Joe Biden wished the Ireland rugby team luck in their game against mighty New Zealand on Saturday, saying in a letter: “Go spread the faith. I’ll be cheering for you.”
Before the game in Dublin, the All Blacks had this autumn heavily beaten Wales and Italy and thrashed the USA by no less than 104-14.
But Ireland went on to beat New Zealand for only the third time in more than a century, 29-20 at a packed Aviva Stadium.
Their day grew more celebratory from there. On Saturday evening, Irish Rugby tweeted a picture from the team hotel, in which a phone was held up to cheering players and coaches.
The caption said: “Incredible to have @POTUS [the acronym for ‘president of the United States’] address the team after today’s win over the All Blacks!”
In the political realm, a spokesman for the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, told reporters Biden called him too, saying, “Well done, I’m delighted for you” and discussing his own experiences playing American football in college.
In fact, Biden’s links to and liking for rugby union are well known, not least in light of previous interactions with Ireland and New Zealand.
On a visit to Auckland in 2016, as vice-president, he was given a shirt by two All Blacks forwards.
“I played rugby but thank God I didn’t play against these guys,” Biden said, before telling the flanker Jerome Kaino he “played rugby for one year when I was in law school”, as a full-back.
The White House has not confirmed where and when Biden played rugby.
Earlier this year, however, Zach Levek of the Syracuse Rugby Alumni Association told the Rugby Network that though Biden graduated from law school at the New York university in 1968, a year before its rugby club was founded, the sport was played there before by students and local enthusiasts alike.
“We would not be surprised if a tough young man from Scranton was willing to put on the Syracuse orange-and-blue-hooped jersey,” Levek said. “We fully support President Biden’s statements and proudly recognise him as an SU Rugby alumni.”
Nor is Biden the only president to have played rugby. Bill Clinton played at Oxford, George W Bush at Yale. Other Washington power-players include the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy, who played for Harvard; James Baker, George HW Bush’s secretary of state, who played at Princeton; and HR McMaster, Donald Trump’s second national security adviser, who played at West Point.
Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, also played as a military cadet.
In Auckland five years ago, Biden mentioned following an All Black tour of Ireland in the 1970s, when he was a young Democratic senator from Delaware, during a congressional recess.
“We packed up,” he said, “and we followed them all through Ireland. There was nothing but carnage left behind. But I am a real fan.”
Ireland failed to beat New Zealand throughout that decade, part of 111 years of futile effort until a pulsating game in Chicago later in 2016. Biden congratulated that Irish team, which featured a full-back, Rob Kearney, to whom he is distantly related and who has visited the White House.
In his letter to the Irish team this week, Biden cited his cousin’s triumph at Soldier Field and said: “Since then, you’ve beaten the All Blacks again in 2018 and I know that you can do it again this year.
“… As the Irish blessing says, wherever you go and whatever you do, may the luck of the Irish be there with you. My grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan, would always say, ‘Keep the faith,’ and then my Grandmother Blewitt would add, ‘No, spread it.’ So go spread the faith. I’ll be cheering for you.”
Biden often celebrates his Irish ancestry. Earlier this year, at the White House, he said: “Everything between Ireland and the United States runs deep. Our joys, our sorrows, our passion, our drive, our unrelenting optimism and hope.”
On his father’s side, his ancestry is English and French. On Saturday, it was not immediately clear if the president had also wished good luck to England, who beat Australia at Twickenham, or to the French team picked to play Georgia in Bordeaux on Sunday.