Planet Rugby Awards 2019

Adam Kyriacou

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 with the Rugby World Cup hosts kicking things off.

Planet Rugby Awards 2019

Best hosts: Japan

Japan had the honour of being the first country to host a Rugby World Cup on the Asian continent and although the impact of Typhoon Hagibis resulted in some games being cancelled, the tournament was still a great success. That was due to the Japanese people, who stole the hearts of rugby supporters from other countries due to their warm hospitality, excellent organisation skills and wonderful sportmanship displayed throughout the tournament.

Controversy of the year: Saracens’ salary cap breach

English rugby was rocked when it was announced in November that Saracens, who have won four of the past five Premiership titles, had been fined over £5million and deducted 35 points for salary cap breaches. It immediately sent the Londoners to the bottom of the table and raised questions over the validity of their domestic victories. Exeter Chiefs, arguably the biggest losers in this saga, were certainly vehement over the matter and demanded Sarries be relegated to England’s second-tier. Although that was never going to happen, they may ultimately get their wish with Mark McCall’s men battling for survival, 22 points adrift of 11th place Leicester Tigers.

Try of the year: TJ Perenara v Namibia

The All Black scrum-half’s sensational effort was named the year’s best try at the World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby awards functions and it also gets our unanimous vote of approval. Perenara gathered a pass from Ben Smith inside his own 22 and made a superb line break before offloading to George Bridge 10 metres inside Namibia’s half. Bridge was brought to ground shortly afterwards but did well to set up a ruck from which Rieko Ioane gathered and set off towards the try-line. Ioane offloaded to Brad Weber, who got a backhanded pass out to Perenara just inside Namibia’s 22 and he escaped the attentions of two defenders before diving over in spectacular fashion in the left-hand corner.

Player of the year: Pieter-Steph du Toit

The Stormers and Springboks blindside flanker has played consistently well for club and country for a couple of seasons now and must be one of the first names onto the teamsheet for South Africa. Du Toit’s excellent form was particularly impressive during the Boks’ Rugby World Cup success where he caught the eye as a willing ball carrier, a solid option in the line-outs and an excellent defender. The 27-year-old played most of the early part of his Test career at lock but his game has come on leaps and bounds after making the switch and has now made the Boks’ number seven jersey his own.

Biggest disappointment: Ireland

2018 was a great year for Ireland and after beating the All Blacks for the second time in three years – and the first time on home soil – sealing a series win over the Wallabies in Australia and winning a Six Nations Grand Slam, Joe Schmidt’s troops started the year with plenty of optimism. They failed to deliver on all that promise, however, and had to settle for third place in this year’s Six Nations – following defeats to England and eventual winners Wales – before coming unstuck in their pool match against hosts Japan at the Rugby World Cup. That defeat proved costly as Ireland had to settle for second place in Pool A which meant they faced Pool B winners and defending champions New Zealand in the quarter-finals. The All Blacks blew the men from the Emerald Isle away and cruised to a 46-14 win – a result which brought Schmidt’s tenure as head coach to a disappointing end.

Video analyst of the year: Squidge Rugby

A new voice emerged on the rugby scene this year as Squidge made a name for himself on YouTube with his brilliantly scripted analysis work. Funny and also knowledgeable videos were well received in the rugby community and he has subsequently developed a big following in the game, despite having to battle with footage rights. Appearances on the Rugby World Cup daily and pubic support shows how his reputation has grown.

Lenient suspension of the year: Pierre Bourgarit

The La Rochelle hooker can consider himself very lucky after he only received a six-week suspension for making contact to the eye area of Sale Sharks’ Tom Curry during their Champions Cup pool game at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford last month. It was a crazy offence which happened in front of numerous television cameras and referee Andrew Brace had no hesitation in issuing a red card. Bourgarit’s offence was deemed to have been at the top end of World Rugby’s sanctions for contact with the eye area, which carries a minimum 12-week ban. Incredibly, his sentence was halved by six weeks – after he showed remorse and due to his disciplinary record – which left many rugby enthusiasts questioning the process.

Super Rugby team of the year: Crusaders

The Christchurch-based outfit cemented their position as Super Rugby’s most successful team when they won the tournament for a 10th time after notching an impressive 19-3 victory over the Jaguares in the final in Christchurch. That was the third successive title triumph for the Crusaders and although the entire team deserves credit, head coach Scott Robertson must be singled out for special praise as he has been in charge of all three title wins. Captain Sam Whitelock and fly-half Richie Mo’unga also deserve mentions for impressing on the field while the emergence of the inexperienced back-line trio of George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Braydon Ennor also played a big part in the team’s success.

Young player of the year: Tom Curry

His talent has been well-known for some time having actually made his international debut at the age of 18 in 2017, but this was the year he came of age. Curry enjoyed a superb Six Nations, where he was arguably England’s best performer, before the back-rower displayed that ability on the biggest stage of all. Alongside fellow flanker Sam Underhill, those two dovetailed superbly in the World Cup and were a key part of England reaching the final. Although it didn’t quite happen for him in the showpiece event, he wasn’t alone on that day and it doesn’t detract from a stellar year.

Coach of the year: Rassie Erasmus

2019 will go down as a memorable year for the Springboks and Erasmus deserves plenty of credit for his role in the team’s success. The year started on an excellent note with Erasmus guiding the Boks to a Rugby Championship title and although no country had previously won that tournament and the World Cup in the same year, that did not deter Erasmus and his troops, who went to the global showpiece in confident mood. They lost their World Cup opener to New Zealand but despite that setback, the Boks won all six their remaining games and, in doing so, they also lifted the famous Webb Ellis trophy for the third time.

Unsung team of the year: Tasman

It was a fantastic season for the Mako, who finished as New Zealand’s provincial champions thanks to a 31-14 victory over Wellington in the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership final in Nelson. That result meant Tasman ended the campaign with an unbeaten record – after winning all 12 of their matches during the campaign – and it is the first time in their 14-year history that they claimed their country’s provincial title.

Spirit of rugby: Canada

Typhoon Hagibis was the worst storm to hit Japan for over 60 years and devastated parts of the country, but the Canadian rugby team did their bit to try and help some of those affected. Despite the frustration of their World Cup game with Namibia being called off, that disappointment paled in comparison to what the locals were going through and it was nice to see them lend a helping hand. They were seen shovelling mud, carrying furniture and debris in Kamaishi as the clean-up operation began following the passing of the storm.

Mess of the year: The battle between Israel Folau and Rugby Australia

This all began in April 2018 when Folau was reprimanded for posting a homophobic message on social media, but it really started to rear its ugly head a year later as the then Waratahs and Wallabies full-back effectively repeated the comments. Having been warned over his conduct following the first post, Rugby Australia duly sacked the 30-year-old, but the player did not let it lie. Instead, Folau took the governing body to court, suing for AUS$14million in compensation, and the ugly episode continued throughout 2019 before it was eventually settled out of court in early December.

Team of the year: South Africa

It couldn’t really be anyone else after a year that saw them claim the Rugby Championship and World Cup titles. Erasmus has done a remarkable job in such a short space of time, constructing a game plan which proved mightily effective. After a positive month in the southern hemisphere’s premier competition, they entered the tournament in Japan as one of the favourites, but they still arguably exceeded expectations. Despite losing to New Zealand in the group stages, they made the final with victories over Japan and Wales before they faced England. The Red Rose were heavily fancied after dominating the All Blacks in the semis, but the Springboks simply dismantled their opponents. They controlled the forward battle and then scored two superb tries to deservedly win their trophy.

European team of the year: Saracens

The English outfit make this list twice and for good reason because, irrespective of the punishment handed out in November, they were still the best team on the field. They claimed their third Champions Cup title following a convincing 20-10 triumph over Leinster before Mark McCall’s charges overcame the challenge of Exeter to win the Premiership once again. Although some believe that those achievements should be wiped from the record books, and they may have a case in regards to their domestic honours, it is worth remembering that it is a purely domestic issue. The EPCR does not impose a salary cap and, as a result, Sarries were quite simply the best side in Europe in 2019.

Story of the year: Siya Kolisi

South Africa’s first black captain completed a remarkable 12 months by lifting the Webb Ellis Cup to bring hope to a nation riddled with issues. It was a significant moment when Erasmus gave the Stormers player the responsibility to lead the country, but it proved to be a very wise move. Kolisi more than justified the decision as he showed great humility, composure and understanding to help the team during the global tournament in Japan. From humble beginnings to a World Cup-winning captain, it has been one of the great stories in the sport over the past decade.

Mess of the year part two: World Rugby’s handling of Typhoon Hagibis

In what was an otherwise wonderful World Cup, this was an unedifying moment which saw games cancelled and legal threats made. While safety is paramount – and tragically 95 people lost their lives in the storm – we never really saw these ‘contingency plans’ that World Rugby spoke of before the tournament. There was always the threat of a typhoon affecting the competition in Japan and unfortunately the response was not particularly great from the governing body. Thankfully, the competition wasn’t hugely affected as the key Japan v Scotland game took place in Yokohama, but it was not a good couple of weeks for World Rugby.

Red-face trophy award: Scott and Beauden Barrett

A rare occurrence would be Beauden making a glaring mistake but for both Beauden and Scott to drop the ball, when seemingly under no real pressure against Canada, was end of the world stuff. During the first half of the Rugby World Cup pool game, Scott coughed up the ball as the try-line was in sight before in the second period Beauden took some heat off his brother by doing the same. It was a memorable day for the Barrett family, however, as all three brothers scored a try in the match, with the youngest of the three, Jordie, also cruising over.

Social media post of the year: I’m Beauden Barrett!

Not planned or scripted but what a superb post this was of a New Zealand family debate at the breakfast table. Two brothers talk out who is which Barrett brother but it’s clear the youngest has his heart set on Beauden. See it play out for yourself and enjoy the hilarious ending.

Passing the buck award: David Nucifora

This gong goes to the Irish Rugby Football Union performance director after a somewhat disappointing review of their year was made public. Yes, Ireland didn’t hit the heights of previous seasons under now ex-head coach Joe Schmidt, but the comments from Nucifora felt very much like a large slice of the blame for their World Cup quarter-final exit and more was placed at Schmidt’s door. “Should we have developed our game further? Potentially, yes, with the benefit of hindsight. We pay our coaches for those decisions,” he said, before absolving new head coach Andy Farrell of any blame. The comments didn’t sit right after all that Schmidt had achieved over the years and he deserved better.

Social media team of the year: Bristol Bears

Bristol have raised the bar in terms of social media this past year and many others are now following suit, with quirky contract extension announcements for example being done in video format. It is somewhat funny that it took a team coming into the Premiership in late 2018 to drag the rest of the sides into the new age of posts and it clear to see that the Bears are mirroring their off-field success on the field.