Bill’s Rugby Awards 2018
It is that time of the year again. The southern hemisphere shuts down for the summer. Those who can, head for the beaches, rivers, and swimming holes to beat the heat. Up north they are battening down the hatches, shuttering the windows, and lighting their fires to stave off the winter cold. Despite the differences in climate, both north and south are heading into a Festive Season of parties and celebrations as the annual holiday season gets into full swing.
Down south, rugby becomes a distant memory as we look to focus on cricket and other summery pastimes.
Bill’s Rugby Bog is shutting down until next year, and we sign off with our Rugby Awards for 2018.
Rugby Player of the Year: Pieter-Steph du Toit
I have no doubt that I will be accused of parochialism with my choice of Peter-Steph du Toit as my Player of the Year. Some Irish supporters will be yelling “What about Johnny Sexton or CJ Stander?” Some New Zealanders will differ with my choice too, and I have no doubt that Wales will ask about Justin Tipuric or Josh Adams……
There are certainly a number of candidates for my Player of the Year Award.
Amongst the New Zealanders, I thought Richie Mo’unga had a superlative year for both the Crusaders, and for New Zealand when he was given the chance to wear the black jersey. Damian McKenzie was right up there too, as was Ben Smith.
The Argentineans gave us the excitement of Bautista Delguy with his speed and attacking skills, but not much more than that.
South Africa had a couple of candidates. Malcolm Marx had a superlative year once he was back from injury. Steven Kitshoff is certainly the best loosehead in the world today, and proved it over and over again throughout the year, as a starter and as a super-sub. Handré Pollard stepped up to the mark and improved with every outing, while Faf de Klerk added some very necessary excitement and hustle to the Springboks. Neither de Klerk nor Pollard were any better than the candidates offered by other countries, though.
Australia had very few players that could possibly be included on anyone’s list of candidates for player of the year. Perhaps David Pocock? But even that might be stretching it all a bit too much.
No one in the ranks of France, Scotland, England or Italy put their hands up either.
The more I looked my short-list of candidates, the more I realised that the choice lay between just two, Richie Mo’unga and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Mo’unga stood head and shoulders above everyone else as a playmaker in the Super Rugby competition, and his contribution to the Crusaders’ title cannot be underestimated. However, the real benchmark had to be at Test rugby level, and at that level he was not quite as visible or influential.
Pieter-Steph du Toit, on the other hand, had a very good Super campaign, but at Test level he simply stood as a colossus on the rugby field. If ever a player left it all out on that rugby field, it was Pieter-Steph du Toit. His passion, his focus, and his commitment was evident, whether he started as a lock or a flank. His tears after the Springbok win in Wellington told of a man who had given it all, including a mind-numbing 30 tackles, during that one Test.
He did not slow down during the November Tests either. His work-rate was unbelievable, his focus laser-like, and his commitment monumental. I cannot find enough superlatives to describe the man who really and truly came of age in 2018.
What a season, what a player.
Most Exciting Player of the Year: Damian McKenzie
A new category for me, and introduced to emphasise the thing that we all want from a game of rugby. Excitement! We want and need entertainment, we want, and need, excitement. We all want to see rugby played with enterprise, and innovation. We want to see the fun in rugby. We want to enjoy watching rugby.
There are a couple of players that make the price of a rugby ticket worthwhile. We love to watch the likes of Bautista Delguy ducking, bobbing, weaving and stepping. We enjoy the sight of Cheslin Kolbe swerving and ducking through tackles, finding space where no-one else can see it. We thrill at the sight of Israel Folau in full flight, on those few days when he seems interested in the game. Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Jonny May all give us moments of joy with their silky skills and superb running.
If there is one player that stands out on a rugby field it is Damian McKenzie. When he gets the ball, it is almost as if the entire stadium holds its collective breath. You simply know that something is going to happen. Sometimes it works, and it is beautiful, and sometimes it does not, and things can go all pear shaped, but the one thing you do know, is that something is going to happen. Damian McKenzie is not going to die wondering….
As Steve Hansen said, “You know he is going to have a go, you expect that, you just do not know when….”
And that is what makes Damian McKenzie the most exciting rugby player in the whole world.
Villain of the Year: Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell wins two awards this year. He not only gets the Villain of the Year trophy to display on his mantlepiece, but he can add the Luckiest Player Alive award too.
Quite how he escaped sanction for his blatant no-arms shoulder charge on Springbok centre Andre Esterhuizen will remain one of rugby’s officiating mystery’s. No matter the ramblings and rantings of the England apologists who saw nothing wrong with a shoulder charge, and referee Angus Gardiner’s ex post facto apology and weak attempt to justify his mistake by saying that there was some invisible attempt to wrap an arm, the England fly-half and captain was very fortunate to escape punishment for his blatant disregard for the Laws of the game.
Having escaped sanction for his act of foul play against South Africa, blow me down if Farrell does not do it all again, just three weeks later, when he made a similar no-arms tackle close to his line on Wallabies lock Izack Rodda but, once again, no action was taken against him by the match officials. We will never understand how referee Jaco Peyper came to the conclusion that Rodda had “dipped his shoulder” and therefor a “no-arms” challenge was acceptable. A brain-fart by Gardiner, a worse one by Peyper, and Rugby’s attempts to clean-up the game and protect players are proven to be nothing more than idle talk.
Luckiest Player Alive Award: See Above
Team of the Year: Crusaders
Choosing the Team of the Year presents certain hazards, as you are confronted by a choice between an international side and a domestic or regional outfit. Without the shadow of a doubt, Ireland would get my award if the focus was purely on international teams. Just 1 loss in the last 12 months is as good as it gets for anyone, overshadowing even the mighty New Zealanders. Ireland banked a Six Nations Grand Slam, a series win down under in Australia, and then an unbeaten November international campaign that included a great win over the All Blacks.
But I have to look a little further than just the international scene as I survey the candidates for my Team of the Year award, and I cannot ignore the claims of the Crusaders.
At the end of the regular Super Rugby season, the Crusaders repeated their table topping performance of 2017, with another table topping result in 2018. Whilst 2017 saw them end the season unbeaten, 2018 was always going to be more difficult, yet the Crusaders again topped the log with 16 games played, 4 wins and just 2 losses. Their total number of log points, 63, saw them 12 points clear of the next best Hurricanes on 51. A remarkable points difference of +247 simply emphasised their dominance in the competition. The next best was again the Hurricanes, with a points difference of +131.
In the Super `Rugby quarterfinals the ‘Saders disposed of the Sharks 40 – 10, and then knocked over their closest rivals, the Hurricanes 30 – 12, before hosting the Lions, and winning the final 37 – 18.
It was a remarkable year for the Crusaders team, especially as they had to play for long stretches of the season without their chief playmaker Richie Mo’unga and their iconic captain Kieran Read. A host of other stars. The likes of Moody, Franks, Whitelock, Crotty, Dagg, Todd, Romano, and Perry were injured and unavailable at one time or another during the season, which simply adds to the quality of their performance.
Perhaps indicative of the quality of this Crusaders outfit is that 15 of their 2018 squad toured as All Blacks at the end of the 2018 season, out of a total of 17 fully capped All Backs in their squad. Members of the current squad who are All Blacks are:
Kieran Read (115 caps), Sam Whitelock (106), Owen Franks (104), Israel Dagg (66), Ryan Crotty (42), Codie Taylor (39), Joe Moody (37), Luke Romano (31), Scott Barrett (26) (New Zealand), Matt Todd (16), Richie Mo’unga (6), Tim Perry (6), Jack Goodhue (5), David Havili (5), George Bridge (1), Brett Cameron (1), Mitchell Drummond (1).
2018 was a remarkable year for a remarkable team. Thanks Crusaders.
Coach of the Year: Joe Schmidt
There are only three candidates for this award – Joe Schmidt of Ireland, Rassie Erasmus of South Africa, and Mario Ledesma of Argentina.
Rassie Erasmus was handed the poison chalice of world rugby, the Springbok coaching job, after Allister Coetzee was given his marching orders just two years into a dismal reign. The Springboks were no-hopers, languishing down at 7th in the World Rugby rankings, with zero confidence and even less form. Erasmus took over the team and immediately set about transforming the entire ethos within the squad. He restored their pride, their belief, and their confidence, taking a bunch of bewildered, leaderless children and turning them into a rugby team. Raw statistics might still suggest that he has a very long way to go and that a winning percentage of 50% is not nearly good enough, but we have to look at what he has achieved, in the time that he was given, with the resources at his disposal. In reality, the transformation of the Springboks has been quite remarkable.
Mario Ledesma was handed the next worst cup of poison available in world rugby at the time, when he was parachuted in to replace Daniel Hourcade as coach of the Argentinean Pumas. His achievement in halting the mid-year slide, a slide resembling an avalanche down the slopes of rugby into the nether pits of hell, and then guiding the Pumas to a win over both South Africa and Australia when nobody would have given them the vaguest chance of victories, speaks for itself. He has a mammoth task ahead of him, but what he achieved in just three months was remarkable.
However, nobody can argue with the award going to Joe Schmidt. Under his guidance Ireland have risen to the top of World Rugby, sitting a mere 1,37 points behind New Zealand on the ranking table. Better than that, they have the bragging rights after having soundly beaten the All Blacks in the final game of the November Test season. That victory ended a remarkable year for Joe Schmidt and his team. It was a victory built on meticulous preparation, brilliant strategies, and superb execution. Those are things that only a really great coach can build in a team. Well done Joe Schmidt!
Try of the Year – Brodie Retallick (New Zealand vs Australia)
It is not often that I agree with a World Rugby Award, but they also thought that this was the Try of the Year for 2018.
That dummy sold by Retallick, 35 meters out, was simply the cherry on the top of a superb bit of running rugby by the New Zealanders.
It started 2m outside their 22m area, when Australia were on the attack and went to ground with the ball, Retallick himself turned the ball over in the tackle, recycled it back to Aaron Smith, a quick pass back to Damian McKenzie, who gave a long pass out to Cody Taylor 8m inside the 22 area, Taylor carried the ball to within 2m from the All Black 22m line and popped a neat inside pass to Beauden Barrett, who ran onto the ball at pace. Barrett made 25m before he was tackled just short of the halfway line by Jack Maddox, Read picked the ball at the tackle and handed it to Goodhue on the right 5m line. Goodhue took it to the Aussie 10m line before passing outside to Ben Smith. Smith stepped inside David Pocock, and was eventually brought down 3m from the Aussie 22, fairly tight on the right hand side of the field.
The ball is recycled to Aaron Smith, who feeds it down the line to McKenzie, who hands it on to Barrett, and on to Anton Lienert-Brown. Lienert-Brown steps inside Michael Hooper, who has rushed up in the midfield. Half-beaten, Hooper manages to hang on until help arrives, and Lienert-Brown goes to ground, the support is there, lead by Scott Barrett, three All Black forwards are immediately bound over the tackle, and the ball is protected and heading back to Cody Taylor at scrumhalf, Taylor feeds it left to Beauden Barrett, and on to Brodie Retallick.
Retallick sells a beautiful dummy that sends Bernard Foley flailing the wrong way, steps inside him, and then runs all of 25m untouched to the line, with Damian McKenzie bouncing along next to him celebrating.
It was a beautiful bit of rugby and without a doubt the try of 2018.
Debutant of the Year: Aphiwe Dyantyi.
This is an award where I again do not differ from World Rugby, who awarded their own World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year to the Springbok.
Aphiwe Dyantyi returned to rugby after having taken time out from the game in order to focus on his tertiary education. Studies done and dusted he stepped back into the Lions squad, and the rest is history. He has scored six tries in his first eight Tests for the Boks – including two in the famous win against the All Blacks in Wellington – and finished his debut international season with 13 caps.
Dyantyi beat Ireland wing Jordan Larmour and New Zealand prop Karl Tu’inukuafe to the award.
I would add the name of Irish lock forward James Ryan to the list of candidates, although he was actually capped for Ireland in June 2017, he only forced his way into the side as a first-choice selection this year. He had a great mid-year tour to Australia, and was outstanding during the November Tests, especially against New Zealand.
The Comeback from the Dead Award: New Zealand
Down by 12 points against the Springboks, with just a couple of minutes to go, most international teams would have gone down fighting, but with little hope of actually coming back to win the Test. The All Blacks are different. They scored two tries in the last minutes of the Test to secure a 32-30 win over the Springboks in Pretoria. Ardie Savea crossed for the match-winning score in the 79th minute, and a whole nations’ hearts were broken. (Save for a couple of bitter old men who happily support anyone other than the Springboks!)
Horror Show of the Year: Joint Award to Michael Cheika and Rugby Australia
If ever there was a rugby team and a national body that seemed to be hell-bent on self-destruction it is Rugby Australia and their Wallabies.
I need not go into too much depth about the weird and wonderful selections of Michael Cheika, and the strange tactics and inexplicable strategies deployed by his Wallabies. The results speak for themselves, played 13, won 4, lost 9. This is a team in disarray, without leadership, without direction, and a coach who has lost his compass. It is a horror show.
Rugby Australia have to bear much of the blame of the poor showing of their national team. Their own administration is a shambles, their finances are in a mess, and their support for the under-performing coaching squad seems suicidal.
The leadership treats the fans with disdain, witness the brief press statement made by RA chairman Cameron Clyne a couple of days ago. The whole country and all the rugby fans (those that still survive) were waiting to hear about Michael Cheika’s future. Clyne made a 40 second statement to the media, saying that they were still discussing matters and would have an answer “by Christmas” and then left without taking questions.
It was disdainful, arrogant almost. Disgraceful even.
Fans are abandoning the game faster than rats leave a sinking ship, clubs are closing due to lack of funding, development is in disarray, while Rugby Australia pay their underperforming super-stars eye-wateringly large salaries whilst spending little or nothing on the grass roots development of the game in the country.
Players are abandoning the game too. The most recent being the rising young star Izaia Perese, who is on his way out of the 15-man game, heading to rugby league.
Offers to help, by the likes of Jake White, are waved aside with some silly comment about the possibility of discussions having been “leaked” before the discussions had actually happened.
It sounds like the Captain of the Titanic is in charge. “Full speed ahead and bugger the icebergs!”
World Rugby Stuff-Up of the Year: The Spanish-Romanian debacle.
Russia qualified for the 2019 Rugby World Cup after Romania – who had initially secured the slot – Spain and Belgium were docked points for repeatedly using ineligible players during the qualifying competition.
An investigation was initially launched after Spain’s controversial loss to Belgium, which was refereed by Romanian official, Vlad Iordachescu. Following that enquiry, World Rugby stated their preference for the game to be replayed only for further information to come to light over player eligibility.
Spain, Romania and Belgium were then found to have breached those regulations, leading to points deductions and Russia being the beneficiary of the decision.
The whole issue of player eligibility is starting to cause the entire rugby world a lot of pain, and World Rugby are not setting the world alight with their response to the problem.
Player’s Stuff-Up of the Year: Israel Folau’s anti-gay tweets
The highly paid and hugely marketable Israel Folau did not win himself any friends nor influence too many people when he took to social media to express his anti-gay homophobic sentiments. Whilst the comments understandably caused a storm, Folau was unrepentant. A devout Christian, he quoted from the bible to make his point, and would not back down from the hurtful and divisive statements that he felt he had an absolute right to make public. Folau even suggested he was being persecuted for his views.
The whole episode left a sour taste and alienated numerous fans who felt that the world of rugby was not an appropriate setting for religious fundamentalism, especially where we live in a world where religion is often the reason given for mindless violence and indiscriminate killing. Rugby is a sport practiced by many from across all of the world’s religions, races, and creeds.
Once again, Rugby Australia’s chief executive Raelene Castle, and Waratah’s boss Andrew Hore were criticised for handling the player with kid-gloves, to the detriment of the game itself.
Spirit of Rugby Awards:
Gareth Thomas: After the former Wales great was the victim of a homophobic assault at the hands of a teenager in Cardiff, the rugby world rallied together behind the LGBTQ community in a moving show of support. It was the French Rugby Union who got the ball rolling when they confirmed they’d be wearing rainbow laces in support of Thomas in their final November international fixture against Fiji. A number of other countries and clubs followed suit and Thomas admitted he was moved by the way in which the rugby world had come together to promote inclusivity and tolerance.
Doddie Weir: Former Scotland international second-row Weir was awarded the World Rugby Award for Character in Monaco. The 48-year-old, who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2017, has released a book titled: My Name’5 Doddie to raise awareness for the condition. In terms of leaving a legacy, Weir opines that he would like to be remembered for his enjoyment of life, the sport he played for over a decade, and for having a good laugh along the way. Weir added that the motto he chooses to live by is one of “enjoyment with no regrets and always wearing a smile”.
TJ Perenara & Brad Weber: Both New Zealanders responded to Israel Folau’s homophobic utterances by slamming the Australian’s stance. In a series of tweets, Perenara encouraged young individuals struggling with their identity to be themselves. He also said “There is no justification for such harmful comments.”
Weber said he could not remain silent after Folau wrote on social media this month that God’s plan for gay people was hell unless they repent their sins.
“Kinda sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff,” Weber tweeted. He went on to say: “I can’t stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he’s saying.”
Weber said he was disgusted Folau was judging his loved ones.
“My cousin and her partner, and my aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring & loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,” he wrote.
“To think that I play against someone that says they’ll go to hell for being gay disgusts me.”
TJ Perenara and Brand Weber, take a bow. Rugby is a sport that is proud to welcome everyone, no matter your race, creed, religion, or sexuality.
Oh Shit! Not Again Trophy: The Referees, one and all.
2018 has been a year of unmitigated refereeing disasters and controversies. Recently we watched Owen Farrell make two obviously illegal tackles that went unpunished by two of the referees rated most highly by World Rugby, Angus Gardiner and Jaco Peyper. These were just two of the controversial decisions by the whistle-carriers of our game.
A glance back over the year reveals a host of refereeing controversies. I will quote a couple of examples I mentioned in articles I posted during the year. Back in May, Crusader prop Joe Moody smashed his elbow or forearm into Kurtley Beale’s throat. Somehow referee Ben O’Keefe and all three his assistants missed it. Later in the game all four officials missed a 52nd minute side-entry no arms clean out by Scott Barrett on Ned Hanigan. Hanigan was out of the game for five weeks due to an injury sustained in that very moment, yet the officials missed it?
On the 28th April the Brumbies were playing the Crusaders. South African referee Jaco Peyper with assistant referees Will Houston and Jordan Way, and George Ayoub as TMO were the match officials. Israel Dagg was knocked out by the swinging arm of Chance Peni in an obvious, dangerous high tackle.
Peyper called for a TMO review. Between them, the officials decided that there was “no excessive force” used. A yellow card was issued. (Peni was cited and subsequently banned for 5 weeks by the judicial committee.)
During the same month Kiwi referee Glen Jackson’s performance was called into question as he appeared unduly lenient towards goal-line indiscretions by Lima Sopoaga.
Two earlier it was another Kiwi referee, Nick Briant, that earned the ire of the fans and media. The Aussie media used the word “biased” in their reporting.
Another furore resulted from Ben O’Keefe’s officiating the game between the Stormers and the Chiefs. A refereeing performance that angered the Stormers management enough for an official complaint to be made to Sanzaar’s head of refereeing, Lyndon Bray.
In June, France toured New Zealand, and the entire 3-Test series was marred by some woeful refereeing. In the first Test, two incidents occurred where referee Luke Pearce responded differently to what were breaches of the same law.
France’s Paul Gabrillagues was yellow carded for a high tackle, despite the fact that the initial contact on Ryan Crotty wasn’t high, even the Kiwi commentators said the card was harsh. Pearce had absolutely no hesitation in reaching for his pocket and whipping out the yellow card. He did not bother to ask his TMO for a replay.
Just 7 minutes later a double hit by Sam Cane and Ofa Tuungafasi on Remy Grosso resulted in the French wing fracturing his skull in two places. Surely a moment for which the TMO was invented? Any referee worth his salt would have had another look at the incident. Luke Pearce did not use the TMO to review the incident and an obvious incident of foul play went unpunished.
In the second Test of the same series Angus Gardiner showed a red card to French fullback Benjamin Fall, for not being aware that Beauden Barrett was jumping to receive a ball that Fall was also trying to catch. It was yet another poor decision, confirmed by World Rugby throwing Gardiner under the proverbial bus later in the week.
And then the third Test of the series rolled around, and yet another controversial decision by a referee that again favoured New Zealand. This time it was John Lacey of Ireland who was clearly in the way of Baptiste Serin as Serin attempted to get to Damian McKenzie to attempt a tackle as he burst for the goal line. Lacey was adamant that the try was good.
The same weekend saw Michael Cheika invite French referee, Pascal Gauzere, to the post-test press conference after Ireland’s victory in Sydney. Cheika wanted Gauzere to explain some of his on-field decisions to the media. Gauzere declined the invitation.
I could go on and on about the refereeing errors and controversies that plagued the game of rugby in 2018. The litany of errors continued right through to the final week of the November international season. Luke Pearce allowed Wales replacement Tomos Williams to get away with a dive onto Aphiwe Dyantyi in the 68th minute of the Wales/South Africa Test, a clearly penalisable offence that might have relieved some of the pressure on the Springboks. Instead he penalised the Springboks for not releasing the ball on the ground, allowing Dan Biggar to stretch the Welsh lead from 3 to 6 points. In the 71st minute, Pearce again erred, penalising the Springboks for going offside at a ruck immediately under their posts, when Welsh scrumhalf Davies had clearly picked the ball up at the base and had it in his hands. It was certainly not offside. Another 3 pointer for Dan Biggar, and the Welsh lead stretched out to 9 points.
In that same final weekend, Peyper declined to punish Farrell for the n-arms effort on Izack Rodda……
Refereeing errors and controversies are a blight on the game of rugby, and 2018 was probably the worst year in living memory for such errors!
Oops Trophy Award: Freddie Burns
Stormers coach and former Western Province and Stormers player Robbie Fleck had his “oops” moment when he thought he would score unopposed, against the Sharks back in 2000. Fleck had broken through the Sharks’ backline and was away for the try. Instead of going hard for the line, Fleck was overly casual as he strolled towards the goal line, sure of his try. He had not taken the determination, commitment, and pace of one Deon Kayser into account.
Kayser chased in at pace, and effected a brilliant tackle, knocking the ball out of Fleck’s hands and causing him to nose dive into the turf, causing some people to coin the phrase, “The Fleck Flack”.
Bath fullback Freddie Burns had his “oops” moment when he started celebrating a certain score just a little too early against Toulouse in a Champions Cup match. Burns thought he was about to score the try that would win the match for Bath, but his early celebrating allowed Maxime Medard to knock the ball out of his hands and prevent the try. Poor Burns was a laughing stock after a mistake which eventually ended up costing his side the match.
And That Is It For 2018
All that remains is for me to thank those that play the game of rugby for providing me with the motivation, the material and the inspiration to scribble my thoughts about the game I love.
I also thank those that take the time to read these scribblings. I am honoured that you are prepared to give up some of your valuable time to read the rugby ramblings of a retired mind.
May the Festive Season be a blessed and happy one for you and yours, and may 2019 be a special year for each of you.
See you next year!