By Gavin Mortimer
RESTAURANTS IN France have Michelin Stars, rugby players have Midi Olympique stars. They are awarded in each Monday’s edition of the newspaper to the players who have caught the eye over the weekend.
The judging is roughly along the lines of: One star: good performance; two stars: very good performance; three stars: great performance.
The stars awarded go a long way in deciding which player wins the coveted award for Player of the Season, though readers of Midi Olympique have their say, too.
The only foreigner to win the award since its inception in 1954 is Juan Martín Hernández, the Argentine full-back, who was voted the Top 14 Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008 when Stade Francais were still a force to be reckoned with.
The only other outsiders to make the top three were former All Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher, who was runner-up to Hernandez in 2008, and Clermont Fijian wing Napolioni Nalaga, third the following year behind winner Maxime Mermoz.
In recognition of the increasing numbers of foreigners in the Top 14 Midi Olympique introduced a new category in its end-of-season Oscar ceremony in 2010, the Overseas Player of the Year. Jonny Wilkinson won the first year, followed by Montpellier’s Georgian flanker Mamuka Gorgodze in 2011, and Steffon Armitage last season.
This season Wilkinson is on course to win a second crown, although the Toulon fly-half faces stiff competition from Castres’ scrum-half Rory Kockott. Wilkinson has totted up 23 stars in his thirteen Top 14 appearances, while the young South African is four behind, tied on 19 along with the Montpellier pair of Francois Trinh-Duc and Alex Tulou, and also Perpignan Bertrand Guiry. The next best Brits behind Wilkinson are James Hook with 13 stars, while Iain Balshaw. Alistair Strokosch and Andrew Sheridan all have ten.
Wilkinson and Kockott do have an unfair advantage in that they kick their side’s points – and kick them well – so they’ll always be in line for more stars. Currently Wilkinson leads the Top 14 points table with 221 and Kockott is second on 216. But Kockott can’t compare to the Englishmen when it comes to the percentages. Wilkinson succeeds with 86.7 percent of his kicks at goal; Kockott’s ratio is under 75 percent.
So Wilkinson is well placed to win the Overseas Player of the Year but a lot can happen between now and June when the season reaches its climax. Last season his form dropped off dramatically in March and April, allowing teammate Armitage to catch voters’ eyes with a string of fine scavenging displays as Toulon reached both the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup and the Top 14. This time around Wilkinson’s biggest challenge for the title could turn out to be another Toulon teammate, Bakkies Botha, who was in superb form before fracturing an eye socket last month. The Springbok giant returns in a couple of weeks and if he finds back his form he’ll be a contender.
But so will Wilkinson, particularly if next month he announces his retirement at the end of the season. The French do love a bit of sentiment, as they also appreciate loyalty, which is why Kockott is unlikely to win the award whatever he does in the next few months. The scrum-half became embroiled in a row with Castres recently concerning his future at the club, and whatever the rights and wrongs of the spat the French expect discretion in such matters.
So no Oscar for Rory but in a fair world one of his compatriots might be in with a shout. The name Naude Beukes probably means little outside the Top 14, but the 32-year-old second row from the Cape has been at the heart of Grenoble’s rise to fifth in the table, picking up 18 Midi Olympique Stars in the process.
Beukes hasn’t the talent of Bakkies Botha but his heart is every bit as big.