Thursday, 21 September 2017

Sarries in Philly!!!!!

There was a lot said about this fixture when it was first announced, mostly negative and critical. And yes, the crowd was a bit thin on the ground and the boys had to work incredibly hard in the humid heat of Pennsylvania but that's not the core of this fixture.

The heart of what the Premiership were trying to do was, in my opinion, achieved.

I spent time before the match with Sarries fans from New York and Virginia Beach, with Newcastle fans who'd struggled with JFK C&I even worse than me, with life long rugby fans and relatively new ones.

I was lucky enough to be in contact with BT Sport this weekend, and thus got asked to be a part of the pre-game filming with Sarra Elgan. She made sure to speak to two of the USA based Sarries fans who were with us before the 'lone' Falcon in the group (he wasn't, just the only one willing and around to be filmed!) and then lil ole me! 
I'd already talked to Sarra earlier in the day when we'd encountered her at the famous Rocky steps by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and had had the chance to have a decent chat with the BT Sport team and even a quick photo with ref JP Doyle when he randomly appeared!

Consequently I found myself kinda becoming the face of Sarries support in Philly - even more so when the Saracens social media team got me to do a good luck message to the boys on Instagram because Paul told them I could "talk for England"!!

I'm happy to do these things though because it's a subject I'm comfortable with, my public speaking reputation is good because I know the topics I talk about - autism, Saracens, space, physics, maths, working in a school, PRUs, all that is in my comfort zone. Ask me to talk about anything else and, well, it may not be pretty!

Back to the topic at hand now!

The match itself was not what you'd call the epitome of English rugby but it was very hot, bright, slippery ball conditions as the sun was setting across the stadium, and to be perfectly honest you're never gonna get the gold standard match in round 3! Maybe the next stage for the great American conversion is to get live showings of the ECC games and play-off matches going in big stadiums, sending a retired player or two over to do Q&As pre game.

My weekend wasn't just about the match though! I've detailed my Friday nightmare in this post: but once on Philly my attention shifted from my complaining to having a great time in a new and exciting city!

Friday night was spent at the Hard Rock Cafe in my new Wal-Mart dress whilst Saturday morning was taken up with lots of laughter and photographs at the Rocky steps - particularly once Flats got there and had to don a fleece lined tracksuit to copy Sly's famous scenes!

We chose to head to the stadium really early as we wanted to witness the American phenomenon of "tailgating" - an interesting experience I must say!

We covered the car with Sarries flags to let everyone know who we were (Champions of Europe, we know who we are!) and waited to see who showed up. We knew of at least 3 groups headed our way, one of whom pitched up a gazebo so we quickly transferred the flags to the sides and made it Camp Sarries!

The next hour or so was spent sharing drinks and swapping stories of how we started following Saracens along with some interesting tales from the US Navy! We were joined by some Falcons fans and I had some sympathetic ears to my tale of horror and woe from my journey out as they had missed a connection at JFK thanks to the ridiculous chaos that is US Customs & Immigration!!

We were invited to join the BT crew again and so wandered over to the fan zone they were setting up, where I got to have my 5 minutes of fame on camera! (And then get inundated with notifications going "was that you?" "You were on my TV!")

Heading in to the stadium it was a strange place that distinctly reminded us of several prem stadiums, predominately the AJ Bell and the Stoop to me.

The merchandise shop showcased just what some of us are crying out for Sarries to do - women's jewellery!! I picked up one of the official match day t-shirts as a souvenir but was disappointed not to find any of the 'America Series' rugby balls that had been used in the online advertising. We did however manage to find pins which kept Adam happy!

I also struggled with finding a drink that wasn't a soft drink or beer! Having had 2 bottles of peach cider courtesy of our naval friend I was in the mood for another drink. It took a complete circuit of the stadium to find the one bar that did a bottled cider - no wine or spirits options anywhere!! And even then I was given my bottle of cider poured into a massive larger-than-a-pint plastic glass that every time I drank from took up my entire face so I couldn't see anything!!

During the match it was a bizarrely quiet experience, I've grown used to the Sarries fans getting the chants going and there not being many of us meant anything we tried starting never really went anywhere which was a bit embarrassing!

The second half of the game saw several of the non-playing squad wander past us up the steps to their box area, Loz seemed positive about his shoulder injury when I asked him how it was doing which is good! There were some moments of Sarries brilliance showing through, I nearly killed my vocal chords screaming for Wiggy when he went sprinting towards the try line at one point!

Towards the end of the game I head over to the guys to see if they would be willing to have a quick photo with us and the flags, seeing as we had travelled rather a long way to support the club!! At this point the lovely Duncan Taylor was an absolute gent and got the others to hold fire for a few minutes on the final whistle to let us get a few snaps off quickly before they 'll hurtled down to the changing rooms for the tiki tonga session!

Sadly the game had been so hot, humid and exhausting that the lads only briefly waved and applauded the crowd on their quick circuit of the pitch, leaving me fairly deflated and my mind crashing back to that dark place I'd been in after the Edinburgh game in May.

We got out of the stadium fairly quickly after we realised they weren't going to be around any time soon due to PR commitments and probably a vast need for ice baths and physio treatments! Heading back to the hotel fairly knackered and finally reunited with a phone charger I was taken aback when the humid heat very suddenly gave way to a torrential downpour, the likes of which I've only ever seen once in Florida!

Getting back to the hotel I couldn't actually get out my side of the car due to the mini lake forming and had to slide over out the other door instead, suddenly encountering the strangest of sensations - hot rain! The air was still so warm and yet the water was pouring down at a rate of knots!! Very bizarre to an English girl used to rain meaning grey miserableness!

The return to the hotel also brought the unwelcome news that my suitcase hadn't shown up and so a call to the lost baggage number was needed in order to discover that it was in New York and should be getting to me that evening.

After a few hours of unwinding, dreading all the social media messages I'd received about my starring role and generally sorting out plans for the next day I headed off to bed via a quick check with downstairs that my bag still hadn't arrived.

The next morning dawned cooler and grey than before and there was a distinct feeling of dread in my stomach as I woke. Checking my Virgin Atlantic app to confirm when I needed to be at the airport I was horrified to see that my flight home was no longer what I had expected to see!

The flights I'd been booked on for months going home via JFK were no longer there and suddenly I was being flown home via Atlanta Georgia with Delta the whole way getting to Heathrow at 11am!!!

What the hell!!!

A frantic call to Virgin discovered that Delta had inexplicably changed my flights for me and just hadn't bothered to let me know! In tears and furious I demand it be changed back only to be told that my flight to Heathrow was now fully booked!! So in the 48hours between me last checking my homeward bound flight and that morning they'd sold on my seat!!!

I was beyond furious and internally panicking like a man at the gallows, how the hell was I getting home?!? I didnt want to go via Georgia, i barely wanted to go via JFK but had accepted it as a forgone conclusion. The last thing I wanted was more changes, more crap moving me about! I was supposed to go straight to work from landing at Heathrow which is why I'd picked at flight landing at 8am!!

Well, actually originally I'd picked one landing at 7.20am only for Delta to move the first flight later meaning I wouldn't have enough of a connecting time so I'd had to call Virgin back in July to switch to a slightly later departure. And now the bastards at Delta had changed things again!

Eventually we managed to get me on to a flight leaving JFK at 9.30pm, due to get to London around 9.30am. Okay, sorted. Now to find out where the hell my suitcase was!

It turns out it was still (this is Sunday 8am) in frigging JFK having gotten waylaid in customs and missed the last flight on Saturday!! So now my choice was to either ask for it to be returned to London and buy a new hold bag to put all my newly purchased items into to come home or to travel to the airport after 11am to collect it from there in person as there was now no time for it to be delivered to the hotel and me to pack it before we had to check out at 1pm!! I told them to hold it at Philly airport and we would come collect it before midday.

Flights and luggage now sorted we had breakfast and then got on the road to go see the Liberty Bell. It wasn't something that particularly interested me, I look on the independence stuff as historical proof of treason against the crown by a bunch of rebels but that's just me!

We spent some time wandering around the area and I found a way to spend some money in the Liberty hall shop - only I could go all the way to America to their most historical sites and come back with a glitter timer and a maths pendant!

Still, I did have a good laugh at this sign on one of the walls - I've found things older than that in my garden at home!!

A quick visit to the airport to collect my suitcase and we were back to the hotel to change and pack up. I could finally wear one of the outfits I had packed for the trip as everything else got thrown in and locked up again ready to go back to the airport!!

Dennys was our lunch stop choice and it was an interesting experience although I am very glad I went for the big meal of steak and mash given what was to come still!

I got dropped at the airport just after 2pm by the Feaseys as they were off to the British Airways terminal for international departure as they had just the one flight home, where as I was on an internal to JFK where I had a 3hr layover waiting for me!

The check in for my Delta flight threw up an unexpected problem however as their system was still showing me as on the Atlanta bound flight!! Another call to Virgin and handing my phone over to the Delta staff and eventually I got my boarding passes for the right flights!

Suitcase was now back out of my hands less than 4 hours after I'd been reunited with it and I was through security and sat at the gates bored.

Really really bored.

After all the stress and problems last time I'd given myself so much slack time that I was now left with over 90mins to my flight departure and nothing to do! I managed to waste a fair amount of time by finding a charge point and hooking my phone in before calling my mum and then my dad for long chats about the match but that would only work for this wait, by the time I got to JFK they would all be in bed.

The flight to New York was uneventful really, apart from being unexpectedly placed on an exit row! When we landed there was a delay with getting the connecting gate bridge thing to us and I joked to my neighbour that we were spending more time in the plane on the ground at JFK than we did in the air! He was headed for a Heathrow flight to as he was taking a trip to the UK so I shared some suggestions with him of historical sites to visit while there which he seemed to appreciate.

Finally off the plane I found myself at the gate for my next flight in about 30 minutes as there was no security to go through! Now I could see that the flight was already saying a 10pm departure so I had even longer to wait!

And this is where my luck changed.

Wandering around the gate area for the London departing flights who should I see in front of me but one Chris Wyles!

Oh my God, the team are here to fly home!!!

I couldn't believe it, suddenly I'm seeing and saying hi to guys like Wyles, Ben Spencer, Sean Maitland! I even had a brief chat with Sean saying how I thought it's unfair that he doesn't get the try to his tally as JP gave the penalty try because he could see Sean was clearly going to score when the illegal move was made! He agreed and told me he'd been screaming at Goodey to get it to him as he could see he could score it!

I had thought I was going to be so lonely and bored but instead I got this amazing gift of being able to casually spend some time with my favourite people!!

I didn't take any pictures that evening, I made a concious choice to not be a selfie fan who hassled them at that stage but to just talk to them for as long as they let me. Any time one of them said "take care" or "see you later" I would wander off again and leave that person alone. I think one or two of them found it bizarre and I know that a few found it amusing, I was outrightly saying that I was on my own and starved for conversation so was desperate just to see familiar faces! It was quite nice though when some of those faces recognised me back, I'd had a great conversation with Wiggy and his missus at the Bedford game so he recognised me as we chatted briefly, Brad also recognised me from holding the flag up at the end of the game, even saying sorry for not coming over but he was too sore to try to jump the electronics barrier the stadium had separating us from the pitch!

One of the best moments of my whole weekend came though when I saw Billy walking towards me. I asked him directly why he couldn't have released his new book in time for me to read on the flight to which he replied that he thought it was already out!!! No Bill, it's on sale next week! Then, the legend that he is goes and finds me one from one of the lads as they've all been given a copy!! I have Billy's book and it was given to me by the man himself!!!

I was so happy with this and even more so when some of the other players saw me carrying it and struck up conversation about it with me!! George Kruis even joked that it wouldn't take me long to read as it was in big font! Maro was also interested in it when I asked to shake his hand, as I told him, I didn't want to hassle any of them but I'd been trying to shake his hand for well over a year now with little success due to the massive crowds everywhere he goes!!

Maro was an absolute gentleman and had a wry, slightly embarrassed smile when I said that but was really chilled out about me being there talking to him and the others. Most of the team had started filtering through the gate by this point as their flight left ages before mine (Wiggy and Sean had both asked if I was on their flight which I was a bit gutted to say no to!) I made the mistake of asking for "tries to win next week please" in jest to Wyles and Liam as they were going to board and ahead in the queue Owen suddenly turned around to look at me - I'm not sure if he was just surprised by a non-teammate voice or took offence to what I said - I didn't mean anything against him scoring points from penalties!!

Watching some of the huge guys like Will Skelton put flight socks on and line up for sleeping tablets from the harried Laura was amusing, Goodey seemed in an especially happy mood given the lengthy flight ahead!

The funniest moment though was right at the end, I had thought the whole squad had been through by that point and I'd just missed seeing a few, the staff were looking like they were moving to close when suddenly several of them appear armed with McDonald's!! Schalla seemed to recognise me immediately as he sat down with his meal, joking away about the queue for food and laughing when I asked if they hadn't used the "don't you know who I am?" move! Apparently that barely works in England for our rugby boys!! The guys suddenly seemed to realise they were holding up the flight leaving when a staff member came to tell them that they could take their food on board if they wanted to! That didn't stop Schalla trying to give away his fries to the cleaner/me/the gate staff however!!!

As their gate finally closed and that flight departed I was left alone again but with rich, treasured memories of the past hour.

Unfortunately by this point it was far too late to call anyone in England to share them with!! A few dashed off tweets expressing my gratitude to the team before I turned my attention to Billy's book! It kept me entertained for quite a while before restlessness got to me and I had to start wandering again. Annoyingly my flight was now saying it was delayed again, with boarding not due to start until 9.45pm! I was getting rather frustrated at this point, especially as the main reason I wasn't on the team's flight was because I'd been told back in July that I wouldn't have enough time between the flights to make it . . . I clearly would have had plenty!!!!!

Eventually we boarded and then taxied. And taxied. And taxied. Just after 11pm we finally took off and left America!!

I had hoped for a good flight that I could sleep on seeing as I was going straight to work but no. I had a guy in front put his chair back straight away leaving me with restricted room, the guy next to me immediately put in earplugs/eye mask/blanket and go to sleep so I couldn't get out at all and two rows back in the aisle a screaming baby!!

By 9am BST, when I should have started work, when I would have been clearing Heathrow baggage claim originally I was still 617miles from landing and really rather grouchy!!

Still, as the rather stressful trip drew to a close I can look back on some incredible memories and, once my various complaints have been made and settled, forget all about the crap that happened and just remember that I was there and no-one can every take that away from me.


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