Victory over All Blacks the standout memory of 2016
Sports review of 2016: Triumph put into perspective by Axel passing
Robbie Henshaw touches down for Ireland’s fifth try against New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago on November 5th. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Soldier Field, November 5th
Ireland 40 New Zealand 29
When you have to wait 111 years and 29 meetings for an overdue first win over opponents as illustrious as the All Blacks – back-to-back world champions and on a record run of 18 wins – there’ll rarely be an easier standout memory in a calendar year.
It wasn’t just the win either. It was the setting, the week, the events before it and, most of all, the manner in which Ireland played on that unforgettable day of November 5th.
Indeed, there was something magical in the sun-kissed Illinois air all week, notably from Wednesday on when the Chicago Cubs baseball team completed their first World Series triumph in 108 years, and when millions took to the streets for their victory parade on the Friday. Cue kick-off at a green-infused carnival at Soldier Field in unseasonal temperatures nearing 20 degrees, and the dignified and classy way the Irish squad commemorated the memory of the 62-times capped Anthony Foley by forming his jersey number, eight, with two joined circles when facing the haka, with their Munster men, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan, CJ Stander and Simon Zebo, to the front.
Their response to falling behind early on was to keep taking the game to the All Blacks. Three of their first four tries by Jordi Murphy, Stander and Zebo, along with a cheeky dummy and go from the outstanding Murray, emanated from kicks up the line rather than at goal.
Even when they saw their 30-8 lead whittled down to 33-29, and debutant Joey Carbery replaced the imperious Johnny Sexton, Ireland kept playing, resulting in a deserving try for Robbie Henshaw which Carbery converted.
Low Light: That day, and Connacht’s first ever trophy in their Murrayfield final over Leinster, were memorable highlights, but this and all else were put into perspective by Foley’s passing at the tender age of 42 on the morning of Munster’s scheduled European Champions Cup opener away to Racing Metro in Paris on Sunday, October 16th.
The sense of loss was numbing and shocking for the rugby community, who did their best to reach out to Olive, their three children and the Foley family – such a warm and vibrant presence in Munster and Irish rugby for decades – whose loss can only be imagined.
Munster have not stopped commemorating his memory since and, one suspects, won’t forever more.