With the New Year fast approaching, Last Word On Rugby are reflecting back on a fine year. From the International matches to the Sevens at the Olympic Games, the ‘LWOR highlights for 2016’ are a wide and varied account.
As part of our MCXM Top 10 memories of 2016, the fourth in our series has contributions from NZ rugby specialist Mike Pulman, and our Fiji-based Sevens rugby writer Jovilisi Waqa. Sit back and enjoy two of the LWOR highlights from 2016.
#7 – All Blacks Start ‘New Era’ with Win Over Wales
In the 31st International Test Match between the All Blacks and Wales, it was the start of a new era. It was the big moment in the spotlight for Kieran Read (see picture below) by all accounts–finally filling the shoes of the legendary Richie McCaw, who had retired from all rugby over the summer.
The side had emerged from the shadow of the 2015 Rugby World Cup victory, and in coach Steve Hansen’s words, “to re-establish the All Blacks brand.” A test up against Wales at Eden Park, was the perfect occasion and Read and his side were set to launch a new season. Last Word On Rugby were present to witness it.
The lead changed hands multiple times in the first half, and for a long time, Wales hung in and pushed the All Blacks to the absolute limit. For one of the rare times in 2016, the All Blacks went to the sheds behind on the scoreboard at halftime 15-18.
Traditionally, the opening Test of the year has seen a less than comforting All Black performance, but for all accounts, Steve Hansen’s men were far improved in this encounter. Hansen said of the first half;
“With a young team, the question was how we would react to the situation, and I think the response we got was first rate.”
Wales Outshine All Blacks for Most of the Match
It’s just that Wales were so good in all facets of their game throughout much of the encounter at Eden Park. The visitors scored the first try of the game, signalling that the Welsh had come to play. For all the talk surrounding the All Blacks and the ‘new era’ prior to this game, it was Wales who deserved to steal the headlines–particularly in the first half.
The difference on the night was a superior All Black performance in the Second Half, and this has become a real strength and a reason for their dominance. Substitutions have become a big part of the International game. No side can rely of players to last 80 inutes. So impact is the keyword–and the name for that starts with the letter B!
Beauden Barrett’s Masterclass Begins
The other factor was the bench, and this is where a player by the name of Beauden Barrett would begin a fantastic 2016 season in the black jersey. Barrett’s injection, and impact on the game, once again showed the selectors that his worthwhile place in the team wasn’t going to be as impact player ‘only’ for much longer. The World Rugby Player of the Year award, reinforced that message.
Barrett would go on to play a pivotal role in helping the All Blacks repel Wales over the series. The All Blacks scored three tries in the second half, to win 39-21 but that does not tell the entire story of this game. It stands out for two reasons. One, the way the New Zealand team responded to the challenge, and how Barrett established his place in the team.
And two, that Liam Williams was sensational for Wales. He matched players like Ben Smith and Israel Dagg, setting up Rhys Webb’s stellar opening try after beating three of the All Blacks’ best defenders. Had Williams and George North remained fit for the entire series, one can’t help but wonder if Wales may have nabbed a victory in one of the games.
The opening game was memorable for many reasons, and International rugby…and LWOR fans, were the winners in the end.
#8 – Sevens Dreams Realized at Rio for Fiji Nation
For many, the LWOR highlights for 2016 would not be complete without a reference to the Olympic Games. Some might wonder ‘is rugby played in the Olympics?’ and the answer today would be “Yes it is”.
The game was reintroduced to the Summer Games, after a 92 year gap, Sevens rugby debuted at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and for one tiny nation in the South Pacific, a ‘golden dream was realized’ when Fiji claimed the prize, above all others.
From Day One of the men’s tournament, Fiji played with one intention–to reach the Gold medal playoff. The Ben Ryan coached team would aim high, higher than the tiny nation had ever done previously. In fact, gold would be the very first medal ever for the nation, so the men and women in Suva, Nadi and all across the Islands, held their breath.
Other results would go their way, to remove arch rivals New Zealand from contention, and South Africa lost to England in the semi final, to set-up the first ever Olympic Rugby Sevens final on August 12, 2016.
Gold Medal final – Fiji 43 Great Britain 7
The match report reads more one sided than most will recall. A total of six tries to one, but the composite team from the United Kingdom did everything they could, to hold back the Fijian firepower. With men like tryscorer Dan Norton and James Rodwell, they had the players but they came up against a determined Fiji.
Playing for their nation, the Osea Kolinisau side opened the final with a try inside one minute. The ‘Flying Fijians’ were in control for the majority of the game, and led 29-0 after the opening half. The big crowd were overjoyed with the consummate performance–but not as much as the fans back in the islands.
Shops closed, school was let out and the national stadium in Suva transmitted the final on the big screen. When the final whistle was blown, a nation were ecstatic. And why not. Always known as the masters of the game, for Jovilisi Waqa, it was the ultimate reward.
And then, only to show that the winning side had grace, when being presented their gold medals. Standing high on the rostrum, as Princess Anne handed out the medals, every player bowed their heads. An act of chivalry that saw many more fans earned worldwide.
Rugby Sevens National Heroes
After a huge result, the country was in a week of celebration. From all corners, the pride was clear. Olympic champions, it made all the years on the World Sevens circuit well worth the wait. And by the time that the team and management were due to return to the Island, a national celebration was planned.
On August 21, large parts of the island came to a standstill. From the reception at the airport, the players bus were waved into Suva by adoring crowds. It all focused on a civic reception by the nation where every player was congratulated, awarded a $30,000 honorary gift and the Companion Order of Fiji. Not only that, but Ben Ryan was given an honorary title and three acres of land. A terrific reflection of the efforts he made to bring the Fijian team the highest honour–Olympic Gold.
“Dreams can come true.”
And that is how fans see this achievement. It is the highest prize–above the Commonwealth Games medal and it caps off two years as the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Champions. Just a fantastic achievement, and worthy to be included in our LWOR highlights for 2016.
Enjoy our seasonal wrap-up of some of the ten most memorable moments for Last Word On Rugby contributors. For more, see LWOR Highlights for 2016 – MCXM III
“Main photo credit”