Miracles happen in threes, but few foresaw this one coming when Ireland’s rugby team met the New Zealand All-Blacks in a historic match November 5 at Chicago’s Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears.
Euphoria reigned that week in Chicago, where the lovable-loser Cubs had just broken their 108-year failure to win a World Series in dramatic, come-from-behind, fashion. Many of the Irish and Kiwi fans flocking to Chicago for the rugby match joined the millions – yes, an officially-estimated five million Cubs fans – who packed the streets of Chicago the day before the rugby match for the Cubs’ victory parade and rally in Grant Park.
Irish American comic actor Bill Murray, a life-long Cubs fan, had led the seventh-inning stretch tradition of singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and attended every one of the seven games, becoming the national face of Cub fandom. He also led three of the Cubs in a skit for his alma mater, Saturday Night Live, that night.
Miracle number two became obvious Saturday morning when Irish fans woke up to weather that never visits Chicago in November. Those heavy coats they’d brought to shield themselves from the cold winds off Lake Michigan were left in hotel rooms as they strolled to Soldier Field in green short sleeves. The high reached 75 degrees in Chicago that Saturday, probably the warmest since President Barack Obama held his 2008 victory party on a 70-degree November 4 night in Grant Park.
The Irish were almost universally expected to lose nobly to the Kiwis, who had beaten them in 28 of the 29 previous match-ups over the last 111 years, with one draw in 1973. But at least the Irish would put up a better fight than the Americans the previous year, the Kiwis conceded.
The New Zealand team paid respect to Irish player Anthony Foley, who died three weeks before the match. They laid out his Jersey as the performed their traditional Maori-based haka ritual and the Irish team formed a number 8 on the field – Foley’s number.
A loud cheer went up as it was announced that a record had been broken. Some 62,300 fans – the largest number ever for a rugby match in the United States – packed Soldier Field. Green shirts clearly outnumbered black, but both sides cheered enthusiastically.
The game started and, almost immediately, the Irish took a 3-0 lead on a penalty by Irish fly-half Johnny Sexton. Some New Zealand fans smiled with amusement, confident in the final outcome.
But as the Irish ran up the score 30-8 47 minutes in, those smiles were gone and the Irish cheered in near disbelief.
The Kiwis have rallied back from big deficits before and it seemed as if they had the momentum Saturday, coming back to 29 to Ireland’s 33.
But then Irish center Robbie Henshaw broke their line and scored the game-clinching fifth try in the 76th minute and there was no turning back. The Irish won 40-29, breaking the only winless streak older than the one the Cubs avenged days earlier.
Green-shirted Irish fans cheered with joy in the stadium and fanned out across the town sharing the joy throughout the pubs and restaurants of Chicago.
There was to be no third miracle, however. Two weeks later, the teams met again in Dublin and all was back to normal. The Kiwis beat the Irish 21-9. ♦