After four weeks of excitement, controversy and lashings of intrigue it's time for a whimsical round-up of the 2014 autumn series
The ‘In the black’ Award – New Zealand
The marketeers at Adidas have their work cut out rebranding a black shirt, and this year they came up ‘the Blackest Shirt Ever’, whether it is, is a moot point, but Steve Hansen’s men are certainly in the black.
Their four wins over the autumn Tests made it a remarkable 47 wins in 49 games. While they blew USA away, they had tougher Tests against England, Scotland and Wales but when it mattered, they delivered, most impressively against Wales, where like a boxer on the ropes, they huffed and puffed until 69 minutes before blitzing three tries to leave Wales seeing stars on the canvas. It was enthralling and cruel in equal measure. The All Blacks remain the team to beat.
The ‘To The Manor Born’ Award – Robbie Henshaw
The collective tears are still fresh in the minds of Ireland fans that the prodigal son, Brian O’Driscoll has finally unlaced his boots for the last time, and the hypothetical question that has been asked for years is finally being answered. Who can replace BOD? Well, Robbie Henshaw, that’s who.
The Connacht No 13 – after receiving a text of encouragement from the great man – has looked error-proof since slotting in against South Africa. He was neat and tidy in heavy traffic and showed enough creative nous to promise better things. At just 21, Ireland may have found their long-term successor. Rumours of a move to Leinster have only confirmed his elevated standing.
The ‘W.C Fields’ Award – Wales
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.” That had become Wales’ mantra after 23 consecutive losses to the southern hemisphere big three. On nine occasions in the last three years they had contrived to lose by less than five points, often in the final ten minutes. Sam Warburton said it was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ to an exasperated nation.
Then came the World’s No 2, South Africa, a team they had beaten only once in 108 years. They won, not because of skill, wit, or guile, but because of grit, cohesion and heart and words cannot underestimate how important that result was.
The ‘signs-of-life’ award – Scotland
Scotland have been quietly beavering away in the last six months. Gone are the wacky soundbites of Scott Johnson and in, well, is the sound of silence from the ‘words are overrated’ form of taciturn Big Vern Cotter. Cotter is taking some of the basic principles of his Clermont side and fusing them with what is at his disposal with Scotland. Namely, doing the basics properly, and refining the edges of the rough diamonds in the Scotland squad.
Tommy Seymour, Jonny Gray and Greig Laidlaw have all thrived under Cotter and collectively they scored 11 tries in three games so you’d wager them to inflict a metaphorical bloody nose or two in the Six Nations. Welcome back, Scotland!
A ‘star is born’ award – Teddy Thomas
France have gone through wingers, like Jordan goes through husbands in recent years. The likes of Maxime Medard, Julien Malzieu and Benjamin Fall have come and gone but they finally look like they’ve stumbled across a fine pair. First Yoann Huget proved himself a player of distinction during the Six Nations, and then a 21-year-old from Biarritz, called Teddy Thomas, showed that much missed French commodity; flair.
He crossed the whitewash four times in two games, with a hat-trick against Fiji and the best of the lot against Australia, where he snuck through a gap and stepped outside Nick Phipps to finish. A little schoolmasterly of Philippe Saint-Andre to drop him for the final game, for missing a training session, but expect him to be cutting a dash in the Six Nations.
The ‘Doghouse’ Award – Samoan Rugby Union
The rugby world likes to pride itself on fairplay and equality, so it was collectively dismayed at the raw deal the Samoan rugby players were getting from their Union. Paid only £400-per-week on the recent autumn tour, they fairly argued for more transparency and fairer governance from their union. The SRU chairman, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele, who also happens to be their Prime Minister, was less than sympathetic.
Meetings with World Rugby (formerly the IRB) were overlooked, and despite the backing of IRPA, Sa’ilele dismissed the players as ‘silly little boys who are showing off’. This patronising attitude beggars belief and should be held to account. Sadly the silence from the powers-that-be is deafening.
The ‘reverting to type’ award – England
England have been trying to give themselves a new image as a free-flowing, devil-may-care outfit in recent years, with some success. However the chariot has been bereft of ideas this autumn and stalled, so they’ve gone back to basics and realised they’re better than most at them. Davey Wilson has destroyed looseheads, Dylan Hartley has found his jumpers, Dave Attwood sailed high at the lineout and Courtney Lawes has blitzed the tackle area and the much-maligned Chris Robshaw worked away at the breakdown with aplomb. That’s without mentioning ‘Big’ Ben Morgan who has owned the contact area. Why bother stepping outside 10-man rugby if you can win the old-fashioned way, eh?
The ‘can’t open the door properly’ award – Australian management
The Australian management, under the shy and retiring Michael Cheika, have a nice line in excuses. After the Wallabies lost so narrowly to Ireland in Dublin, a door was mysteriously broken, with the repairs said to run into the thousands. So what could have happened?
Had the gargantuan Will Skelton slipped and fell after a shower, or had Izzy Folau, while practicing taking high-balls and misjudged his landing, fine. Hell, if they were naughty they could even add it to the rap sheet of controversy-magnet Kurtley Beale. But no, they said one of the management had opened the door the wrong way. Pull. The. Other. One.
The ‘Shooting themselves in the foot’ award – WRU
Before their hard-fought victory over South Africa, Wales needlessly heaped pressure on themselves with a series of avoidable gaffes. First there was the public admonishment of Richard Hibbard who after leaving the stadium in a moon boot had been called back to his club and ended up playing seven minutes of an Aviva Premiership match, before the ‘miscommunication’ was patched up.
Then there was leak of the verbal ‘word in the ear’ of BBC over Sonja McLaughlan’s fully-justified questions. It was all too precious and defensive, and only compounded the pressure on Warren Gatland, who is a big boy and fully capable of looking after himself.
The ‘Fallen but not forgotten’ Award – Jean de Villiers
A sad way to end our awards, but I think all of rugby will be hoping Jean de Villiers makes it back to full-fitness before the Rugby World Cup. In a miserable game-too-many for the Springboks, de Villiers dislocated his kneecap in the 58th minute and was stretchered off.
What made it all the more upsetting is de Villiers only played one game in the 2007 tournament and missed 2011 through injury. The 108-cap South Africa roundly liked and respected within the game and everyone will be willing him back to full health before the September 18th kick-off.
We wish him a speedy recovery.