Planet Rugby Awards: Springboks, Ardie Savea, Siya Kolisi and La Rochelle shine in 2023

Dylan Coetzee
Split with Kevin Sinfield, Ardie Savea, Jacques Nienaber and Rg Snyman.

Split with Kevin Sinfield, Ardie Savea, Jacques Nienaber and Rg Snyman.

As 2023 winds to a close, we take a look back at the last 12 months of rugby and hand out our awards, good and bad, to worthy recipients.

2023 Planet Rugby Awards

Men’s Test team of the year: Springboks

It could only be one team even despite Ireland’s dominance in the Six Nations and beyond. The Springboks further wrote their name in rugby folklore with an unprecedented fourth World Cup triumph as they became the second side in history to defend their title. There have been few teams with as much tactical nous as these Springboks, who showed incredible discipline to stick to their structures, powering them to one-point wins in each of their knockout games.

Men’s coach of the year: Jacques Nienaber

Ireland boss Andy Farrell deserves a special mention for the performance of his side but it is hard to look past the World Cup winners. Nienaber in conjunction with his partner in crime Rassie Erasmus made bold calls throughout such as calling up Handre Pollard instead of a second hooker to employing a ludicrous 7-1 split in the final. All brave calls but vindicated with their title win. The cherry on the top was seeing Deon Fourie play 76 minutes in his secondary position of hooker in the final of the World Cup.

Women’s Test team of the year: England

The Red Roses remain a cut above the rest in the women’s game after another successful year that included a Grand Slam win and glory in the WXV 1, a new developmental competition. This England side has been at the forefront of the growth of the women’s game and drew a world record 58,498 crowd in their Six Nations decider against France.

Women’s coach of the year: Simon Middleton

The tactician has been a massive part of England’s rise and dominance in the women’s game since he took over in 2015. He enjoyed a successful period and guided the team through the Six Nations after which he left his role. However, his legacy will remain as a key component of the Red Roses’ history.

Club team of the year: La Rochelle

Whilst plaudits must be given to all the different league champions around the world; the Crusaders, Munster, Saracens and Toulouse, it could only be La Rochelle. It is very rare for the Champions Cup to be defended, let alone against Leinster in the final, twice, with the second in the cauldron that is the Aviva Stadium. Ronan O’Gara’s men were commanding in the tournament, playing rugby virtually the quality of Test level.

Game of the year: Ireland v New Zealand (Rugby World Cup quarter-final)

Ireland came into the clash as the red-hot world number ones whilst the All Blacks were under the microscope.

The All Blacks shot to an early lead but Ireland responded late in the half to take the score to 18-17 at the break in favour of New Zealand. In the second period, the teams traded tries before the All Blacks put together one of the most memorable defensive sets one would see. They defended 37 phases of Irish attack before veteran Sam Whitelock got over the ball and was awarded a match-winning penalty. This one had everything!

Men’s player of the year: Ardie Savea

A real coin toss with the outstanding Eben Etzebeth but this time it fell (only slightly) in favour of the All Black, who often carried his side as a player and a leader. The loose forward is such a complete player who is so physical in the carry where he gains many metres post-contact. He also contributes to the line-out while making his presence felt on defence. There were periods this year where the All Blacks may have come out on the wrong side of several results if it were not for him.

Women’s player of the year: Marlie Packer

One of the real drivers of the England game plan, Packer is an outstanding forward who is forging an impressive path. She is a try-scoring loose forward who batters her way up the field with her powerful carries. The English star is not only a brilliant player but a strong leader as she took over the captaincy after Sarah Hunter retired. Packer would lead her team to WXV 1 glory later in the year.

Try of the year: Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland v England in Six Nations)

A try that will go down in history as one of the greatest. Gargantuan wing Van der Merwe received the ball from his teammate in his own half before deciding to pin his ears back. He beat one tackler and found himself in space, skinned another, and wrong-footed the next before bringing out the big fend and more pace to follow after beating five defenders to score a try for the ages. The Scot won the World Rugby Men’s Try of the Year for his efforts.

Performance of the year: Fiji v Australia (Rugby World Cup Pool stage)

It was one of those days where there was a sense of drama in the air. Australia had been bang average all year long and Fiji had this potent edge to them. After a narrow loss to Wales, Fiji were fired up and desperate for a win but it did not come in their typical style.

The team is renowned for their flair-filled rugby but this time was different, with Fiji showing good discipline and in the end it was the pinpoint goal-kicking from Simione Kuruvoli that dragged the team into a good position only for a fortuitous Josua Tuisova try to put them out of reach. It was their first win against Australia in 69 years!

Controversy of the year: Tom Curry and Bongi Mbonambi fallout

All hell broke loose when England flanker Curry accused Springbok hooker Mbonambi of calling him a “white c***” during South Africa’s Rugby World Cup semi-final victory in Paris. Mbonambi responded by denying the allegation and accusing Curry and the England team of being unprofessional, saying he was speaking Afrikaans at the time and his words were misunderstood. World Rugby found “insufficient evidence” to back up Curry’s claim but he stood by his accusation and said, “I heard what I heard.”

Biggest disappointment: Australia

An easy one this as 2023 was truly an annus horribilis for the Wallabies. The year started off with Rugby Australia firing Dave Rennie as Wallabies boss with Eddie Jones taking over the coaching reins. Despite finishing winless in the Rugby Championship, Jones talked a good game and promised that his team would be a force at the World Cup in France. It wasn’t to be as they failed to advance to World Cup’s knockout rounds for the first time in the tournament’s history.

Most innovative play: Scrum called on a mark by Damian Willemse

The Springbok full-back caught the entire rugby world by surprise when he gathered a high ball inside his 22 during their World Cup quarter-final against France, but instead of kicking for touch he put the ball down on the turf and called for a scrum. Doing that from a mark is a rare move in the game and South Africa’s director of rugby, Erasmus, said afterwards it was pre-planned to force Les Bleus into fronting up at the set-piece.

Comeback of the year: RG Snyman

After winning the Rugby World Cup with South Africa in Japan in 2019, Snyman spent most of the next four years on the sidelines following two serious ACL injuries in 2020 and 2021 as well as suffering bad burns in a fire pit incident in 2021. He had a fantastic 2023, however, as he returned to action with Munster in the latter stages of the 2022/23 season and helped them lift the URC title before featuring in the Boks’ second successive World Cup title win in France.

Turnaround of the year: Steve Borthwick with England

Very few rugby fans gave the Red Rose much of a chance of doing well at the global showpiece in France, especially after they suffered a shock defeat to Fiji at Twickenham in one of their World Cup warm-up games. Added to that, they also lost their captain Owen Farrell for the first two games of their campaign due to suspension. However, coach Borthwick deserves plenty of credit after his team won all their pool matches and gained revenge on Fiji in their quarter-final before suffering a narrow loss to eventual winners South Africa in their semi-final.

Best interview: Siya Kolisi after the World Cup final

The Springbok skipper’s interview after their narrow win over the All Blacks was a goosebumps moment for most South Africans as he spoke about how playing for the Boks means so much to him and his teammates. Kolisi revealed that they are not just playing for themselves but also the rest of the people in their country of whom the majority have little to cheer about.

Feel good moment: Cheslin Kolbe giving away his World Cup medal

The Springbok flyer caught the eye with a classy gesture when he gave his Rugby World Cup winner’s medal to a young fan back home in South Africa. The Boks were on their victory parade and at an event in Johannesburg the fan told Kolbe that he is his favourite player. The speedster promptly went onto the stage to greet his young admirer and stunned all in attendance when he casually handed over his winner’s medal before returning to his seat.

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Brain fade: Australia leaving veteran duo at home

A big part of the Wallabies’ downfall at the Rugby World Cup was head coach Jones’ decision to omit the experienced duo of former captain and flanker Michael Hooper and Quade Cooper from his 33-man squad for the global showpiece. Jones opted for a youthful squad with his group having an average age of 26 and an average of 20 Tests per player. Their inexperience showed as they were dumped after the tournament’s pool phase and Hooper and Cooper’s services were certainly missed.

Spirit of rugby: Kevin Sinfield carrying Rob Burrow

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as England defence coach Sinfield carried his former rugby league team-mate – motor neurone disease (MND) sufferer Burrow – over the finish line as they completed the Leeds Marathon. The duo took part in the marathon together with Sinfield running while pushing Burrow in a specially-adapted wheelchair. At the time, Sinfield had raised over £8m for MND charities since Burrow revealed his diagnosis in 2019.

Celebration of the year: Jordan Conroy hat-trick

Ireland flyer Conroy was in fine form for his country at the Los Angeles leg of the World Rugby 7s Series as he crossed for three well-taken tries in their pool win over Canada. While his hat-trick was a deserved one, it was his celebrations each time he dotted down which caught the eye. Conroy took full advantage of the wet conditions as he gave three unique poses after each of his tries.

READ MORE: The year in numbers: Rugby World Cup delivers record-breaking 2023