With the New Year fast approaching, Last Word On Rugby are reflecting back on a fine year. From the highly successful USA Rugby Weekend to the Mitre 10 Cup Provincial Championship, the ‘LWOR highlights for 2016’ are a wide and varied account.
As part of our MCXM Top 10 memories of 2016, the last in our series has a contribution from United States-based writer Jack Moon Perrin, and longtime Harbour rugby supporter (and Senior Editor) Scott Hornell. Sit back and enjoy another LWOR highlight from 2016.
#9 – USA Rugby Weekend in Chicago
An exciting weekend of international rugby was played out over a gorgeous sunny November weekend in Chicago. The USA Men’s Eagles opened the weekend Friday night against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks, in front of a 18,007 sold-out crowd at Toyota Park. The Maori team were facing the United States rugby team for the first time since 2013.
The next day, two time defending Rugby World Cup Champions, the New Zealand All Blacks played Ireland on Soldier Field. Two years earlier, the All Blacks played before a record crowd of 61,500, against the USA Eagles.
The entire weekend was played out in the shadow of the Cubs sensational World Series baseball victory, so the big crowds and huge result over these two days only added to the significance for reporter Jack Moon Perrin.
New Zealand Maori All Blacks dominate USA Eagles
The Maori All Blacks thoroughly dominated the USA Eagles, to defeat them 54-7. The highly talented Maori team took advantage of any gap in the US teams armory. While the crowd was excited to witness the Maori All Blacks attacking style, the Eagles were definitely disappointed when the found themselves down 28-0 at the half.
The second 40 minutes were not very different, although the Eagles were able to avoid a complete shutout. Captain Todd Clever managed to cross for one try, to bring the score a degree of respectability at 35-7. The Maori All Blacks finished the night with a huge win and left the Eagles head coach John Mitchell looking for answers on how to improve in international play.
Ireland Stun New Zealand Before Record Crowd
Even as the New Zealand All Blacks mounted a furious comeback, they fell short to the Ireland side 40-29. In a memorable occasion, the 62,000 sell-out crowd broke the record for the largest international rugby event–set just two years ago. Fully entertained by an enthralling game, the Irish scoring three tries in the first half to leap out to a 25-8 lead at the break.
The passionate Irish-American crowd were concerned that this game might resemble many in the past, where Ireland could not hold a lead against the mighty All Blacks. However, on this ‘Rugby Weekend’ Ireland were able to withstand the expected comeback. To the joy of the Irish fans, they even scored a try in the remaining minutes, to hold on for a famous victory.
The All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was gracious in the loss, stating that his side could not blame the venue [mostly Irish fans] and he concluded that;
“we got beat by a side [Ireland] that were better than us, and have to accept it.”
Irish Achieve Their Goal–First Ever Win Over New Zealand
Ireland Captain Rory Best credited the victory to his team doing their ”homework off the pitch.” He, and head coach Joe Schmidt (pictured below) aimed high, and accomplished something never achieved by an Irish team for over 100 years of trying. Victory over the All Blacks. And full credit to them.
It was an exciting atmosphere, to be present for a great ‘USA rugby weekend’ that was definitely a 2016 highlight of the my year.
#10 – North Harbour Claim the NPC Championship Title
In one of the more memorable results of the season, perennial struggler’s North Harbour (Harbour) did what many thought was beyond them. Playing within the Mitre 10 Cup Championship, they faced many challengers from other unions, from dejectors of the union itself, to reach the grand final–and claim the Championship for the first time in over 20 years.
Over the course of the ten match round robin, Harbour displayed an uncanny and well constructed game. Each province within this schedule play one double-header week, playing twice in a single round. It is a tough season, crossover inter-competition games can cost, but Harbour did very well.
In many matches, they played beyond themselves–being present at three home matches, Scott Hornell recalls the crowd factor that built over the competition.
“THE REGULAR HARBOUR FANS BECAME PROUDER, AND STOOD TALLER AFTER EVERY HOME MATCH VICTORY. OUTSTANDING WAS ALL THAT COACH STEVE JACKSON COULD SAY TO DESCRIBE IT.”
By the time the semi finals rolled on, Harbour had finished the regular season with a five and four record. The single draw was against Tasman [finalist in the Premiership] so in finishing in third place, they had to play away from home. That factor; in the past, might have ended their chances, but in memorable fashion, Harbour went to Wellington in an aggressive mood.
Semi Final – Wellington 37 North Harbour 40
In what some called a game ‘with little defense’ each side took on the other. It was a match that came down to the last scoring plays. At 30-30 with under 10 minutes to go, it needed something special and Tevita Li stood up. The Blues winger broke up field and shared the ball for Daniel Hilton-Jones to score. It was totally unexpected, and incredible in the context of Harbour’s lackluster recent history.
Achieving that, the team could relax. Making a final relieved the pressure, and Steve Jackson only needed to keep the structures in place. Defense was a key, as Harbour traveled down to the superb Forsyth-Barr Stadium to meed Otago.
In this match, Harbour showed composure. They knew Otago had led the Championship table all year, but with less pressure, it played in their favour. Michael Little showed great defense, scored a [controversial] try to earn an MVP award. At 14-14, the final act of the game came down to a Bryn Gatland drop kick, which concluded the match and saw a jubilant Harbour team carry away the Mitre 10 Cup. Brilliant.
CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL – Otago 14 North Harbour 17
A Bright Future in the Premiership
With Jackson moving up to the Blues, new head coach Tom Coventry returns to New Zealand rugby, and with James Parson and Chris Vui will lead Harbour up to the Premiership competition. And after such a memorable season, North Harbour undoubtedly earned their place in the 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 memorable moments, see LWOR Highlights for 2016 – MCXM IV
“Main photo credit”