As another journey around the sun draws to a close, it presents us with the opportunity to look back at the year that was 2016. It is a wonderful time where sporting fans can argue with one another as to what were the best moments, achievements, and performances of the year. To that end this correspondent not so humbly submits for discourse and debate, The Bozza Awards – The Biggest Landmark Victories of 2016.
Irish Eyes are Smiling
This November Ireland and New Zealand took to the field in Chicago, 111-years to the month after their first meeting in Dublin. That first meeting, a part of the All-Blacks first tour outside of Australasia, ended in a comfortable 15-0 victory for the tourists.
It was to be a common tale for matches between the two teams. As the All-Blacks performed their haka in Chicago, across from them stood a national team that was yet to defeat them in over a century of battles.
In New Zealand, Rugby is closer to a religion than a sport. With that in mind, it perhaps isn’t surprising that their deity, the All Blacks, are without question the most dominant side in the history of the sport. In nearly 115 years of competition, the New Zealand team had compiled a winning percentage of nearly 77%! So when commentators are daring to suggest this current team might be their greatest ever, the magnitude of the challenge faced by the ‘Boys in Green’ comes into sharp focus.
Only days after the fairytale story of the Chicago Cubs had its happy conclusion, the Irish relished their opportunity to write their own story for the ages. They were simply scintillating early and when, on the back of a drive in the 48th minute, they put Simon Zebo away in the corner, the Irish found themselves with a 30-8 lead.
A margin of this size is usually more than enough to hold most opposition at bay but the All Black are not like most opposition. Less than 20 minutes after being out for the count, the All Blacks were back in the game at 33-29, and Irish minds would have no doubt turned to the 2014 match between the two nations. In that match Ireland watched on helpless as their 22-7 lead became a 22-24 defeat.
What followed was a breathless and exhilarating display of Rugby. Ireland, not content to cling to their lead, looked to extend it while their opponent looked desperately for the match winner. As those in attendance and watching on their TV’s inched closer and closer to the edge of their seats, it finally happened.
Working a set piece from deep in attack, Ireland’s Number 8 Jamie Heaslip broke from the scrum and passed inside to a flying Robbie Henshaw running a change of direction. Despite the efforts of three desperate defenders, Henshaw was unstoppable, scoring the try that sealed Ireland’s first ever win over the mighty All Blacks.
Sri Lanka Sweep Sorry Aussies
On paper the recent Test Series between Australia and Sri Lanka looked likely to be a one-sided affair. Australia, the recently crowned World Number One, had only ever lost one Test to Sri Lanka and that was a match they had finished with nine men.
In a landmark series, Sri Lanka turned history on its head and sent Australia home licking their wounds and without the ICC Mace.
It may well have been very different if not for a magnificent innings from Kusal Mendis in the First Test. When Mendis came to the crease early on Day 3, two wickets down and still 80 runs away from making the Australians bat again, the situation was bleak for Sri Lanka. By the time he was dismissed for 176 he had turned the game entirely and the Australians never fully recovered.
By the time the series reached Colombo for the Third Test Sri Lanka had reduced Australia to a rabble. Two of the Australian Summers’ better performers, Usman Khawaja and Joe Burns, were sacrificed as the Australian Selectors looked for a line up to stop a series white wash.
Despite the bloodletting the Australians, like the two Tests previous, had no answer to Rangana Herath. The portly Sri Lankan magician completely bamboozled the Australians. A seven wicket second innings putting an exclamation mark on a man of the series performance that saw him claim 28 Australian scalps at a miserly 12.75.
It was only fitting then that Herath delivered the coup de graĉe, trapping Nathan Lyon leg before to complete the 3-0 drubbing. His young, and previously unheralded, team mates excitedly mobbed the man of the moment. After completely outplaying the Australians, it was now time to celebrate the country’s greatest ever series win.
Fiji Celebrate First Olympic Gold
Like almost everybody else in Fiji, the employees at this Westpac Branch in Suva weren’t going to miss their Rugby 7’s team in their quest for the island nations first Olympic Gold.
Despite being the World Series Champions and a perennial powerhouse of the sport, their victory was one of the feel good moments of the Olympics.
A team packed to the brim with big, strong, skillful and fast players they created havoc for their opponents throughout the tournament.
Playing an exhilarating brand of Rugby the Fijians saved their best for the final where they blew Great Britain away 43-7.
With the final whistle the same men who had ruthlessly toyed with Britain were reduced to tears as the enormity of the achievement hit them. Overcome with emotion, the players joined together in prayer and in hymn in unforgettable scenes of celebration.
As they humbly bowed to receive their gold medals from Princess Ann, the parties back home were in full swing. Traffic was brought to a standstill as people converged to sing and dance in the streets and the Prime Minister announced their return date was to be a Public Holiday.
Third Time’s the Charm for the Canarinho
The Olympic Football tournament was one of immense importance to host nation Brazil in 2016. Football is the heartbeat of South America and nowhere is this more apparent than in Brazil. Expectations were high on the Canarinho but so too was the collective apprehension. Brazil had never won Olympic Football Gold and twice as host of the World Cup they fell short; most recently in 2014 when they were embarrassed 7-1 in the Semi Final.
The pressure on the host was evident in their nervous start to competition play. After 180 scoreless minutes, they required a positive result to survive the Group Stage. The spectre of elimination finally brought the team to life, a 4-0 win over Denmark saw them progress to the knockout phase of the competition. After a comfortable 2-0 Quarter Final victory, Brazil dismantled Honduras 6-0 to set up a ‘winner takes gold’ date with Germany at the Maracana Stadium.
Between the Final combatants, Brazil and Germany, there was a combined collection of 9 x World Cups and, surprisingly, 0 x Olympic Gold Medals. Although in effect an underage tournament, it was a hole in both countries footballing resumes they were keen to fill.
Brazil took the lead in the first half through a Neymar free kick. Max Meyer cancelled out his opposing captain’s strike and levelled the scores with a second half volley. Despite desperate efforts from both teams, 1-1 is where the score remained through to 90 minutes and through extra time. As a result The Olympic Gold Medal would be decided by Penalty Shootout.
The tension in the packed Maracana grew to unbearable levels as each team remained perfect through their first four kicks. Unfortunately for Germany, they blinked first with substitute Nils Peterson unable to pass Brazil keeper Weverton. In a dream scenario Brazil’s captain Neymar stepped up to the spot with the chance to score a golden goal. He made no mistake and Brazil were Olympic Champions for the very first time.
The Porchlights are turned off in the Shire
Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt.
Super Coach Jack Gibson
While it was said with a small dash of exaggeration, it took 50 seasons for Cronulla to prove Gibson’s words incorrect. In the year of upsets and underdogs it was only fitting that the Sharks would finally break the longest premiership drought in the NRL.
A mid-season 15-game winning streak meant that the Sharks were front runners for a large portion of the season and had fans in the Shire daring to dream of premierships. A late season drop in form that included heavy defeats to both Melbourne and Canberra saw most pundits dismiss their chances by the time the finals came around.
After two of their best Finals wins, the Sharks had qualified for the Fourth Grand Final in their history. When the Sharks ran out onto the park on Grand Final night, they did so rank outsiders. Their opponents, the Giltinan Shield Winning Melbourne Storm, were widely considered to be too strong for Cronulla. It didn’t play out that way.
After having the better of the First Half, Cronulla took an 8-0 lead into the sheds at Half-Time. The Second Half was a gripping 40-minute arm wrestle. The defences of both teams were highly effective as they dealt answered the questions posed by their opposing attacks. The Storm found themselves with their noses in front as the game entered its final 20 and looked to have the stolen the momentum.
With time and opportunities slowly running out, the Sharks manufactured another opportunity. Andrew Fifita had been a one man wrecking-ball all night, his barnstorming runs the platform that most of the Sharks attack had been built on. It was apt then that the defining moment of the match was yet another powerful run from Fifita. Michael Ennis ran out of dummy half and passed the ball to the rapidly moving 120kg lump of flesh that is Fifita. The controversial forward received the ball with five metres and five Storm defenders between him and the try line. Five defenders wasn’t enough to stop the man mountain and he crashed across the line carrying them all along for the ride.
A Maloney conversion gave the Sharks back the lead and they held grimly onto it until the final siren. After 50 long seasons the Sharks were Premiers and the people in the shire could finally turn the porchlights off.
The end of one lap of the sun is the commencement of another and with that we eagerly await what Landmark Victories 2017 hold in store for us.