With the Premiership over for another season and the big matches all out the way, I have finally had some time to sit down and think about this season’s awards. This is something I began last year with the Alternative Awards, looking at awards for something a little different to the classic Player/Team of the Season awards that you will usually see looked at. If you disagree with any of my picks, let me know in the comments who you would have chosen.
Best Breakthrough: Marcus Smith
So many players came to mind while I thought of this. Exeter’s Sam Simmonds may have come on the scene at the end of last season, but it was this season where he really broke into the first team squad and he also went on to play for England. His brother Joe has also broken into the squad in the latter months of the season and deposed Gareth Steenson from the starting fly half berth as the Chiefs went all the way to the final, in fact had he been part of the winning team on the day he may have won the award. I’m sure nobody who has read my articles this year will be surprised to see that I considered Gloucester’s Jake Polledri, who went from playing in Nat 1 to the Premiership in the space of 1 summer and excelled in the back row, earning his first Italy cap during the 6 Nations. However, the award this season goes to Marcus Smith of Harlequins. Though Quins did not have the best of seasons by any standards, Smith excelled after being shoved into the limelight early on following a nasty injury to Demetri Catrakilis, and now he has surely proved himself the long-term successor to Nick Evans. He played more minutes in the league than anyone else in the Quins squad and ended the season 3rd in the race for the Golden Boot behind his countrymen Owen Farrell and George Ford. He was so impressive he has already been included as an apprentice player in the England squad by Eddie Jones and though he spends this summer with the U20s, another good season will make him difficult to ignore building towards the 2019 World Cup.
Best Newcomer: Faf de Klerk
Rob Horne was having a solid season in a poor Northampton team until his injury-enforced retirement and Juan de Jongh gave Wasps a different dimension in their midfield. However the winner came to a toss-up between 2 representatives of Sale Sharks. Jono Ross finished the season with the most tackles of any player in the league (336, 7 more than Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow) and was a big part of the Sale pack’s efforts to get front-foot ball for their team. However I chose to go with his teammate and fellow South African Faf de Klerk. De Klerk regularly provided a threat for Sale, both with his quick ball from the back of the ruck and also his ability to make plays himself. He also chipped in with a number of points off the tee. Scrum half is not the strongest of positions for the Springboks at the moment, will this season have put de Klerk in the driving seat despite playing outside the country?
Fond Farewell: Schalk Brits
This award goes to a player who is retiring from rugby as opposed to just leaving the league. I was very close to selecting Chris Wyles of Saracens, who retires from the game with the record number of tries in Premiership semi-finals and also joint to with Chris Ashton for most Premiership tries scored for Saracens. However, I have instead chosen his fellow Saracen Schalk Brits. The South African was an early member of the hooker revolution, moving away from being a 3rd prop to a mobile player that was more like an extra back rower. Just look at the stats on the tweet from Opta, this guy has dominated in open play while not shirking his responsibilities as a hooker. Capped 10 times for the Springboks, I can’t help but wonder how many caps he would have won had he stayed in South Africa, though he would have still had plenty of competition from Bismarck du Plessis and former captain John Smit. The Premiership will be a less exciting place with Brits no longer playing.
Bon Voyage: Ben Foden
Similar to the Fond Farewell Award, the Bon Voyage Award looks at players who are leaving the league to ply their trade in another competition. Richard Hibbard has become a fan favourite at Kingsholm and always gave maximum effort so will be missed as he returns to Wales to play for the Dragons. Thomas Waldrom was one of the early stars of the Exeter Chiefs as they began working their way to the top of the league and while the development of Sam Simmonds and Dave Ewers may have reduced him gametime this season he remained a popular as ever. However, Northampton’s Ben Foden gets the nod here. The former England fullback made 250 appearances across all competitions for Northampton following his move from Sale. Formerly a scrum half, he made a name for himself in the 15 jersey but has also spent time on the wing in recent years. A deceptively strong runner, I always felt that his 34 caps was far too low for a player of his quality, but a period of injury unfortunately saw him drop out of international contention. Now that his time with Northampton is coming to an end, the word is that he will be joining Rugby United New York, who will be joining the new American professional competition Major League Rugby next season. Having players of his quality playing out there will surely help grow the legitimacy and the quality of the league quickly.
Cojones Award: Rob Baxter
The Cojones Award goes to someone who had the balls to do something audacious this season despite the huge risk. I found this a difficult award to think of at first, until my mind looked away from the rugby field slightly and instead to the team selection. Rob Baxter was in a comfortable position with Exeter riding high in the league and Gareth Steenson, though aging, still one of the most reliable fly halves in the competition. Instead, halfway through the season he made the decision to demote the Irishman to the bench and promote the relative unknown youngster Joe Simmonds. Fast forward a couple of months and Simmonds helped lead the Chiefs to the top of the table with some dominant performances and though they lost to Saracens in the final, I’m not sure having Steenson start would have won them the match either. On top of that, Simmonds also won them silverware with an assured performance in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final at Kingsholm. A decision with more than a hint of looking to the future, but it worked in the present too.
Head-scratcher Award: The lack of DTH
In only my second year of the Alternative Awards, I am already starting to sense a theme with this award, as last year’s reduction in Matt Kvesic’s gametime has been mirrored this year by the almost complete absence of DTH van der Merwe from the Newcastle squad before his move back to Glasgow. The Canadian winger was a fan favourite for years at Glasgow and found his way over the try line with regularity. Following a move to Scarlets he continued his regular scoring despite competition from players like Johnny McNicholl and Liam Williams. When it was announced that he was moving to a Newcastle Falcons team that was clearly improving in attack, I got excited to be able to see his talent on a regular occasion, but he made a grand total of 3 appearances before moving back to Glasgow midway through March. Granted he had competition from Sinoti Sinoti and Player of the Season Vereniki Goneva, but with such a long season I don’t understand why there was not more rotation amongst the wingers, especially with such a quality option available. Still, Newcastle’s loss was Glasgow’s gain and he was immediately back in the tries during the final months of the season. Now just imagine if Newcastle and Glasgow are drawn in the same Champions Cup pool…
Biggest Disappointment: London Irish
This was not as easy a pick as it may have been due to the struggles of Harlequins and Northampton this season, while Gloucester also fell away in the last few weeks of the season, but when I sat down and thought about it there was only 1 team I could really pick here. After earning an immediate promotion back to the Premiership and with a number of talented young players coming through alongside experienced heads like Petrus du Plessis and Blair Cowan, things looked good for the Exiles as they won their opening match of the season against Quins at Twickenham. But things went downhill after that and they only managed 2 more league victories during the season – doing the double over Quins and beating Worcester at the Madejski. Add to everything the backroom issues with Les Kiss and Declan Kidney arriving in March and Director of Rugby Nick Kennedy leaving the club soon after. With their relegation back to the Championship, they are losing a number of talented players and I hope that we can see them back in the Premiership soon, though I doubt it will be as easy as it was for Bristol this year.
Biggest Success: Newcastle Falcons
At one point in the season I thought I’d be able to pick Gloucester here, but their end of season slump put an end to that and the award goes to Newcastle Falcons for the second year in a row. The Falcons built on last season’s success and despite missing Toby Flood for large portions of the season managed to break into the top 4 come the end of the season, ending Leicester’s run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances. Though it is a talented squad, it is not chock full of the big names in the same way some of the top squads are, and though they were steamroller by Exeter in the semi-final, their efforts this season are something to be proud of. Now if they can make the next step and consistently make the top 4, that will be highly effective, but with their reliance on an ageing Niki Goneva and with a number of squads around them strengthening, I think next season could be a struggle for them to repeat their success.