Todd Clever wants US Eagles’ battle with All Blacks to win over NFL crowd
Through rugby, Todd Clever has seen the world. Californian by birth and easy-going by nature, at 31 he has 59 USA caps and has been to World Cups in Australia, France and New Zealand, where he began his professional career. .
Clever is now employed in Japan, where he went after a stint in South Africa and became the . On Saturday, however, the big back-rower will find the rugby world on his doorstep.
Clever will tie back his hair, bristle his truly magnificent beard – “it looks like a bunch of bees on my chin,” he says, blaming laziness alone for its being there – and lead his Eagles into a whole new ball game: a Test against the All Blacks at an iconic American venue. “Everybody’s still kind of in shock that rugby’s sold out an NFL stadium,” he says with a laugh, of the 61,500 fans who will fill Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears.
The New Zealand press has over the All Blacks’ unusual anonymity in Chicago this week. Clever, however, has been busy, explaining and re-explaining “”. Quite simply, he is buzzing.
“It’s great to have the American public get behind rugby,” Clever says, “and with NBC picking up the game to show live everybody’s really pumped to see the All Blacks, to be part of it.”
That sense of excitement extends to Clever’s Eagles. Whether they can propel their overseas pros and anywhere close to an experimental New Zealand team may be in doubt. The All Blacks’ notion of an experimental pick is, after all, to pick Sonny Bill Williams at centre. But if Clever has learned anything it is that nothing is ever easy for an Eagle.
“It’s a task in itself to get everyone together,” the captain says of a squad separated by oceans and continents. “We haven’t been together since our . But saying that, training has gone well and we’re putting in the hard work.”
The Eagles can expect 80 minutes of extremely hard yakka. In the captain’s case, the man opposite may at least be familiar. In 2005, on the recommendation of a sevens coach, Clever flew to Auckland in New Zealand and won a contract with North Harbour. From experience there, with South Africa’s Lions and in Japan, Clever names the All Black Jerome Kaino as the opponent he most respects.
“New Zealand has a special place in my heart,” Clever says, “because I owe all my rugby success to that nation. It was a great experience when I was so young, to play there at so high a level. I’ve heard from most of my friends down there this week, funnily enough. I hope I come up against Jerome on Saturday. He’s a friend and I totally respect him as a rugby player.”
Clever may also remind Kaino if they meet off-field [the 31-year-old has not been selected by New Zealand for Saturday’s match] of where his opponent was born: American Samoa. In some happy parallel world, Kaino could have run out in red, white and blue, rather than All Black.
Such is the stuff of dreams but so was a sell-out Eagles-All Blacks Test, at an NFL stadium, not so long ago. More such matches may follow – South Africa are watching with interest. After all, if it takes a pretty penny to get the All Blacks to bring their brand anywhere, now they are here, and after only a first flexing of the financial muscle available to the American game.
The task facing the Eagles, then, is to put up a fight, to entertain the masses in the stands and the millions who, hopefully, will give college football a miss on TV. If that all sounds a bit gladiatorial, US pro sports are. And so is Clever.
Asked what he will tell his men in the Soldier Field tunnel, he says: “I don’t think I’ll have to say much. Philadelphia  was great, we had 19,000 and the atmosphere was amazing. Knowing Soldier Field, the history and the tradition of it, I think the noise will be that times three. So knowing we have that crowd, it’s our responsibility to use it.
“We’re facing the world champs but we want to show our ability to play rugby and that we’re not scared. You want to have that crowd cheer for something. It’s a great occasion, and we’ve got to rise to it. I have no doubt the players we put on the field will do so.”