New Year Honours
December 20, 2011
Did Shane Williams do enough to warrant an award? © Getty Images
When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, it will bring an end to a rugby year crammed with scandal, flair and facial hair. Following an eventful 12 months packed with punches, whitebaiting and Tweeting, Scrum Sevens hands out some gongs to those who have taken the headlines for the right, or the wrong reasons.
Villain of the Year
In a year that included Manu Tuilagi's punch on Chris Ashton (more on that later), Delon Armitage's brush with a anti-doping official, Quade Cooper's run in with just about the whole of New Zealand and Mike Tindall's infamous trip to a Queenstown nightclub, there are a few contenders for this award. But there are three standout nominees.
The International Rugby Board (IRB) was slammed by various parties for their Rugby World Cup scheduling, with the minnows forced to play four matches in a fortnight. While they could take the award, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu edges them for his Tweeting during the tournament, which eventually attracted a six-month suspended ban from rugby. The Samoan centre may have had a valid point, but his colourful approach to presenting his argument only served to overshadow his message.
England elite performance director/operations director/professional rugby director - which is he? - Rob Andrew has also been the focus of criticism this year but the 'teflon man' has managed to keep his position at the Rugby Football Union (RFU) despite a disastrous World Cup and a shameful aftermath.
And it is hard to review the year without an honourable mention for Alain Rolland. His decision to send-off Sam Warburton in the World Cup semi-final provoked a national outcry in Wales and although he was playing by the IRB's rulebook, the decision scuppered Warren Gatland's side's hopes of progressing to the final of the competition.
Punch of the Year
Clermont's Jamie Cudmore is always in with a shout, whatever season it is, and he left his own mark on Gregory Le Corvec back in January. Delon Armitage could also have been in with a shout with his cheap shot on Northampton's Stephen Myler.
But it is Armitage's England team-mate Manu Tuilagi who walks away with this award following his flurry of punches on Chris Ashton. The incident provoked outrage and while Sonny Bill Williams does his boxing in the ring, Tuilagi copped a ban after getting only a yellow card during the match.
Try of the Year
Biarritz' Taku Ngwenya's nearly sneaked the award for his recent effort against Montpellier and Schalk Brits' try for Saracens against Gloucester earlier this year is also worthy of a mention. Rhys Priestland had a quite remarkable year and his score against Perpignan also took beating. But looking back at the World Cup, there were some brilliant efforts.
All Black Ma'a Nonu's score against Australia in the semi-final was a result of great work from Israel Dagg - with Nonu in the perfect position to profit from his superb offload. Shane Williams' score against Ireland is also worthy of note as he finished off a team effort which displayed everything Wales did well during the World Cup. And Gethin Jenkins' barnstorming effort against Namibia was also a belter.
But the award goes to Argentina's Julio Farias Cabello for his effort against the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-finals. While the Pumas failed to live up to the standards set back in 2007, the try showcased everything that is brilliant about Argentinean rugby.
Team of the Year
There are a fair few contenders for this award both on the domestic scene and international stage. The Reds played a phenomenal brand of rugby to take the 2011 Super Rugby title while Todd Blackadder's Crusaders were forced to play their entire campaign away from their Christchurch base following February's earthquake. Saracens took England's biggest prize while Harlequins started the current campaign in imperious form. Munster took the plaudits in the Magners League while it was Leinster who took the Heineken Cup crown in one of the most remarkable matches in recent times. Toulouse secured the Top 14 title and look set for another tilt having started the 2011-12 season in rampaging fashion.
But in a World Cup year it has to be the All Blacks who take the honour. Surviving without Dan Carter, then Colin Slade and then Aaron Cruden, they lived up to expectations, scraping home against France in the final even though Richie McCaw was basically playing on one leg. Notable mentions also have to be given to Wales for their superb campaign and Namibia who, although they failed to win a match, vied with the best despite being made to play their four pool matches in 16 days.
Flop of the Year
Manu Tuilagi's belly flop from the ferry could be worth a mention while on the domestic scene it was a disappointing year for Bruce Craig's Bath. The West Country side are now one of the wealthiest sides in England and despite Craig's millions being pumped into the behind-the-scenes side of the club, the blue, black and white are yet to hit the heights of yesteryear. In Super Rugby, the Brumbies endured a woeful campaign while in the Top 14 Biarritz have had a shocking start to the current season.
But the clear winner of this award has to be England for their World Cup campaign. Going into the tournament as the holders of the Six Nations and with a win in Ireland under the belts, Martin Johnson's charges seemed destined to impress in New Zealand. But their campaign was dogged with ill-discipline both on and off the field as England bowed out of the cup with a whimper at the quarter-final stages.
Super Rugby always throws up some memorable moments. The entire campaign from the Reds was a joy to watch and Quade Cooper even tried an outrageous cross kick inside his own dead ball area. The Crusaders also play a brand of rugby which is very easy on the eye and their match against the Sharks at Twickenham threw up some rugby that was not only from a different Hemisphere but from a different planet.
And in the Heineken Cup, Leinster's demolition of Bath at the Aviva Stadium had some sublime passing and ruthless running lines. But our champagne moment of the year goes to Shane Williams. The man who is small in stature but huge in ability marked his final match in a Wales shirt with a try to bring down the curtain on a quite remarkable Test career.
Hero of the Year
The World Cup threw up the chance for mere mortals to become heroes and it did not disappoint. Wales' Toby Faletau is worthy of a mention, having finished the tournament with 75 tackles - none missed - while Jacques Burger led Namibia with aplomb. Marc Lievremont - it could be argued - played an absolute masterstroke, managing to turn the whole France team against him and through their collective willpower lead them into the final of the World Cup.
However, in terms of heroes, Richie McCaw warrants a shout having captained the All Blacks to World Cup glory while Graham Henry also masterminded their charge to the William Webb Ellis Cup. But our hero of the year goes to Stephen Donald. New Zealand's fourth choice fly-half was whitebaiting when he got the call from Henry to take a place on the bench for the final against France after Carter, Slade and Cruden all sustained knocks. A heroic effort from 'Beaver' - in Cruden's shirt - saw him kick the winning penalty and end 24 years of hurt for the Kiwis.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
The Scotland coach enters his first Six Nations with at least one familiar face to look to for inspiration - Joe Schmidt. He chats to Tom Hamilton
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview
With the retirement of Adam Jones, Welsh rugby says goodbye to a great player and one of its biggest personalities too, writes Tom Hamilton