NZ Rugby Grandstand–Chicago Double-header

US Eagles v Maori All Blacks
The Maori All Blacks perform the haka before the Intenational Rugby Match between the USA Eagles and the New Zealand Maori All Blacks at Toyota Patk on November 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

With the local rugby competition completed, now that the National Provincial Championship has been completed and trophies awarded, attention turned to the International game. With the Northern Hemisphere window open, eyes fell on a Chicago Double-header.

Called the ‘Rugby Weekend’ by corporate sponsor AIG, matches were played over Friday and Saturday in the United States city of Chicago. A great sporting town, locals were still in the thrills of celebrations for their Cubs side, who had won baseball’s World Series. Somewhat of a distraction from rugby you might say, so it would take a huge result to turn their attention from the delight of ridding the Cubs of a 108 year drought [the Cubs last winning any championship in 1908].

So, in reality how could any old rugby match manage to take the limelight off of that momentous occasion?. On Saturday, it turned out to be ‘one hell of a game’ played out on Soldier Field.

IRELAND v NEW ZEALAND

In what many believe is one of the more memorable days in Irish Rugby, the years of heartache were finally banished. Since 1905, the men in green had attempted to beat the New Zealand side many times, and failed. On 29 occasions, they could not do more than draw with the mighty All Blacks. On Saturday November 5, they achieved history when winning 40-29.

Soldier Field is known as the home of Chicago Bears. From Saturday, it is now known world-wide as the stadium where the Irish team defeated the All Blacks.

Ireland 40 – Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Robbie Henshaw tries; Johnny Sexton con (3) pen (3)

All Blacks 29 – George Moala, TJ Perenara, Ben Smith, Scott Barrett tries; Beauden Barrett con (3) pen (1).

Last Word On Rugby reporter Mike Pulman noted how the New Zealand team had ‘a really bad day’. Normally, the nation would be catatonic with despair, but it has been handled with some aplomb and acceptance. It was not what fans had foreseen happening–unless you were an Irish rugby follower. That country had believed that their men could travel to the ‘Windy City’ and beat the World Champions no doubt.

But for All Black fans; who are so used to winning, it was the end of a world-record run of 18 straight victories. All good things must come to an end they say, but gladly there were no tears–more congratulations, to a respected opponent.

The fallout for NZ Rugby

No heads will roll, that is clear to see, as it was not a thrashing. It was not a dour loss, nor had the team played devoid of skill or effort. No, they in-fact made a huge comeback from 25-8 at halftime, but it has exposed a soft-underbelly which the massive shadows of Brodie Retallick had hidden from view.

The fallout will be felt most for the defensive lapses that saw a team; any team for that matter, put 40 points over the World Champions. A massive scoreline, it will hurt the defensive teams most where the missing Retallick might have filled the gaps. It will hurt because once Ryan Crotty was invalid off, the centre issues returned. It appears Anoton Lienert-Brown is the best candidate for either inside or outside-centre, as Malakai Fekitoa was ineffective. His poor pass to Julian Savea really should have provided a game-changing try. It was badly executed–as was Savea’s judgement late in the game, being tackled in his own in-goal. The Irish scored from his error, and ruined the wingers 50th test match celebrations.

And it will hurt because fans, and the All Blacks know that if this was a three match Test series, the heat would be fully upon them. ‘Under the pump’ for the first time since the RWC semi-final. Back in June, the Welsh wanted to be in this same position–win the opening test, and you have a better chance to steal a test series win [best out of three].

The All Blacks are lucky to be facing Italy next week, and not a confident Irish side. That time in Rome will re-concentrate the All Blacks. They never like losing; only occurring four times in the last eight years. Steve Hansen will hate it, and so will his team. It could be the best thing for them though….not that a loss is a good thing.

Full credit to Ireland and Joe Schmidt

The win will be two-fold for the Irish. (1) A tremendous boost for the rugby team, and for their future goals. Schmidt has re-signed, so the six nations and beyond is looking bright. (2) they are now heroes again for their fans. Man of the Match Conor Murray, Rory Best, Simon Zebo, all warriors to their countrymen. ‘Winners are grinners’ and the fans will be smiling all this week.

Let them celebrate–a few pints of Guinness won’t hurt them either–then the team go straight back to work. Ireland head back home to face Canada.

Both Ireland and NZ sides will recover their faculties’ and then be ready to face the other again in Dublin. The returning Retallick and Seta Taminivalu flying in to replace George Moala, the visitors must bring their full strength side over to the Emerald Isles, and try to remedy this unexpected loss.

IRELAND v NEW ZEALAND – November 12, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.

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Chicago Double-header began on Friday night

The home nation, the US Eagles also enjoyed match-time this ‘rugby weekend’.

In the first match of the International window, the Eagles coach John Mitchell sent his men in against the much revered NZ Maori All Blacks team. A formidable opponent, the side is made up from players who hold a maori heritage and is laced with Super Rugby players of International quality.

The US side was built around their live-wire captain Todd Cleaver. With several key players out of the UK Premiership rugby competition, they were a mixed group. Joined by US-based players like Will Holder and scrum half Nate Augspurger, fullback Mike Te’o and James Hilterbrand at hooker, the squad was complimented by members of the Sevens team who competed at the 2016 Olympics.

Team USA were hoping for a better outing than their last encounter against the Maori–a 19-29 Eagles loss in Philadelphia. With high hopes, they tried valiantly to match the highly skilled Kiwis, but it was obvious there was a gulf in the two teams. Bolstered by several non-playing All Blacks squad members; Elliot Dixon, Kane Hames and the fleet-footed Damian McKenzie, it only added to the firepower at coach Colin Cooper’s disposal.

Maori team unity brings polished performance

Immediate success on the scoreboard resulted for the Maori side, as they repeatedly outclassed the home team. Running freely, passes stuck and their kicks were more pinpoint than aimless–which the US team used as a ‘last resort’ defense. It handed possession over, and big men like Akira Ioane only need one invitation to feast on the less skilled Eagles.

The Blues loose forward took two-bites in fact [2 tries] in a barnstorming, Man of the Match performance. Supported well by the side, including a stellar game from Ihaia West. The first-five had the ball on a string, and while Cleavor crossed for an Eagles try, it was an eight try rout.

NZ Maori 54 – James Lowe 2, Akira Ioane 2, Ash Dixon, Kane Hames, Brad Weber, Joe Royal tries; Ihaia West con(6), Marty McKenzie con (1)

United States 7 – Todd Clever try; Will Holder con (1).

In the end, it became a little messy when substitutes arrived, but fans at Toyota Park were still well entertained. The scoreline showed the gap, and ex-All Blacks coach Mitchell will hope his teams tour of Romania and Spain [v Tonga] goes better than the one-sided affair on Friday night–the opening game in the Chicago double-header.

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Heartland XV warm-up match

Meanwhile, here in New Zealand, a composite Heartland XV side played a warm-up match in Auckland. This team; made up of players from the Heartland Championship, are due to play matches in Fiji.

To prepare, coach Barry Matthews used the time to put his men up against an NZ Marist team in Papakura. In a traditional grassroots game, the provincial players stepped up to win 35-14 and retain the Ian MacRae Cup.

In a good hit-out, plenty was gained from the challenge put up by the assembled Marist side. Surprisingly, both sides had good continuity. That comes after a successful Heartland Championship which has given the players a confidence to ‘let the ball do the talking’.

80 minutes shows promise for Heartland side

The more fancied players all came to the fore. James Lash with five-out-of-five kicks, Peter Rowe was effective as ever. He worked with captain Kieran Cole in a pack that worked superbly in the first 40 minutes. Leading 14-0, the game might have seemed in their pocket, until the Marist side awakened.

Nigel Walsh, NZ Marist coach told stuff.co.nz “We were competitive in the set pieces and scrum and even had an advantage.” That was probably more true once the  substitutes came on. Number 8 Onesai Ava’a had a good game, and they made a comeback to bring the scores to 14-14. Alarmed, that affected an increase in the tempo from the Heartland team, who scored three tries to close out the match.

NZ Heartland 35 – Kieran Coll, Willie Paia’aua, Te Rangatira Waitokia, John Koko, Eddie Cranston tries; Jash Lash con (5)

NZ Marist 14 – Simon Lilicama try, penalty try (1); Hamish Strachan con (2)

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So the All Blacks play Italy next weekend, with the Maori team visiting Muster and the Heartland side travel up to Fiji.

Last Word On Rugby wishes all players and management all the very best.

“Main photo credit”

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