Now we have reached the end of another season of Premiership rugby, we are seeing awards handed out by both the league and individual clubs for player of the season/team of the season etc. I didn’t want to do the same but felt that it would be good to have a quick look back through the season and so I hit on the idea of the Alternative Awards.
For each of these awards I hope to have an honourable mention as well as a winner, and will look to explain why I made the choice I did. So without further ado, the winners are…
Best Newcomer: Denny Solomona
Kurtley Beale deserves an honourable mention here as he has brought so much to the Wasps attack, however injury stopped him from making his debut until December and Wasps were already doing well without him. Instead, I have decided to give the award to Denny Solomona. At the start of the season Sale were finding themselves dragged into a relegation fight with Worcester and Bristol, but an upturn in their fortunes, combined with an impressive try-scoring record for their new winger, helped pull them to safety. I was not happy with the way that his move to Sale happened – not that it appears Castleford have missed him! – but I think that his performances this season have been highly impressive and I hope he recovers in time for England’s tour to Argentina.
Best Breakthrough: Zach Mercer
Joe Marchant’s performances for Harlequins this year have been very impressive, but I couldn’t look beyond Mercer with this pick, as much as it pains me as a Gloucester fan to praise a Bath player! Though injuries and international appearances have deprived Bath of a number of their back rowers for parts of the season, Zach Mercer has done a fantastic job of earning a spot in the team regardless of who was available. The England U20 not only did the basics well, but also looked to be one of the best players on the pitch whenever I saw him play. I was surprised that he was not promoted to the senior England team for the Argentina tour, however this is certainly to the benefit of the U20s and I expect the RPA Young Player of the Season to excel in Georgia.
Fond Farewell: Nick Evans
This is an award for players who will be sorely missed from the league as they enter retirement. I really wanted to pick former Scotland second row Jim Hamilton, who spent a number of years at Leicester, Gloucester and Saracens. A solid operator who was never afraid to get into a scrap, Hamilton was a fan favourite who will be missed. However he has been beaten to the award by Harlequins’ former All Black Nick Evans. Evans’ move to the Premiership in 2008 would mark the end of his international career, but he continued to put in the same level of play for Harlequins and has been a key figure in that team ever since. He has struggled with injuries in recent seasons but has remained a driving force in the Quins attack. I’m sure that i won’t just be Harlequins fans missing him on the pitch next year but it is great to see that he will be staying at the Stoop as the new Attack Coach.
Bon Voyage: Chris Ashton
This award is very similar to the Fond Farewell award, except that this is for players who are choosing to leave the Premiership in order to ply their trade in another league. Former England and Lions second row Geoff Parling got the perfect sendoff by winning the Premiership final with Exeter and is now off to play in Japan and Australia. Incredibly reliable for Newcastle, Leicester and Exeter, the 33-year-old still has a couple of good seasons left under his belt. However, much like the Fond Farewell award, the award has gone to a somewhat flashier player: Chris Ashton. The former England winger, on his way to Toulon this Summer, has had a successful career at Northampton and Saracens since switching codes from Wigan Warriors in 2007 and was also incredibly successful with the national team. A somewhat divisive player – I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not a huge fan of him – his ability to finish a move and score tries will be truly missed in next season’s Premiership.
Biggest Cojones: Henry Slade
This was a late award that I decided to add after watching the playoffs and how close they were. This award is for the player who has had the balls to step forward under the highest pressure and deliver a crucial play. Gareth Steenson had almost the ultimate weight on his shoulder when he stepped up to kick the potential game-winning penalty 3 minutes before the end of extra time in the final. While this kick had the pressure of deciding the final and was in front of almost 80,000 fans at Twickenham – and countless more watching on TV – the kick itself was a simple one for a kicker of Steenson’s calibre, so the award has gone to Henry Slade for his penalty in the dying minutes of the semi-final against Saracens. With just 90 seconds remaining and Saracens 13-16 ahead, Exeter were awarded a penalty in the middle of the pitch, 10-15 metres inside their own half. In this position, we would often see a kicker play safe and look to kick for a line out somewhere around the opposition 10 metre line. Given the time on the clock and the score, a kicker may take a risk and look to get the ball closer to the opposition 22. Slade, however, had other ideas and got every inch that he could from the kick, resulting in Exeter having the line out a mere 7 metres out from the line, which they managed to maul over for the winning try.
Head-scratcher: The fall of Matt Kvesic
The Head-scratcher award is for the decision that , from the outside, appears to make little sense. I was very close to giving this to Leicester Tigers’ decision to replace Aaron Mauger as Head Coach mid-way through the season considering he had got the Tigers back on track after an awful start to the season before the sacking of Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill. Mauger seemed extremely popular with the players, and with Tigers getting back on track after Cockerill’s sacking, in my opinion it would have made more sense to change at the end of the season, much as Gloucester have done following the departure of Laurie Fisher. While this was truly a head-scratcher in my opinion, my Gloucester bias has come out in selecting the fall of Matt Kvesic. Last season, Kvesic was arguably the best 7 in the league, topping the charts for turnovers and earning plaudits from none other than Australian great George Smith. Yet this year he often found himself behind Jacob Rowan and by the end of the season was struggling to even make the 23. Was there a falling out with the coaches or was this down to a loss in form? If it was a loss in form, what was this down to? The club have stayed quiet on the matter all season, so until we know, there will always be questions about how such a fall from grace can happen so fast.
Biggest Disappointment: Gloucester Rugby
After so long trying to get back to the top flight, to be relegated with matches to spare will be a huge disappointment for Bristol. However when you look at the positions that everybody finished in compared to the quality of the squad, Gloucester have arguable been the biggest disappointment. Despite a number of experienced players and having only lost a couple of players to international duty, Gloucester lost too many games from winning positions, sacked Head Coach Laurie Fisher and ended the season a disappointing 9th place, 6 points outside of the top 6! Gloucester fans will certainly be hoping to see the Cherry & Whites back in the top half of the table under new Head Coach Johan Ackermann.
Surprise Success: Newcastle Falcons
Exeter could be considered somewhat of a surprise success given their poor start to the season and the strength of their squad compared to their playoff opponents Saracens and Wasps. However they were runners-up last year and have been steadily improving since their promotion, so I feel that they were worthy of an honourable mention but not the award. When I was picking my players to watch before the season started, I suggested that Newcastle’s decision to part with a lot of experienced players and bring in a number of youth players and 7s specialists could see them fighting to stay in the league. As it was, they finished in 8th place, 29 points clear of relegated Bristol and spent much of the campaign fighting for a place in the top 6.
What are your thoughts on the awards? Do you think that I missed anyone? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge