It's been a season of intoxicating highs and soul-destroying lows in rugby, but it's time to try and make sense of it all and hand out some awards
So, the Northern Hemisphere season has come to a thrilling conclusion leaving rugby fans counting down the days to the World Cup (okay, The Rugby Championship starts in six odd weeks). Anyway, it’s only right, to hand out some gongs. So, by no popular demand, whatsoever, here are the…RUGBY WORLD END-OF-SEASON AWARDS
The ‘Expendables’ award: Toulon
If you’re in your mid-thirties, a respected world great and looking for some sunshine and a boost to your bank balance, best get your agent to speak to Toulon. Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith, Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau have all profited on the Cote d’Azur. Don’t take this as a slight however, far from it. Mourad Boudjellal signs winners and their European Cup treble shows there is no lack of team spirit. It’s no wonder Samu Manoa, Ma’a Nonu and reportedly Paul O’Connell are heading there en masse next season. Who could bet against a fourth consecutive title? Incroyable.
‘Heartwarming comeback’ award: Chris Henry
Last year Matthew Rees recovered from testicular cancer to return after six months. This year, it was the turn of Ulster No 7 Chris Henry, who was forced to take a break from rugby after a mini-stroke in November. He’d been taken ill on the morning of the Ireland v South Africa game and a small hole was found in his heart. Henry returned against the Cardiff Blues in late March and with a strong end to the season was included in the Ireland side to face the Barbarians. There was a heartfelt applause, then, when he crashed over for a try. Who wouldn’t back him to make the 31-man squad for the Rugby World Cup? Heroic.
‘Most improved player’ award: Split decision
A tough, tough call. In the Test arena, Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw came of age with a superb tournament, his crowning moment the mid-flight catch and grounding of the ball against England. Another come on at a gallop was Sale’s 6ft 7in No 8 Josh Beaumont. Playing for Fylde only six months ago, it would have taken a hard-hearted cynic not to enjoy the sight of father Bill looking down proudly as he took his England bow against the Barbarians, scoring a try in the process. In Wales, James Davies, younger brother of injured Welsh Lion Jonathan, was majestic for the Scarlets; a whirling dervish at the breakdown and with an appreciation of wide-open spaces from his Sevens days, he must have been a whisker away from Wales’ World Cup squad. Finn Russell is only 22, and after a contentious yellow card against Wales, showed a robust character and no little skill to show the Scotland No 10 shirt is in safe hands. He helped Glasgow to a first Pro12 title and along with Sam Hidalgo-Clyne hints at a hugely exciting future for Scotland at half-back.
The ‘rogue’ award Yoann Huget
Always a hotly contested category, Manu Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley and Danny Cipriani have all suffered moments that have led to fans face-palming in recent weeks but Yoann Huget, the Toulouse and France wing, has had a year that leaves him peerless. A hugely talented player, he has nevertheless engaged ‘in simulation’ (read diving) against Bath, and far more seriously stamping on the face of Bordeaux lock Andre Marais. The French press have cried foul, talking of an agenda from ‘la presse Anglaise’ but the simple fact is it was a horrendously reckless piece of play. He should be held to account.
The ‘jaw-dropping award: The Clermont three
Aurelien Rougerie, Benjamin Kayser and Julien Pierre are all sizeable units. All over 6ft and 16st, and all revered in their home town of Clermont, the burly trio were on the end of a frightening 3am attack by an armed gang with machetes, shovels and wait for it, a sabre. All three were hospitalised, with Pierre, the most seriously injured. Arrests were subsequently made. It’s just a shame Davit Zirakashvili, Vincent Debaty and Jamie Cudmore weren’t on hand to level up the numbers! Cowardly doesn’t cover it.
‘Biggest impact’ award: Concussion
Concussion has dominated the agenda. With players ballooning in size, collisions are increasingly brutal. Rory Lamont, Shontayne Hape, Andy Hazell and only last week, Ashley Smith have all retired prematurely after repeated concussions. This season has been a tipping point with high-profile concussions to George North and Mike Brown, meaning scrutiny is higher than ever. Progress is being made across the board – last weekend at the Premiership two players were withdrawn after a Head Injury Assessment (HIA). As North succinctly said, ‘you only get one head’.
The ‘please make it stop’ award: London Welsh
In January we asked legitimately whether London Welsh were the worst Premiership side ever. A mini-furore erupted at the audacity of what was actually a factual question. Welsh ended up losing all 30 games in their season, shipping a record 1021 points in the Premiership. It led to Justin Burnell being relieved of his duties in March to be replaced by Rowland Phillips. They were poorly prepared and funded for the Premiership and were an embarrassment to an otherwise competitive competition. We can only hope the wounds incurred aren’t too deep and London Welsh, a proud club with a rich heritage, can stabilise and push for the Premiership again.
The ‘try, try and try again’ award: Bristol RFC
Unlike London Welsh, Bristol RFC are seemingly one side ready and primed for the Premiership; Hugely experienced coaching team. Tick. Multi-millionnaire backer. Tick. Fanbase that would make some Premiership side cast envious eyes in their direction. Tick. On the field, they have four Lions among their ranks and some exciting youngsters, like Matthew Morgan, the Championship Player of the Year. The problem is, they’ve stumbled when it comes to the play-off Final. This year was the closest yet as they lost by a point, with the last kick to Worcester Warriors. How much longer can the wait go on?
The ‘giant awakens’ award: USA
Who’d have thunk it? The star-spangled banner raining out at England’s home of rugby, Twickenham. Well, when Olympic Gold is up for grabs as it is in 2016 in Rio, the United States start to get their house in order. And so it proved. They were sensational at the London Sevens, with speedsters Perry Baker and Carlin Isles getting the crowd off their feet and Madison Hughes and Danny Barrett adding the grunt. Coached by the hugely experienced Mike Friday, don’t bet against the feat being repeated in Rio. Could the next decade see rugby taking off Stateside? Don’t bet against it.
The ‘Let’s have a re-think’ award: TMO’s
As rugby cocks a snook at football and embraces technology, it seems we’ve reached out limit. It seems every decision is pored over by the TMOs. We’re not saying there’s no place for them, but surely there’s a less time-consuming way to get a decision. We’re in danger of turning rugby – traditionally a free-flowing sport – into American football with all the stoppages. Indeed, fames are now tipping over the two hour mark and we run a danger of turning off the fans, who will happily spend their money elsewhere.
Coach of the Year: Gregor Townsend
While the plaudits have rightly rained down on Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, for an almost faultless year, winning a second consecutive Championship since 1949 and going on a 10-game winning run, instead we’re going to give our gong to Gregor Townsend. The subject of opprobrium in the Andy Robinson era as a backs coach who couldn’t fire a Scottish backline, Townsend went back to Glasgow to work on his craft. Over the last three years, Glasgow have turned into a side to be respected and admired in the Pro12. The defining moment came last weekend when they tore a Munster side apart with admirable derring-do, the catalyst Leone Nakarawa – the offloading Fijian. Townsend should take huge credit for giving Glasgow a cutting edge and even more importantly, a hard edge. One imagines he won’t be short of suitors when his Glasgow tenure comes to an end.
‘Marketing campaign of the year’ award: Guinness
Sometimes advertisers just get it right. This year, those Guinness ads, dripping with nostalgia and sentiment perfectly captured the values of rugby in a series of beautifully crafted adverts to celebrate the Six Nations. Featuring Jonny Wilkinson, Shane Williams, Munster’s triumph over the All Blacks and posthumously Bill McClaren. They have over 5m hits between them. Well done, Guinness. You nailed it.
Player of the Year: George Ford
The big one. Many players have legitimate claims for this award. Paul O’Connell has been a totem at the heart of an Ireland pack in his 35th year, Liam Williams has played with bravery and skill to cut like a rapier through defensive lines all season and Jonny Gray has tackled, carried, hit breakdowns and inspired, yet it is George Ford who has become integral changing how England play. He has turned them into a side easy-on-the-eye that crossed the whitewash 18 times during the Six Nations, through his clever lines of running and increasingly mature, varied kicking game. It’s been absorbing to watch his progression and he could yet prove to be one of the stars of the World Cup.
Finally…’the gone but not forgotten’ award: The motley crew below
Deep breath, a sad farewell to…Lee Byrne, Tom May, Ugo Monye, Chris Bell, Mark Cueto, Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, Nathan Hines, Shane Jennings, Ian Gough, Al Kellock, Duncan Jones, Carl Hayman, Gordon D’Arcy and Brad Thorn. If we’ve left anyone out, we apologise. Warriors all, good luck in your retirement