Did Ireland’s hammering in Hamilton in 2012 lead to the cheering in Chicago in 2016?

By Kate Rowan

While standing in a dusty car park in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, Illinois last Friday night, waiting for a shuttle to the “L” Train – the message “Go Cubs, Go!” digitally displayed on the front of the waiting buses, I was transported to a very different city on the other side of the world.

With a population of a little more than 161,000, Hamilton, New Zealand may seem in stark contrast to the American metropolis with 2.7m residents. The bulk of the crowd in the snaking queue post-match were Kiwis in flying form after the Maori All Blacks had ruthlessly cut through the USA Eagles’ defence to win 54-7 and one of the standout players was wing James Lowe, who danced through would-be American tacklers.

Lowe, of course, plays for the Hamilton-based Chiefs. So the city had come to mind before a group of young Kiwi fans started to go through the great New Zealand songbook thanks to a portable speaker, starting with OMC’s How Bizarre.

Then came a raucous singalong to early 1990s Kiwi cult classic The Exponents’ Why Does Love Do This To Me, which features a chorus repeating the phrase “I don’t know”. As one of the Kiwis shouted “Aw, bro, they always play this at the Waikato Stadium”, I was fully transported back to that small North Island city.

Soldier Field

Famous field: Chicago’s Soldier Field hosted two big games over the weekend. Photo: Getty Images

I remember my thoughts echoing the song “I don’t know” when it was played during what would become dubbed the “Hamilton horror show” as Ireland were mercilessly throttled 60-0 by the All Blacks in the third Test of their June 2012 tour.

In the context of the upcoming fixture between Ireland and New Zealand the following afternoon – and in the aftermath of Ireland’s historic win – it would have been much more obvious and rational to draw comparison with Ireland’s heart-breaking near-miss at the Aviva Stadium in November 2013.

Yet, despite the early exchanges at Soldier Field suggesting that Ireland would fare much better than a 60-0 loss, the memory of that night in Hamilton continued to linger. Perhaps it was because some of the survivors of that dark night for Irish rugby were the men leading the way on the field in Chicago.

Rob Kearney was sin-binned in Hamilton after what was a frustrating night for the then European Player of the Year. There had been much debate over Kearney’s inclusion at full-back for the Chicago fixture, but the Leinsterman is one of those special players who has the sort of mindset, combined with natural talent, that can elevate his game to a whole other level under tremendous pressure on the greatest stage.

Rob Kearney

Cutting edge: Rob Kearney makes a break against New Zealand. Photo: Inpho

As the media sat behind glass in the home of the Chicago Bears NFL franchise, the US commentary was played, very different to sitting out in the elements in Lansdowne Road or Twickenham. The commentators marvelled at Kearney’s ability under the high ball describing it as “magical” and saying he was giving Ben Smith “a clinic”.

A congratulatory message would later be sent from Kearney’s distant cousin, United States Vice President Joe Biden from the official @VP Twitter account.

Then there was captain Rory Best helping to break down the All Blacks pack. His stoic yet crest fallen appearance in the post-match mixed zone in Hamilton was in total opposition to the jovial figure sitting beside Joe Schmidt after Ireland finally ended 111 years of hurt against New Zealand.

In the bowels of Soldier Field, Johnny Sexton waved at the media as he filed by, not speaking on this occasion but with a broad smile telling his story. Again, seemingly a world and an era away from Hamilton.

Johnny Sexton

Bad memory: Johnny Sexton looks dejected after the 2012 defeat in Hamilton. Photo: Getty Images

One of the broadest smiles at the Waikato Stadium back in 2012 came from a 21-year-old Beauden Barrett following his All Blacks debut. Despite being the third-choice out-half during that series, he helped orchestrate that drubbing of Ireland after an early injury to Aaron Cruden. He played with fearlessness and utter joie de vie – unusual from a ten on the international stage.

In Chicago, another out-half making his debut from the bench showed a similar fearlessness. Joey Carbery, who moved to Ireland from New Zealand as a child, was on the field for a much shorter spell than Barrett in Waikato but he still impressed.

Four-and-a-half years is a long time in sport – Robbie Henshaw was sitting his Leaving Cert exams during that tour to New Zealand to add a little perspective. Yet looking from the outside one cannot help but wonder if the mental resilience needed to close out the game was first sparked by that horrible Hamilton night and later grown by 2013’s close encounter, with Conor Murray, Andrew Trimble, Donnacha Ryan, Cian Healy and Sean Cronin joining Best, Kearney and Sexton as veterans from the Hamilton match-day squad.

If you had the supernatural ability to tell both Kiwi and Irish fans back in Hamilton what would transpire at Soldier Field on 5 November 2016, their reply may have been: “How bizarre!”

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