USA Rugby.

One of the All-Americans breaking free during the team

American interest in the sport skyrocketed when rugby was included in the Olympic Games. Rugby was a competitive Olympic sport four times — in 1900, 1908, 1920, and 1924. Three teams competed in 1900, with France winning the gold and Germany and England sharing the silver. Australasia won the gold in 1908.

The push for the U.S. to compete came from my home state of California, with university students from Stanford, Berkeley, and Santa Clara composing the 1920 Olympic squad. The Californian students beat France to win the gold medal that year. The U.S. successfully defended the gold in Paris in 1924 by again besting the heavily favored hometown French team, 17-3. The International Olympic Committee then dropped rugby as an Olympic sport.

There are historical rugby ties between New Zealand and the United States.  For example, the first ever overseas tour by the U.S. national team was to New Zealand and Australia in 1910. The American national team also participated in the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, won by the All Blacks, but the Eagles did not quite make it to New Zealand that year. (All their games were played across the water in Australia.)

A surprisingly large number of Americans play rugby. I have had some difficulty finding a reliable estimate of the total number of Americans who regularly play. I do know, though, that USA Rugby has more than 90,000 members, 7 territorial unions, and 34 local unions that compete for regional and national championships.

USA Eagles Vs South Africa - Miles Craigwell. Photo Credit: usarugby.org.

USA Eagle Miles Craigwell off and running during a match against South Africa last year.

To highlight the passion for rugby that many Americans share with our Kiwi friends, we at the Embassy are sponsoring a series of special programs leading up to the World Cup in September.

We started the year by launching a new blog, RugbyUSA, which you can read at USRugbyNZ.com . We will be filling the blog with news, interviews, bits of history, discussions about great rugby matches from the past, and guest posts from USA Eagles players and sports journalists. I’ll circle back to the rugby blog in a moment.

Kiwis coaching rugby in Hawaii.

A Kiwi coach on our exchange program in Hawaii.

In addition, we have launched a rugby exchange project between Hawaii and New Zealand. We have already sent three Kiwi coaches to our 50th State to work with young players and their coaches there. Later this year we will be bringing a dozen Hawaiian coaches and players to New Zealand to continue the exchange.

On a smaller scale, we have also pumped up our namesake cup. As I wrote about last April, the trophy presented each year since 1967 to the winner of Wellington’s premium Club Rugby Sevens Tournament is named the American Ambassador’s Cup (in honor of its initial presenter, then-Ambassador John Henning). When I awarded the cup last February to champion Oriental-Rongotai, it struck me that the trophy was a bit diminuitive. So, we shopped around and recently presented to our friends at the Wellington Rugby Football Union a big new American Ambassador’s Cup of Texan proportions.

Presenting the new and improved American Ambassador's Cup to Pete Scott, Chairman of the Rugby Board of the Wellington Rubgy Football Union.

Presenting the new and improved American Ambassador's Cup to Pete Scott of the Wellington Rugby Football Union.

And, of course, come September we will be organizing events around the Eagles’ contests at the World Cup. The team will be playing at least four games — two in New Plymouth, one in Wellington, and one in Nelson. We are planning to organize at each game a beloved icon of American culture … a tailgate party. So named because they are usually staged from the backs of pick-up trucks or the trunks of automobiles, tailgate parties are robustly social pre-game pep rallies involving friends, barbecue, hotdogs, beer, music, and good cheer.

Although we did not have a chance to organize a tailgate party then, I had the great fortune to spend time with some of the Eagles during the run-up to the Wellington 7s last year. The Eagles thoroughly enjoyed their time in Wellington, and I know that they are eager to meet as many Kiwis as possible when they are here for the World Cup. Thus, we will not only be featuring the Eagles on our new blog but will be organizing public events in the communities where they play. I plan to host a dinner at my Residence for the team and a few of our loyal blog readers. (More on that at a later date.)

The Eagles, with the hard-won shield from the 2010 Wellington 7s.

The Eagles, after winning the Shield in the 2010 Wellington 7s.

We have a few other irons in the fire, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself (or my budget guys). We’ll keep you apprised as plans develop.

Getting back to the rugby blog …

I have very much enjoyed working with fellow rugby fanatics in the Embassy to launch the new site, but we don’t want to hog all the fun for ourselves. We’d like to ask for your help.

Please drop us a note at USRugbyNZ@gmail.com if you have any story ideas, personal anecdotes, photos, videos, cartoons, feature ideas, introductions, or questions that you’d like to share. We’d love to hear from you, and we hope to use your input to continuously improve and expand the new blog to make it as fun, useful, and informative as possible.

Thanks for checking it out.