Few things evoke such strength of identity as being Irish in London. I might only compare it to that same strength felt by both Londoners and the Irish in New York.
So when you combine all three for the first ever English rugby game played overseas, it seems fitting that London Irish rugby club’s social media hashtag this past weekend was #StrongerTogether.
Ahead of the match on Saturday, an estimated 15,000 seats had been spoken for at the Red Bull Arena, usual home of the New York Red Bulls soccer team.
The city was abuzz with London Irish support at the various events laid on for the travelling faithful and there was a definite novelty in hearing American accents talking about this curious game ‘rugby’.
The weekend kicked off on Thursday night with the first ever event for a London-based organisation at the Irish Consulate on Park Avenue. Deputy Consul General Anna McGillicuddy set the stage for Bob Casey to introduce the panel of players and coaches for a lively Q&A session, playfully moderated by
‘The Voice of London Irish’ and matchday announcer Ciamh McDonnell. The evening closed with some wonderfully entertaining anecdotes and a rousing song from Malachy McCourt. He looked back on his own playing days when people used to pray before a game.
“Do ye think God has anything better to do than watching a rugby match?”
Tir Na Nog pub on the 39th street hosted another great event with the team and fans on Friday before handing over to the Pig N Whistle and Beckett’s bars for the matchday festivities.
There was a tremendous atmosphere at all the venues and indeed on the PATH train over to the stadium as kick-off approached. Saracens earned themselves the bragging rights and the Premiership points but Irish, playing the league leaders, had cause for optimism ending the first half ahead after a really well worked try, finished by Alex Lewington.
A profitable opening to the second saw Saracens restore parity and shortly after take the lead, scoring 20 points to the Exiles three in the second half.
London Irish were finally undone by a charged down clearance in the final phases of play leading to a breakaway try ran in from the 22 yard line.
Irish certainly showed the necessary fight that will enable their avoidance of relegation whilst Saracens displayed the coherence of a side realistically competing for league honors.
All in all, the ambition of both clubs and the league has been highly commendable in bringing rugby to the USA – a not uncrowded market but with undeniable potential. Hats off to Mick Crossan and everyone at London Irish for filling their boots as the home team, providing an undeniable draw for the New York sporting community.
No doubt this will be the first event of an exciting tradition for the fastest growing sport in America. Irish have a week now to beat the jetlag and prepare to host Gloucester at the Madejski stadium for the ever popular St. Patrick’s Day game on Saturday.
I’m sure they’ll be gunning for a win to show the fans the bright lights of NYC haven’t proved to be too dizzying. Come on Irish!