Southern hemisphere to the fore
December 24, 2013
It was the year of the All Blacks © Getty Images
As 2013 ticks ever closer to its conclusion, ESPNscrum hands out some end-of-year awards to those who have dazzled over the past 12 months.
It has been another year of southern hemisphere dominance both in terms of teams and individual players. While Sergio Parisse was included in the end-of-year IRB awards, we feel only Leigh Halfpenny, Sean O'Brien and possibly Alun-Wyn Jones warrant a mention for northern hemisphere performances. For us, the standout players of the year were donned in black and green. Eben Etzebeth, Willem Alberts, Francois Louw, Ben Smith and Aaron Cruden have all had great years but Kieran Read stands above all else.
The All Blacks has been brilliant throughout 2013. Although he was sin-binned against England, he was the best performer on the field and has never fallen below an 8/10 performance. He has picked up a host of awards this year and deserves every accolade bestowed upon him.
The Lions scooped Team of the Year in the recent Sports Personality of the Year awards, but there is one side that stands above all others this year - the undefeated All Blacks. They won all 14 matches, scored 51 tries and played some exhilarating rugby which seemed from a different planet let alone hemisphere and ended up deserved record-breakers. It's hard to see who will be able to stop them in the 2015 World Cup, but then again, we've said that before...
Chiefs' Dave Rennie, Lions' Warren Gatland and New Zealand's Steve Hansen all come close to scooping this, but we feel South Africa's Heyneke Meyer deserves this gong and not just for his passion in the coaching box. The Springboks have played some wonderful rugby this year and it is unfortunate they have run into the record-breaking Kiwis in the Rugby Championship. A grand slam tour of Europe followed at the end of 2013. We have also been hugely entertained by his passion and emotion during the games, as shown below. At present, the 2015 World Cup looks to be a straight shootout between the All Blacks and the Springboks.
There have been some brilliant team performances this year. Connacht's recent win in Toulouse deserves some acclaim, as does the Brumbies' win against the Bulls in Pretoria and Wales' smashing of England at the end of the Six Nations. But just pipping them is the British & Irish Lions for their third Test win over Australia. It was a day when everything clicked; Warren Gatland's decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll worked while Leigh Halfpenny showed why he is the best player in the northern hemisphere at present. A 41-16 triumph showed the gulf between the two sides as the Lions ran riot.
In any other year Ireland's Test against New Zealand would win this at a canter. The game had it all - breathtaking individual skill, phase play, physicality and that last gasp twist. But for us, South Africa's match against New Zealand deserves this award.
It was October 5. South Africa had a chance of winning the Rugby Championship but they needed all five points against the All Blacks and had to prevent the Kiwis from picking up anything from the match. Eight tries later, the rugby world had witnessed an epic. New Zealand had won 38-27 and such was the pace of the match, referee Nigel Owens got cramp at the death. It was a great, unique match and one that illustrated the gulf in class between the north and southern hemisphere.
Tom Croft - one of England's most talented players but also fiercely unlucky with injuries. However, his try-saving tackle on Danny Care during the Aviva Premiership deserves to be watched and re-watched again and again.
South Africa's Willie le Roux announced himself on the world stage this year as did Charles Piutau and Steven Luatua. But this was the year of Israel Folau, the man whose running style looks as if he is gliding on water. Folau is box office; he's one of those rare players who can create an opportunity completely on his own terms. In his 15 Tests for the Wallabies, he scored 10 tries, a great return - he also scored some spectacular tries like his effort in the first Test against the Lions and another versus Scotland.
"Freakish athletes like that don't come along very much," Scott Johnson said of Folau after witnessing him dismantle his Scotland side. "We like to sit as coaches and take a lot of the credit for it but you can't put in what God left out and he stood in the front of a few genetic queues."
It's great news both for Australia and rugby in general that he is sticking around until 2015.
There were some great efforts in 2013 with the All Blacks scoring a few sensational tries alongside a memorable score from South Africa's Willie Le Roux. George North's try in the first Test between the British & Irish Lions and Australia is well worth another viewing but for us, Tim Nanai-Williams' score against the Highlanders was our try of the year. A fine tribute to running rugby.
For those who were lucky enough to be in the stadium when George North picked up Israel Folau, the moment was greeted by an intake of breath, a giggle and then applause. It was a bizarre sight but one that will be one of the iconic images of 2013. © Getty Images
The Highlanders served up some memorable moments in 2013 with the superb and fiendishly talented Ben Smith at the forefront and while it was his try that will be etched into the record books during their match against the Crusaders in June, it was Tamati Ellison's outrageous offload that teed the try up.
It is no coincidence the best two Test matches of the year, had the same referee. Step forward Nigel Owens. He referees with a quiet empathy and allows games to flow. He brings wit to the proceedings though not with the want of making headlines or grabbing the spotlight. The players respect him and so do the rugby community.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September