With a busy year almost over we go back over the last 12 months and hand out our gongs – good and bad – to a number of worthy recipients.
Let’s get into it.
Planet Rugby Awards 2017
Fightback of the Year: Highlanders win at Cheetahs
41-24 down with less than five minutes to go, the Highlanders produced one of the greatest ever fightbacks to win 45-41 with the final play of the game. Waisake Naholo went over for the match-winning try to cap an amazing game in Bloemfontein. The Highlanders were rightly jubilant.
Game-changer award: SBW red card in Lions series
New Zealand were expected to wrap up the series against the British & Irish Lions in the second Test but, when Williams was sent off for a no-arm hit on Anthony Watson, the game and series turned on its head. The Lions managed to win the fixture in Wellington 24-21 and with a real spring in their step they went on to draw the third and final game at Eden Park in Auckland, meaning the series remarkably ended 1-1.
Try of the Year: Toni Pulu (Stormers v CHIEFS)
Super Rugby always produces when it comes to stunning tries and this was special. Nick Abendanon’s score in the Champions Cup final wasn’t far away, particularly when you consider the stage it was on, but, for sheer audacity, teamwork and skill level, Pulu’s crossing edges it.
Offload of the Year: Dillyn Leyds (STORMERS v Chiefs)
The skill that went viral. Even the USA, one of the more insular sporting nations, picked up on Leyds’ piece of magic after his back-of-the-hand off-load to SP Marais saw the full-back touch down for a memorable five points. It’s difficult to do it justice in writing alone.
Game of the Year: Stormers v Chiefs
The fixture on Saturday, April 8 takes this gong. What a contest it was at Newlands as the Stormers ran out 34-26 winners. Incredibly this game included our Try of the Year and Offload of the Year. We need say no more, just watch this and enjoy this again – we have many a time.
Mess of the Year: Force decision and RWC debacle
It is a shared award here as the drawn out decision to axe Western Force and the 2023 Rugby World Cup fiasco could not be separated. With players’ livelihoods and a large chunk of passionate Western Australian fans’ support on the line, it was unacceptable for a decision to take so long, with the Force eventually getting the bullet. Later in the year we had South Africa being the recommended host of the 2023 World Cup – leading to plenty of excitement in the country – before France got the nod. Not World Rugby’s finest moment, that’s for sure.
Player of the Lions tour: Jonathan Davies
He won the official gong and we see no reason to look elsewhere. Outside centre Davies is our choice after putting in solid showing after solid showing in New Zealand. His carrying, defence, kicking and rugby intelligence made him feared by the All Blacks in the Test series.
Hybrid Player of the Year: Kwagga Smith
What an impressive year from Lions and Blitzboks star Kwagga Smith. The only blot on his copybook was that sending off in the Super Rugby final in an otherwise outstanding season. He even starred for the Barbarians as his ability to switch between both forms of the game was amazing, with Smith’s pace often seeing him beat wings and centres for gas. The question now is do the Springboks come calling in 2018?
Most improved side of the Year: Scotland
It’s the Scots for this one as they’ve grown and grown as a side in 2017. A fourth place finish in this year’s Six Nations – ending level on points with second placed Ireland – was followed up with a victory over the Wallabies in Australia before they finished the year with a strong and exciting November. They edged Samoa, just lost out to New Zealand before defeating Australia again, playing a superb brand of rugby that is putting bums on seats at Murrayfield. Coach Gregor Townsend really has built on the solid foundations Vern Cotter put down.
Coach of the Year: Rob Baxter (Exeter)
Such is the job Baxter has done at Exeter that he could arguably claim this title every year, but it now seems appropriate in 2017 having seen the West Countrymen reach the pinnacle of the English game. Following their 23-20 victory over Wasps in the final of the Premiership, the Sandy Park-based outfit became domestic champions for the first time. Surely the favourite to take over from Eddie Jones in the future.
U-turn of the Year: World Rugby on tape messages
Never mind issues with concussion or Samoa’s financial woes – the real problems facing the game – World Rugby created needless controversy by banning all messages on wristbands due to, amongst other concerns, sponsors. Only a governing body could make such a petty rule and then perform a u-turn when people quite rightly fought back. Canada Sevens player Jen Kish was particularly unhappy after being threatened with a $1,000 fine for showing the message ‘#ruckcancer’ on her arm. World Rugby, under pressure, backed down, taking a ‘common sense’ approach.
Women’s Player of the Year: Portia Woodman (New Zealand)
For the second successive year, the incredible Woodman takes this gong. Fleet of foot and incredibly powerful, she’s almost impossible to stop when in space, as her opponents found out in the recent WRWC. Surprisingly quiet early on in the final against England, she then came to life after the break as New Zealand dominated the final 40 minutes to deservedly claim the title with a thrilling 41-32 triumph.
Comeback of the Year: Mike Phillips
The confident Phillips called time at the end last season having endured an indifferent year with Sale. It seemed the end for a scrum-half that had amassed 94 caps for Wales but, when one of his former sides suffered with unavailability and injuries, the 35-year-old was needed by the Scarlets. He hasn’t done too badly either, impressing in his second debut for the Welsh region in South Africa.
Spirit of rugby award: Sandra Wihongi
When British and Irish Lions’ supporter Alex Edwards arrived at Ponsonby Rugby Club in June, looking for a place to stay before their tour game with the Blues, he had little idea as to what was to come. He was intending to sleep in his campervan in the car park but Wihongi, who is the mother of Rieko and Akira Ioane, displayed wonderful hospitality by offering the fan a bed for the night at their house. Edwards initially failed to catch on as to who he was sharing with before it eventually clicked. It did not necessarily end well for the supporter, with Rieko scoring in the 22-16 victory over the tourists, but he no doubt appreciated the kindness – an act of generosity we all like to see in the game.
Men’s Player of the Year: Rieko Ioane (New Zealand)
Julian who? It was quite the shock when Steve Hansen selected the inexperienced Blues wing against the British and Irish Lions over a man that had scored 46 international tries, but that is what New Zealand’s head coach decided to do and what a decision it proved to be. He was simply electrifying. The athleticism was evident – his pace off the mark setting him apart from anyone in the game – but Ioane’s decision-making belied the back three player’s tender years. When he made Elliot Daly look like he was running in treacle during the first Lions’ Test, you knew the wing was a special talent, but he continued the year in that vein and finished the season with two tries against Wales.
Departing Legend: Stephen Moore (Reds and Australia)
129 caps, 97 as starter, says it all. For a long time, he was one of the world’s best hookers and was often a one-man band in Australia’s ailing set-piece. He was strong in the scrum, accurate in the lineout and, alongside his excellence in the loose, it made him one of the premier front-rowers on the planet. His teams’ achievements may not have matched Moore’s own excellence, but a World Cup final and semi-final is certainly something to be proud of. In total, Moore was a vital component of three campaigns in the global tournament and helped the Brumbies to a Super Rugby final in 2013. His final match, a 53-24 loss at the hands of Scotland, shouldn’t detract from a great career.
Newcomer of the Year: Sarah Bern
Just 20 years of age, the England tighthead prop was outstanding in the Women’s Rugby World Cup. She got through a mountain of work in all the games she featured in, mixing powerful carries, strong defence and subtle handling to make her the stand-out forward in the tournament.
Super Rugby Player of the Year: Ngani Laumape
Top of the try chart and a devastating threat to opposition defences, Hurricanes centre Laumape gets this award. He finished with the most tries in the competition, 15, one ahead of team-mate Vince Aso, with the centre duo feeding off the likes of half-back duo TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett. Laumape made 168 carries, 996 metres, 34 clean breaks and beat 58 defenders in an incredible campaign.
Sevens Player of the Year: Perry Baker
Selected from both the Men’s and Women’s game, we go for Baker. The numbers simply could not be ignored. The USA Sevens star finished last season top of the try table with 57 and remarkably at the summit of the points standings too, seeing off all of the kickers. You can’t beat pace, as they say, and Baker has plenty of that and has crucially developed other skills to make him one of the most feared players around.
Best footballing skills: Danny Care against Sale, Australia and Saracens
A lot has been said over Care’s past in Sheffield Wednesday’s academy and it is easy to why. The England international has always been an outstanding player, with his footballing skills from half-back often prevalent, but the number nine has raised the bar over the last two months. With rearguards so tightly marshalled, teams need to find other ways of dissecting opposition weaknesses and his intelligent kicks in behind defences have wreaked havoc. Care’s first victims were Sale, with Tim Visser twice benefiting, before he took that onto the Test scene, creating tries for Jonathan Joseph and Jonny May. Saracens were the coup de grace as Care claimed three assists, all in a similar fashion, to help Harlequins out of a rut and defeat the two-time European champions at home once again. Teams need to be wary of his boot.