Just ahead of the rematch this weekend we’ve got a great article and pictures from our North American correspondent, Brittany Biedenbender, on the Ireland v New Zealand match at Soldier Field, Brittany’s first professional game as a photographer. Read on for her account of the historic occasion …
It’s been a little over a week since “The Rugby Weekend” took place here in Chicago and I’m still recovering. Recovering from sleep deprivation, the consumption of too much alcohol, and the high from being able to witness Ireland defeat New Zealand for the first time in history.
Maybe I’m biased, but there is no better place in America to host an international rugby match than Chicago. We live for sports. We die for sports. It’s in our blood. Not only that, but it’s a great place to visit for anyone.
On the Wednesday leading up to the match, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Thats really when my rugby weekend started. I watched the game only steps from Wrigley Field (we do need to note that I’m not a Cubs fan, but when you are in the middle of history, you can’t help but want to be there), where thousands of people gathered to witness the break of the curse. When the Cubs officially clinched the title, the city exploded. People went insane. We rushed out the door to join the crowd, popped bottles of champagne in the street, chanted together, high-fived and hugged strangers. It was truly incredible. It also led to the world’s largest collective hangover and served as precursor for the weekend to come.
After a long day at work on Thursday, it was all rugby from there on out. Thursday night, a group of girlfriends and I attended the IRFU Charitable Trust Gala at The Drake Hotel in downtown Chicago. What’s better than getting dressed up and hanging out with the Irish for the evening? I can’t think of anything. To summarize, it was a great evening with laughs, drinks, and new friends.
Roll on into Friday. Friday morning started off rough. Having stayed out until 4:00 in the morning, safe to say getting myself out of bed was not the easiest thing to do. Thankfully, I didn’t have to work on Friday. Friday was a rugby day. Our local men’s club, the Chicago Griffins (also my 7s team), had a match against a team from Minnesota called, Metropolis, ahead of the USA vs. Maori match at Toyota Park. Quick shout out to the Griffins for an epic comeback win after being down 33-10 at one point. Can’t say the same for the USA vs. Maori. Let’s just say the USA still has some work to do.
After the USA/Maori match on Friday, we headed back to our local pub, The Rugby Club, and celebrated our sport with the locals and those traveling from all over the world. Again, the party went into the wee hours of the morning, but that’s why we have Ibuprofen.
Saturday. Saturday is when we showed Chicago what rugby is all about. The tailgate started as soon as the parking lot opened at noon. Having acquired media credentials with sideline access, I had to be slightly conservative in my tailgating efforts. Nonetheless, the tailgate is one of the best parts of the experience and there was no way I was missing it.
On my walk to the parking lot, an adorable old Irishman turned to me and asked me where my beer was. I replied, “I’m not sure?”, so he handed me a new beer, we toasted, and talked about his visit to Chicago. We parted ways as we approached the south end of the stadium where fan parties lined the area. We wished each other the best and to enjoy this day. I can only imagine the joy he felt after the game and I hope it was an amazing experience for him.
I’ve been to many tailgates in my life, I’m from Wisconsin, we tailgate for funerals. This tailgate was like no other. The Irish, the Kiwis, the locals, and those who traveled from across the nation and the world, all together sharing food, drinks, stories, and laughter. I had a few brews, did a keg stand, thought seriously about skipping sideline access so I could stay and mingle (that thought lasted about 2 seconds), and made my way into the stadium not knowing that what I was about to experience, was going to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Trying to be a cool and calm photographer at this level, was difficult. Being under Soldier Field, walking past team locker rooms, it hit me. This was really happening, I was about to walk out onto Soldier Field and document history.
Coming through the tunnel was something else. The stadium was starting to fill up, the teams were finishing their warm up, and I was setting myself up to document the game from the midfield line. The stadium was nearly at capacity as the teams ran out onto the field. No one wanted to miss The Haka. As the teams faced each other, the stadium became silent. People took note of the figure 8 the Irish had made as they lined up across from an intimidating and strong All Black side. I will admit it, I teared up. Nearly sobbed like a child watching this take place; it was amazing.
I could go on and on about the game, but I’ll try to summarize it here. I felt like I was in Ireland. The stadium roared with Irish chants and cheers. Being on the field, the sound projecting right towards me, was a feeling like no other. When the final whistle blew, the shock of Ireland finally beating the All Blacks could be felt throughout the entire place. I looked at the crowd, I looked at the team, I’ve never seen so much happiness in one place.
Out of all the photos I took that day, my favorite shots are the hugs between teammates and the men looking up at their fans who love them so dearly. I will never forget those moments and I’m glad I get to share them with those who could not be there in person. I’m sure it stings that this win took place on American soil, but from an American standpoint, this historic win will help rugby grow here in the states and hopefully provide perspective on what it means to be a rugby player and fan.
I’m still sad that it’s all over, but I will never forget it. It’s also really inspiring me to get back over to visit in the next few months. So I’ll end it with this: see you soon, Ireland!