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My rugby weekend in Chicago

Conor Murray crosses the line. Image: Carlos Stalgis
Roar Guru
7th November, 2016
92
1438 Reads

I attended what USA Rugby called ‘The Rugby Weekend’ in Chicago to watch the New Zealand Maoris play the USA and the All Blacks play Ireland.

This two-match event is unprecedented here, as in previous years there was only one international match. The last one was with Australia and it was not very successful. The previous visit by the All Blacks was extraordinary in terms of impact but of very poor rugby quality as the USA had no chance to scare the All Blacks.

My intention was to talk to players, coaches, interact with professional journalists, attend media sessions and report on the games. That objective was partially accomplished and I’d some feedback and suggestions in the comments.

I have had experience doing this for other games in the past, starting in 2012, and thought that after four or five times doing this, I would have an easier time.

However, to quote an American Nobel Literature awardee, “The times, they are a changin’!”

This was much harder than ever. So, I spoke very briefly to some players. I never had the chance to speak with the coaches; I briefly spoke with the trainer for the New Zealand Maoris, attended some media sessions and watched the games.

I failed miserably at taking notes during the matches as I became too immersed in the games. I cannot take away the player in me and become a modest journalist. I suffered every play as if I was on the field.

I had to take the matches as a ‘gestalt’ instead of reading and criticising each individual player or event. My lesson here is a tremendous respect and admiration for the Roarers that can do the commentary live.

So, I will be chronological. We arrived in Chicago just a few hours before Game 6 of the World Series was about to start. No one gave a hoot about rugby in the city. No one even mentioned that there were other sports around.

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The next day, we walked to the All Blacks and New Zealand Maori hotels to see if we could catch up with the players and staff. This had worked in the past. We couldn’t find anyone at the Maori hotel, except for a few fans hanging around.

We went to the All Black hotel and we patiently waited for a while. Then, as automats, All Black players, all dressed alike, were coming out of a side room.

We managed to speak briefly with a few of them. Israel Dagg welcomed us with a big warm smile and chatted briefly but he was careful not to say anything that mattered. He just stated how excited and happy he was to be back in the All Black team.

I teased him about the Luke Romano chest-thumping pass and asked him if he would try a header pass next time, like in soccer. He laughed but said that he just lost the ball in the lights. He then said he had to go to a “meeting”.

The All Blacks make a break. Image: Carlos Stalgis

Sam Cane then came for a very brief chat and I asked him about the changes that he has experienced in the team, from a rookie in 2012 to now being part of the leadership group. He was comfortable with just chit chat, but it was clear that he didn’t want to engage in deeper conversation. So he hesitated for a few seconds and then went to his brain chip to answer with some clichés, like “we take it one step at a time,” “it is a big opportunity,” and “you have to adjust and grow”.

He was very nice to us as he remembered us from prior tours, but it seems that they were instructed not to engage. Then, he announced he had to go to a “meeting” (we became suspicious of this excuse).

We saw Dane Coles, who welcomed us with a smile. Again, chit-chat was fine but any deeper conversation and you could see his eyes rolling to look for the cliché tape. I did ask him about the Pumas game and he frankly admitted he was playing terribly and found himself out of sync. I asked him if Augustin Creevy’s play rattled him or got under his skin. He was very gracious and spoke highly of Creevy. He then had to go, yes, to a “meeting”.

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By then, it was clear that the PR people from the organisers did not have much information available from the teams in terms of events, practices, and so on. They were sending sketchy material and we missed one media conference from Steve Hansen.

We then went back to the New Zealand Maori hotel and we saw James Lowe wearing a Chicago Bears jersey. All the All Blacks players were in the same uniform, but the New Zealand Maoris were much more relaxed. We spoke a little bit, and due to my interest in arthritis, I asked him about it.

He was very open and said that if the USA Arthritis Foundation wanted to speak with him, he would be delighted to help. I had tried to get the foundation interested in speaking with him and sent them material about him, but nobody seemed to care.

Rugby did not register with them one bit. I guess that rugby interest in the USA has not permeated away from a small group of people. The USA rugby team was unavailable and the media were not allowed to attend any sessions with them, so I can’t report on anything about the Tanks.

That night, the Cubs won the World Series very late at night and the city was plunged into pandemonium.

Ireland get their first try against New Zealand. Image: Carlos Stalgis

On the way back to the hotel, we bumped into Justin Marshall on Michigan Avenue. He was walking around like any other tourist, totally incognito. We stopped him (I told him I may write about it for The Roar, which he knew well) and after a brief chat, I asked him about Graham Henry’s claim in his book that he was the trouble maker. My lovely photographer cringed; Justin tensed up but answered clearly, as if he has been waiting to answer this for a while.

He passionately told me that Henry never spoke with him, that he was not the “captain trouble” of the team, that all this came as a surprise to him when he read the book. He said, if only Ted would have spoken with him.

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That night, we had a long dinner with a prestigious New Zealand journalist who we have known for a few years. He confirmed to us that a lack of availability from the All Blacks is not a specific issue but a general one. He told us that the New Zealand PR people are as nasty to him as they were to us.

His difference is that he knows many of the players personally so he sometimes manages access when the PR machine is not looking. I will report on this conversation and other matters not related to the game in a separate post. It was that important!

There were a few issues of importance to Aussie Roarers that we spoke about. I asked him what he thought was the situation with the Wallabies, with Michael Cheika, Stephen Moore and so on.

This is his view and I will not try to defend it or support it and you shouldn’t beat me up for just stating this. He felt there is no fundamental problem between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. He stated that many Wallabies are quite friendly with the All Blacks (but not all of them).

He added that Stephen Moore has a more irritating personality, that he has been told by referees during the Super Rugby season to cut off the chipping away as it is non-stop. It seems that even some of his teammates think that Moore is counterproductive with his constant complaining.

My friend also thinks Moore and Cheika are very close and current issues with the Wallabies are Cheika-driven. He seemed to be unhappy with the niggle in the second Test as he didn’t believe this reflected well and seemed purely driven by Cheika.

The next morning, any plan was out the window. Not only ours but also that of the teams. A parade was planned in the city and there were media briefings at the same time. Five million people invaded downtown Chicago and there was no way for us to make it to Soldier Field for the Irish captain’s run or their media briefing at their hotel, the Trump International.

Joe Moody makes a lifting tackle. Image: Carlos Stalgis

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We then rented two city bikes and rode to Soldier Field for the All Black captain’s run. I don’t know if anyone knows what goes on in these sessions. The players putz around on the field doing some silly drills. This time it was kicking and catching while cameras roll.

After a while, Keiran Read came to the side of the field and, with lots of mics and cameras, answered soft questions from journalists. The hot topic was Jerome Kaino as lock.

By then, I already knew that Kaino’s shoulders were in very poor form. It is actually quite surprising that he can play with the damage that he has. It seems to me that Hansen is urgently trying to find and train the proper replacement for Kaino; his status is not sustainable for much longer.

This is why Read said that being a lock could give him extra time. The game showed that lock is not for Jerome.

From there, we made it to Toyota Field for the New Zealand Maori game. The stadium is in the middle of nowhere and in Chicago, some nowhere places can be sketchy. It took us a very long time to get there.

Toyota field is a very pretty modern soccer stadium near nowhere and far from everywhere. The space for the press was wonderful and the field visibility was terrific. Before the match, we walked onto the pitch and I caught up with the New Zealand Maori physical fitness person.

I asked him about the use of technology to gauge player fitness and workload. I also asked him if he worked with Nic Gill, the All Blacks’ staff member responsible for player fitness. He clarified that he follows him indirectly but is independent from him.

I got the impression that he wasn’t very technical – I could be wrong – but he did not come across as a deep thinker. He did say that they have too much information in their hands and their key objective is to reduce the amount of “techno noise” they get and focus on the important parameters. He claimed that they have technical overload and that is not helping them get the players fitter. So why have it?

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The game was anticlimactic. The New Zealand team was far superior to America and it became a bit of a fiasco. The USA were missing most of their foreign-based players, except for “Captain America”, Todd Clever.

The crowd had a lot of fun and was primarily pro-Kiwi (maybe around 60 per cent). It ended up as an exhibition by a few of the New Zealand stars, like the Ioane brothers.

Damien McKenzie and James Lowe seemed to be everywhere causing damage to the USA. In the first minutes, the USA had two great opportunities to score and failed miserably.

The game could have ended with 80 points on the board – the USA doesn’t have much depth in their team. During the press conference, John Mitchell said he only has the players for very few weeks a year and he cannot enforce or monitor their fitness outside of the time he has them. I found this comment very strange. He also stated that he wants to build a roster of around 30 players and achieve centralised contracts for his players.

Colin Cooper and his captain were very humble and modest during their conference, and were clearly grateful towards the organisers and the city. They thanked everyone and they seemed very sincere about it.

I asked Mr Cooper a bit of a difficult question: I wanted to know what lessons can the New Zealand Maori provide given that they are a racially based team in a world that has so many racial tensions. The New Zealand Maoris are widely admired and accepted as racially based instead of criticised.

He said that in New Zealand, the Maori team is seen as a goal and a strategy to avoid bad outcomes for kids – for them to play rugby instead of join gangs or other socially destructive behaviours. He added that the team is seen as a vehicle or bridge to become an All Black. So, in a sense, the fact that it is racially driven in a country that has been so integrated is their key to success.

Maybe I am paraphrasing, but could you all imagine a team from South Africa of only Afrikaners? I didn’t think so!

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Finally, it is Saturday, the game day. The city is either green or black. Green shirts were winning before even getting to Soldier Field.

Because many have already published opinion pieces about the game, I will only add a few elements. I was supposed to be sitting in the press box and taking notes from there while my lovely photographer would be on the field to take pictures.

The press box in Soldier Field is quite high and near an end zone. The number of places is limited and I was stuck in a second row with limited visibility. After failing so miserably at taking notes the night before, I decided to go to the field and see the game at the players’ level.

On the way down, I bumped into Richie McCaw. I was coming out of the elevator and he was going in through the side. No one figured out who he was, but maybe once in the elevator, the others would have noticed Richie. I said hello to him and he replied and smiled.

Those of you who saw the game on TV can see me many times standing behind the advertising screens on the opposite sideline. Red jacket, blue shirt. Anyway, I paced up and down the field for almost the entire game. I was actually almost behind Dane Coles during some of his futile lineout throws.

It was so nerve-wracking to be there! You could hear the hits, you could actually see how fast and powerful these guys are. I was able to notice the teamwork between the touch judge and the referee in marking offside, although only during lineout that happened on the opposite side of the field.

There was something weird going on. It seemed to me that the All Blacks were almost stunned. Nothing seemed to click they way it was supposed to. After 20 minutes, the penalty count was 6-2 (plus two advantage penalties that resulted in tries). That projected to 32 penalties in the game – something was not right.

The remaining 60 minutes also resulted in a 6-2 penalty count. At ground level, some were difficult to see. Hansen said they were due to the pressure that Ireland placed on them. Still, a 12-4 penalty count is a bit lopsided. Not so much the 12, but certainly the four. I wonder if the Irish were more familiar with the referee than the All Blacks and adjusted better?

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I was watching the All Blacks on a very bad day. Every time they attacked with ball in hand, they were terrific. But the Irish mauled better, attacked the All Black lineout, kicked better, had better kick-chases and just tackled with heart. They tried to advance by passing the ball but almost every time they went backwards. They did not panic and again, kicked very well.

It was a surprisingly bad day in the office for Ben Smith. I also wonder if, on a narrow field where the Irish would kick a lot, the choice of Naholo over Dagg was a poor one.

Joe Schmidt suspected that the All Blacks’ front five was vulnerable and attacked it well. I wonder if Scott Barrett shouldn’t have started – his second half play was wonderful. But the Irish had their luck, their composure and their good plan with excellent execution. The All Blacks were uncharacteristically mistake-prone.

Conor Murray crosses the line. Image: Carlos Stalgis

The most interesting comments came at the press conference and after. Schmidt reiterated that the way they played was very specifically planned. After the press conference, when the players were available, one Irish player whose name I don’t know was very gracious to his coach. He reiterated that they played to Schmidt’s plan very specifically and meticulously.

Scott Barrett, Aaron Cruden and Dane Coles were the All Blacks available to speak with the media. The PR honcho was watching like a hawk – he only made them available to very selected New Zealand press.

I was standing next to the New Zealand radio guy and at the end of the interview, Dane stayed for a few minutes with us. The New Zealand press guy was fuming!

Everyone had already asked Dane about the wobbly throws, so I didn’t. I said to him that the teams that gave the All Blacks trouble this year had all attacked close to the forwards, through their gut, at the base. He said that the wobbly throws are easy to fix and with the locks coming back from injury he wasn’t worried there, but he said he was worried about the way teams identified the “gut problem” and was expecting that the coaches would come up with specific plans to work on this.

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The All Blacks' bench reacts to their loss to Ireland. Image: Carlos Stalgis

The All Blacks left the field mostly despondent. Some appeared calm and gracious but most were just looking down. The Irish player said that almost all All Blacks had gone to see them, congratulate them and were truly humble and gracious.

He was full of praise for the All Blacks and mentioned TJ Perenara as a special example. Hansen and Read were very gracious too. They made no excuses – they both gave credit to Ireland for everything.

Waiting for the players to come out were many of the New Zealand Rugby Union royalty. All old white men, and I hadn’t seen any of them the previous night. More on this on my ‘rugby politics’ post later.

I want to thank all of you for reading and The Roar for helping me with this amazing adventure.