by Kevin O'Brien
So here we are coming to the end of 2016 and what a momentous year it has been for so many reasons. We lost greats like Prince, Bowie, Coen, Ali and Gene Wilder to name but a few. We had the divisive Brexit vote and of course the US election which had (and still has) many of us enthralled. The world of rugby has also provided us with another memorable year with many highlights such as the continued rise of Connacht and our first win over the All Blacks in Chicago. In this piece, I want to have a look back at what were my rugby highlights over the last twelve months.
Whilst Leinster are of course my team, Connacht’s Pro12 league win was, without any doubt, one of the standout moments of the year. Of course, I was massively disappointed that Leinster didn’t win the final but I can honestly say my disappointment was quickly overcome by a great sense of joy seeing Connacht win their first ever trophy. Having lived in the province over the last eleven years I am somewhat invested in Connacht rugby and their victory brought a tear of joy to my eye. They had a great season playing entertaining, attacking rugby and were so good to watch. The positive approach of the team mirrored that of their Head Coach Pat Lam and his exit at the end of the season will leave a big void. Many argued that they won the league as some of the other teams such as the Osprey’s, Leinster and Glasgow were badly affected by player involvement during the world cup and whilst it may have been a contributory factor in my opinion Connacht won the league on merit. They were by far the best team in the league throughout the season and beat a fully loaded Glasgow team in two crucial games at the end of the season including the semi-final. In the final itself Connacht beat a strong Leinster side out the gate playing their usual brand of attacking rugby with the irrepressible Bundi Aki, as he had been all season, being a key player. The triumph was a deserved end to what had been a breakthrough season.
The 40-29 win over the All blacks in Chicago was probably my favourite moment of the year. It was a game that had everything in exciting rugby, great tries, a New Zealand comeback to keep us all on the end of our seats, a great Irish performance and finally a first win over the mighty All Blacks. Yes, New Zealand were missing a couple of players, as were we, but Ireland put in an immense performing scoring five beautifully memorable tries. We opened up a twenty two point lead with Zebo’s try early in the second half and as the All Blacks came back into the game it was hard not think of the heartbreak suffered at the outcome end of the 2013 game in the Aviva. The tension was unbearable in that second half as New Zealand kept eating into the lead. And when Scott Barrett scored a try to get to within four points the momentum was well and truly with New Zealand. I was sure we would be disappointed again. So, when Robbie Henshaw scored that great try in the last five minutes it was a moment of sheer relief and overwhelming delight. I roared the house down, much to the annoyance of my wife! To beat the All Blacks in the manner we did with positive attacking rugby and pure determination was perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the win. Those 23 players simply were not going to go through the heart ache of another near miss. It was a sweet victory and a moment to cherish.
The year 2016 will be remembered for many things one of which was the passing of so many stars from the world of entertainment and sport as mentioned earlier. Sadly, rugby was not immune to this phenomenon as evidenced by the death of Fiji and Leicester great Seru Rabini. But the death that hit us most here was of course the untimely and very sad passing of the late great Anthony Foley. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone. Of course, his passing was felt most in Munster but it’s true to say that it affected the whole rugby community both here and around the globe as evidenced by the many expressions of sympathy sent from all corners of the world. It was a tragic loss for Munster and Irish rugby but most of all to his young family. Whilst Axel has left us there was and still is some comfort, I hope, in the way the rugby community rallied around the Foley family to help them through their grief. Axel is gone but most definitely will never be forgotten.
My final thoughts on the last twelve months is one of satisfaction as to where Irish rugby finds itself. Whilst we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves the provinces are showing signs of real improvement especially Munster and Leinster, who had been struggling over the last couple of years. Leinster have definitively benefited from having a coach of Stuart Lancaster’s experience available to them and it’s great to see the team adopting a more attacking philosophy. Munster too are benefiting from a new coaching set up and performances have seen a real step up. We have, thankfully, been very competitive again in Europe so far, this season, a trend which I hope will continue. We are seeing a new generation of stars emerging in all the provinces including Sweetman, the Scannell’s, Carberry, Furlong, Kelleher and Stockdale to name but a few. It has been a positive first half of the season from the perspective of the provinces and I hope that the improvements seen will continue over the business end of the season.
Perhaps the most satisfying development over the last twelve months for me has been the improvement in the depth of the national squad with real competition now for places not only in the wider squad but also in any match day twenty-three. It was one of Joe Schmidt’s stated goals to increase the depth of talent in the squad and we are starting to see the results of his work in this regard over the last twelve months. The new emerging talent, such as Ringrose, Dillane, Van Der Flier and the brilliant CJ Stander have helped increase the competition for places and players such as Tadhg Furlong and Paddy Jackson, who have been around the squad for a while, have really kicked on and shown huge improvement. There is series depth in several positions such as backrow, loosehead and second row with probably scrumhalf and perhaps hooker being the only positions where we might lack top quality backup to Conor Murray is the best all round scrum half in the world for me but his understudies lack a little in top class quality. Though it’s fair to say Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are improving all the time. I feel we have a squad that can really compete with the best now and hope that the confidence gained in recent results are reflects in a strong Six Nations campaign.
The world of rugby has provided us with many talking points over the last twelve months some of which I’ve touched on here and there’s no doubt 2017 will equally provide as many highs and lows with the culmination of the domestic season, a Six nations championship and a Lions tour to look forward to. I look forward to the next twelve months with cautious optimism. Our provinces are on an upward curve and the displays of the national side over the second half of the season show real promise. We beat an albeit poor Springbok side in South Africa, scored our first ever win over the all blacks in Chicago and wrapped up a strong Autumn series with memorable victory over Australia in Dublin. Roll on the Six Nations is all I say with the final game in Dublin potentially being a championship or grand slam decider. It’s safe to say it’s going to be another epic twelve months of rugby and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Kevin O’Brien (@marywards) : Rugby mad Leinster man exiled in Connaught. Father of 3 with wife who hates sport but tolerates rugby.
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