Image source: joyviewer.com
Well, the weekend in Chicago was everything it was cooked up to be and more. Take the game they play in heaven and mix with America’s second greatest city, a Kiwi invasion, a sold-out iconic football stadium, and massive support from American rugby players and supporters. I was having breakfast at the Ritz Carlton on Friday morning with some New Zealanders over for the All Blacks USA Eagles match, and who should wander by with entourage but the most famous player in American sport at the present, Le Bron James, in the Windy City for that night’s Cavs-Bulls game. Spotting a host of black-shirted silver-ferned New Zealanders, I heard Le Bron say “they must be here for the big rugby game.” The previous night there was a gala dinner at the magnificent Union Station, this too was sold out with 600 American rugby sponsors, supporters, administrators went shoulder-to-shoulder with a large contingent of Kiwis including several former All Blacks. Cantabrian Phil ‘Amazing Race’ Keoghan was the MC, Ambassador Mike Moore was among the speakers, as was Peter Hancock, CEO of insurer AIG who is a passionate supporter of the values of the game and must take credit getting AIG’s logo on the front of the AB’s jersey (as well as the Americans).
There was a long list of dinners and informal parties to move between over the three days of the rugby festival. The All Blacks were staying at the Hyatt, and their supporters drained the hotel of beer, first time it had ever happened, though all very convivial. New Zealanders came from all over America and a large contingent from New Zealand. It was the largest gathering of New Zealanders at any one time in America, and with it thousands of connections and conversations – in bars and restaurants, on the Magnificent Mile, in airport lounges and of course at the stadium. The value of putting a large group of motivated and high-achieving members of the diaspora in one place is priceless. Game day brought several hundred Kiwis together in an event tent outside the famous Fields Museum adjacent to the stadium, hosted by NZ Trade & Enterprise. The Maori performance group who came in from Vancouver gave the American guests their first up-close and personal taste of the haka.
The game itself was a masterclass by the All Blacks. 12 tries, 26 clean breaks (versus 5 by USA), 42 defenders beaten (versus 11)…Sonny Bill Williams, freak of sporting nature that he is, was Man of the Match with a blistering return to the All Black jersey. Dan Carter slotted back into the team after a year’s injury absence. Their road to the 2015 Rugby World Cup has started. For the Eagles, it was a case of rugby being the winner on the day. Demolished yes, but by no means demoralized. They got a mighty ovation from the 61,500 crowd at the end of the game and can reflect on a milestone for the game in America. There are well over a million Americans playing rugby at several levels, a quarter of them women. Participation in the game grew 33% last year. The USA have a top-10 Sevens team and the 2016 Olympics provides fertile competitive ground. NBC is a great broadcast partner. The Chicago fiesta was an inflection point, a showcase and celebration rolled into one.