This is the season for handing out gongs so Rugby World takes a sideways look at 2016 and presents its prestigious, unofficial, end-of-year awards
The Eddie Jones Award for Sound Bite Merchant of the Year
Winner – Eddie Jones
A no-brainer to kick off with. Fast Eddie Jones first and the rest nowhere, with an honourable mention for Richard Cockerill at Leicester. Jones is Coach of the Year, honorary Englishman of the Year and the gift that keeps on giving for those who toil in what used to be called Fleet Street.
Jones started 2016 by telling us Chris Ashton was as ‘mad as a cut snake’ and finished it by announcing that he had forgotten his red nose after being depicted as a clown by one of the Australian newspapers. In between he told us England had no world-class players, there are one or two now, told Italy they were due for a hiding – they got one – and told Australia they were going to get a dose of Bodyline in the summer; they got that too. His press conferences are the hottest ticket in town and you never leave one without something to flag up to the sports desk.
Cockerill keeps up his good humour despite Leicester’s up and down form and unlike some directors of rugby always, and we mean always, fronts up on press day in the week. After one defeat at Saracens, in January, he told us he could not sit down because he had just had his backside smacked and he has an opinion on everything from the tackle law to the price of fish.
The Charlie Watts Award for Unsung Hero of the Year
Winner – Mark McCall
Alf Ramsey, who won the football World Cup in 1966, always said that coaches or managers get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go badly. Mark McCall, who has won the last two Premierships and the Champions Cup, gets nothing like the credit he deserves. He is a quietly spoken bloke from Ulster who does not blow his own trumpet and it is about time someone blew his trumpet for him.
Anyone who goes to Saracens during the week will see what a happy ship it is and that all comes from the top down. McCall might just be the best kept secret in rugby – and maybe Saracens want to keep it that way because Ireland might come calling. Charlie Watts held the Rolling Stones together, according to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and McCall does that with Sarries.
Mark Stevens, the press officer for Exeter Chiefs, should also get a mention in dispatches. One hapless hack boarded the train from Paddington to get to Sandy Park for a match and realised, as he was pulling out of the station, that he had forgotten his laptop. In the glory days of copy takers that would not be a problem, you could just phone in your match report, but these days it is a big no-no. When the journalist in question arrived at the ground ‘Stevo’ had sorted him out a computer and his deathless prose was duly filed to the delight of middle Englanders everywhere.
The Southern Railways Award for Cock-up of the Year
Winner – the entire sport over the George North affair
RFU, Premiership Rugby, club medics, club coaching staff take your pick on this one – everyone pretends they are taking the lead on concussion and then this shambles happens. For those who have been in La-La Land since the start of the month George North, one of the game’s most high-profile players, might have been knocked out when playing for Northampton against Leicester. The might bit came from the club but anyone at Welford Road or watching on the goggle box could see he was gone for all money.
For a player who has had a series of head bangs to be allowed back onto the pitch was ridiculous and the blame shifting in the weeks afterwards brought opprobrium on the entire game. North is one of rugby’s biggest assets and gets treated like a piece of meat. World Rugby have got involved and want to know why Northampton were not sanctioned but don’t hold your breath.
The Zippy from Rainbow Award for the biggest Transport Bungle of the Year
Winner – Invisible man in an invisible brown Peugeot
The Grande Stade de Lyon, which hosted the Champions Cup final in May, is a great ground but situated in the middle of nowhere and it costs the best part of 50 quid to get there in a cab from the city centre. On game day, myself and three other hacks ordered a taxi from the hotel and were told a brown Peugeot would be arriving to ferry us to the ground in time for kick-off. We are still waiting. The Sunday Mirror, Sunday Times, Mail on Sunday and The I are also waiting for the concierge, who ordered the sherbet dab, to come back from having a fag around the corner from the Novotel where we were staying after we politely asked him when this mythical vehicle was due to arrive.
With the game looming, and the cab a non-runner, we got the train – and it hosed down as we trudged to the ground arriving just in the nick of time looking like refugees from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. Most of the paying punters looked worse – at least they had had what passes for a drink in Lyon – but we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Anyone seen a brown Peugeot?
The One-Armed Banjo Player Award for doing a job with one arm tied behind your back
Winner – Allister Coetzee
The South African coach Allister Coetzee is one of the game’s good guys but imagine going into your office and finding most of your best staff had got a gig elsewhere and you could only use a certain amount of computers at the same time. That is what Coetzee has to contend with.
You could name a couple of half-decent Springbok teams from the players who are not available to him and he has to deal with the quotas imposed on him from on high. He does this with a ready smile but his days are probably numbered and that is bad news for rugby and bad news for South Africa. Who in their right mind would take that job on?
The Tin Hat Award for this correspondent’s Player of the Year
Winner – Owen Farrell
Tip of the tin hat, I will probably need it, here to Big Billy Vunipola, his brother Mako, Maro Itoje and George Kruis – they won everything they could with Saracens and England but they wouldn’t have done it without Owen Farrell who is the heartbeat of the national side according to Eddie Jones. Farrell, one tough chip off the old block of his old man Andy, played 898 minutes of Test rugby in 2016 and scored 197 points for England, only Jonny Wilkinson has scored more in a calendar year and that was in 2003.
Farrell was also the rallying point for Saracens who won the Champions Cup, when he played Dan Carter off the park in Lyon in the final against Racing 92, and the Premiership. Warren Gatland should have him inked into the Lions starting line-up – whether it is at 10 or 12 – the bloke has the lot and is just the sort of player you need in the bare knuckle stuff that is going to come in New Zealand. And if you want to have a row with Farrell about that you are on your own.
Extra mentions should go to Chris Robshaw, good on him, what a comeback after the last World Cup, Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles and all the Fijian boys who won Olympic gold. But Faz is my Man of the Year.