Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

The Premiership is over for another season and it is time for club rugby to take a step back in favour of the international game. Congratulations to Exeter, whose dominance in the regular season saw them earn a playoff spot earlier than ever, also to Saracens who followed up their Champions Cup victory over Leinster with a victory over Exeter at Twickenham to complete the double. Commiserations to Newcastle as well, who finished the season bottom of the league and will drop down to the Championship, with London Irish taking their place.

But before thoughts can move fully onto the internationals and the upcoming Rugby World Cup, it is time to make my picks for the 3ʳᵈ annual Eyes on the Ball Awards: a set of awards slightly different to what you will see at official ceremonies. Let me know what your picks would be for each award.


Eyes on the Ball Awards:


Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Alex Dombrandt

This award is pretty clear in what it represents: a young player who can look back on the season as the year he broke out and earned the recognition of the wider public as opposed to just those in the know about their specific club.

Honourable mentions here must go to Harry Randall, who took his chances well stepping up from the Championship to the Premiership, Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie and Rory Hutchinson and his fellow Northampton youngsters, who took their chances when injuries gave them the chance to play. Some people have called Tom Curry and Ollie Thorley breakthroughs this season, but I feel that they were already relatively widely established. Even if I had been considering them though, my pick would go to Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt. The back rower only made his debut in November but went on to be a regular for Harlequins, with his physicality and underrated speed a hard combination for opposition defences, while he also finished the season 3ʳᵈ in the turnover charts with 19. He finished his season with a deserved start against the Barbarians and was arguably one of the best players in the game, so could find himself pushing for a spot in Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad.

Best Newcomer: Danny Cipriani

In both of the previous seasons that I have done the award, this has gone to someone new to the league, however this award is actually open to anyone new to their team, even if they have moved from another Premiership club. Such has been the case with this year’s winner, Danny Cipriani. Teammate Franco Mostert was also in the running, but international commitments meant that he did not feature until later in the season, whereas Cipriani’s golden wrists were making highlights from round 1. Johan Ackermann gave the keys to the squad to Cipriani and he took the club’s performance to a completely new level, firing them from 7ᵗʰ to 3ʳᵈ in the space of a year. Named Premiership Player of the Season and RPA Player of the Year, it’s crazy to think that he may not make England’s World Cup Squad.

Fond Farewell: Mathew Tait

The Fond Farewell award is for someone who is retiring at the end of the season after a career worthy of note.

This year, there were so many players that deserved a mention – James Haskell, George Smith, Marcelo Bosch and James Horwill amongst them – but this year I ended up going for Mathew Tait. Formerly of Newcastle and Sale, Tait has been at Leicester since the 2011/12 season, while his career has also seen him represent England in both 7s and 15s, becoming a runner-up in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and RWC2007. A highly talented and versatile player, injuries have interrupted his career far too often and it ended up that a failure to recover from a Achilles injury saw him announce his retirement in February.

I also want to take a moment to mention Wayne Barnes here, who will be retiring after the World Cup so has just refereed his final Premiership game with the final. In my opinion, he is currently the best referee in the world and will be greatly missed over the coming seasons. If England don’t make it to the final, then he should be finishing his career in charge of the biggest game of the year.

Bon Voyage: Santiago Cordero & Tom Savage

This award is similar to the last, but instead looks at players leaving the Premiership to continue their career in another league.

I could not pick between two players for this award, for vastly different reasons. Tom Savage has been such a big part of Gloucester since making his debut in the 2011/12 season and has been a loyal servant, including captaining the club for the 2013/14 season. He now moves to Japan to play for Suntory Sungoliath and I wish him the best of luck. The other player to earn this award is Exeter’s Santiago Cordero. Joning from Jaguares in February 2018, Cordero may not have spent anywhere near as much time in the league, but has been one of its stars. I remember him wowing crowds at the last World Cup and was very excited to see him enter the league. He did not have the best start at Exeter however, but I love that he then requested to play in the 2018 Premiership 7s tournament to help play himself back into form and he has been incredible this year. Had he not found himself out injured in the final weeks of the season, the trophy may now be on its way to Sandy Park rather than Allianz Park. Now as he heads off to Bordeaux due to Exeter being unable to keep him while remaining within the salary cap, the Premiership will be a less exciting place.

Cojones Award: James Lang

The Cojones award goes to someone who had the balls to do something at great risk.

I found this a hard one to think of this year, but a moment stuck in my memory from Harlequins’ final game of the regular season, away to Wasps. Down 27-25 and requiring a win to take the final playoff spot away from Northampton, Quins earned a penalty on halfway, though when the spot was given by the referee it was a few metres further back. Despite appearing to be limping slightly and having not kicked such a long distance all season, replacement James Lang took the tee and went for the three points with the final play of the game… only to see the ball drop just short – to the point that the ball may have gone over had the kick been from the spot of the offence! While the call may not have worked out in Harlequins’ favour, I love that Lang was willing to put the pressure on his shoulders and take the risk rather than try kicking towards the corner and trying to work another scoring opportunity.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The Matt O’Connor Debacle

This award is for a team decision that just left me wondering why it went how it did.

To me, nothing came close this year to matching the mess that was the start of Leicester Tigers’ season. Last season did not go well for them and saw them miss out on a playoff space for the first time in 13 years, while they never really looked deserving of a spot in the top 4. I personally felt that Tigers should have moved on from him over the summer, but they kept him in place only to move on after an embarrassing 40-6 opening round defeat, leaving Geordan Murphy to try (and fail) to pick up the pieces all season. This was such a poor season for Leicester and I can’t help think that sticking with O’Connor until the season started was a big part of that.

Biggest Disappointment: Newcastle Falcons

It was hard not picking Leicester here after narrowly avoiding relegation, but last season hinted towards issues and they had some awful luck with injuries to stars like Mat Tait and Telusa Veainu, while their England stars missed time due to international commitments.

While Newcastle also had their issues with injuries and internationals, I did not feel that it was to anywhere near the same degree and they in fact dropped more places than Leicester by going from 4ᵗʰ to last and being relegated with a match still to play. It’s a shame to see one of the few northern clubs drop out of the league and I hope they make an immediate return, but I feel they can have no argument about coming bottom.

Biggest Success: Gloucester Rugby

Exeter and Sarries obviously need a mention for their successes in the league and final respectively. I was very close to picking Bristol here after narrowly missing out on Champions Cup rugby in their first season back in the top flight, but in the end I couldn’t look away from my cherry and whites.

Despite clear signs of improvement last season, they still finished 7ᵗʰ with 56 points. This year, the addition of a few big names saw Gloucester finish safely in the top 3 with 68 points. All that despite injuries leaving the club with minimal options in the front row (full credit to Josh Hohneck and Fraser Balmain who had to play a ridiculous number of minutes this season), back row (Matt Banahan had to be the replacement lock in one Champions Cup match) and back 3 (Jake Polledri came on as a winger towards the end of the season) at different points in the season… something that could have ruined any team! Both as a Gloucester fan and also from a less biased perspective, I can’t wait to see how they do next season!

Trouble for Tigers?

Trouble for Tigers?

Just 1 game into the season and change is already afoot at Welford Road. Following an embarrassing defeat to Exeter in Round 1, Leicester Tigers announced that they had parted company with head coach Matt O’Connor with immediate effect.

This has not been a great time for Tigers; they have not been the superpower they used to be for a number of years now and last year missed out on a place in the Premiership playoffs for the first time since 2005. I would argue that the squad they had last season and this season are the strongest they have had in a while, but in such a competitive league there is no guarantee they will be able to make the top 4 this season. But was now the right time to move on?

Honestly, I would have moved on in the summer. Ever since the popular Aaron Mauger was moved on following making the playoffs with a weaker team and replaced with O’Connor, I have had the feeling that something did not feel quite right at the club. Reports have suggested that players and coaches felt restricted under O’Connor and that seemed to be backed up by Ben Kay speaking on Rugby Tonight. Kay – a member of the Tigers board – also mentioned that they had a review at the end of last season and a number of actions were put into place, which O’Connor had said he could achieve, but following the preseason and the Exeter match they felt that these actions were not being met, so it was time to move on. I really appreciated Kay’s honesty and hearing him talk about how once they had made their decision it would not have been right to wait a few weeks made sense to me.

The important thing now is that the next man up is given every opportunity. Geordan Murphy has been an assistant coach at the club since 2013 and has consistently been in charge of the club in the Anglo-Welsh Cup as well as being in charge for a game against Bath just after O’Connor had arrived. He is Leicester through and through and will want to do everything to bring the glory days back, while he also has a number of other former Tigers players on the coaching staff. I really hope that, barring disaster, Murphy is given the whole season and that making the playoffs does not become the be all and end all in the board’s decision as to whether he gets the job on a permanent basis. One of the areas Kay mentioned that O’Connor seemed to struggle was in the development of young players, something that I’m confident Murphy will be able to do well. Speaking as a fan of rugby in general, hopefully this season will be about performances and player development and then next year they can look to focus more on getting back to winning silverware. Only time will tell.

Eyes On: Anglo-Welsh Cup – Leicester Tigers v Gloucester Rugby

Eyes On: Anglo-Welsh Cup – Leicester Tigers v Gloucester Rugby

The 2017/18 edition of the Anglo-Welsh Cup kicked off this weekend with a number of high scoring matches. On Saturday the defending champions Leicester welcomed Gloucester to Welford Road for a match that eventually finished 26-24 in favour of the Tigers after a late missed penalty from Gloucester fly half Lloyd Evans.

As is the way with the Anglo-Welsh Cup these days, both teams put out a number of youngsters and academy players, with a smattering of more experience players who have had limited time on the pitch so far this season, either due to competition at their position or due to injury. For Leicester, Joe Ford got his first meaningful game time since his move from Yorkshire Carnegie, whilst Gloucester welcomed back flanker Ross Moriarty for his first game since picking up an injury against the Provincial Barbarians in the first match of the Lions Tour.

 

Youthful inexperience

The vast majority of Gloucester’s experience in their starting XV was to be found in their pack, where Moriarty – who is himself only 23 – was joined by Gareth Evans, Paddy McAllister, Gareth Denman and James Hanson. In the backs only centre Andy Symons would be considered an experienced player, though Ben Vellacott is quickly gaining experience and looks like he will be a regular in the squad this season. Unfortunately for the cherry and whites, this lack of experience behind the forwards probably cost them the game.

Gloucester have frequently this season been willing to play the ball from anywhere on the pitch, including inside their own 22. This same mindset was very evident once again at Welford Road. Unfortunately, while the willingness to play rugby is great to see, the execution was nowhere near the level required and Tigers were frequently able to benefit from winning the ball back in great field position, allowing them to keep the scoreboard turning over.

I haven’t seen much of Lloyd Evans before this match, but I have heard a lot of good things about him. Sadly, I wasn’t impressed by him on this showing. We have already seen this season that Ben Vellacott is not a scrum half that will regularly be playing the territory game, instead choosing to look for quick ball away from the breakdown and quick tap-and-go penalties. This is fine, providing your 10 is then willing and able to control where the game is played, but Evans seemed too focused on trying to play rugby. A Freddie Burns-esque chip over the defence is great to see but it is a risky play and not something that should be attempted inside your own 22. The Leicester line-out was anything but reliable this weekend and if Gloucester had piled the pressure on them by kicking to touch and playing for territory, I’m fairly certain that they would have come away with he victory. To compound his bad day, Evans also missed a pair of penalties – not easy, but definitely kickable – which would have sent Glaws home with the win.

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The pragmatic approach won’t always win you fans, but it can win you games

I don’t want this to sound like I’m blaming Evans for the loss, everybody is going to have a bad game at some point, but it showed how important it can be for a young fly half to have an experienced back with him to help control the game. A lot of the Gloucester backs ave been playing regular rugby due to injury issues so far this season, but it may benefit Evans to bring in Billy Twelvetrees for the next match in place of Andy Symons in order to help control the game.

Depth in the back row

In my opinion, Gloucester’s best player on Saturday was flanker Jake Polledri. The former Italian U20s player signed from Hartpury RFC in the summer and has really taken his chances well when called upon so far this season. With Moriarty returning to fitness and Gareth Evans also looking OK in his first start of the season before going off following a collision with Fred Tuilagi, Gloucester are full of depth in the back row, despite Matt Kvesic and Sione Kalamafoni both leaving in the summer.

While there is nobody standing out as a proper ‘jackal’ style 7 so far, Lewis Ludlow has been huge in defence and currently tops Opta’s Premiership Rugby stats with 114 tackles – 16 more than his closest competitor – so if I was asked to pick my ideal Gloucester 23 assuming everyone was fit, he would be joining Moriarty and Ruan Ackermann in my starting back row. This then leaves Jacob Rowan, Ben Morgan, Polledri, Evans and Freddie Clarke (who showed on Saturday that he can also cover second row) all competing for the back row cover on the bench… which Tom Savage could also theoretically cover if Jeremy Thrush and Ed Slater start at lock. What makes this depth even better is that many of these players are still relatively early in their careers, so can hopefully continue to grow and improve at Kingsholm over the next few years… though Moriarty will likely be heading back to Wales due to the new eligibility criteria for the national team.

Taking the chance given

The Anglo-Welsh Cup is not about putting out your strongest lineup in order to win some silverware, this is a competition about letting the youth gain some first team experience and letting some players put their hand up for selection in league or European matches.

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Kingsholm has been named as the venue for the 2017/18 Anglo-Welsh Cup final

I’ve already mentioned Polledri, but I continue to be impressed by the quick ball and quicker thinking of Vellacott and think it’s surely just a matter of time before the Scottish national team come calling. Tom Hudson did not get many chances to impress in this game, but he seemed much more comfortable than when I watched him in Europe a few weeks back and he ran a superb line for his try – even if the pass from Vellacott was probably forward!

For Leicester, Joe Ford surely knows that he will find his opportunities limited behind younger brother George, but he has shown that he can control a game well and will surely get more game time in the league as the season progresses and they decide to rest some of their internationals. Jonah Holmes also signed from Carnegie over the summer but has struggled to break into the first team with the form of Jonny May and Nick Malouf on the wings, but looked good in this game and took his chance when it came to show why he was the top try scorer in the Championship last season. Adam Thompstone and full back Afa Pakalani will also hope their form in this game makes Matt O’Connor consider rotating his back 3. Looking to the younger lads, the latest Tuilagi to play at Welford Road, Fred – son of Freddie – was well dealt with by Gloucester but showed a few flashes of the talent that he will be as he continues to develop and will surely live up to the family name, while Charlie Thacker – younger brother of hooker Harry – impressed with some good handling and took his try very well in the first half as 3 Gloucester players failed to complete the tackle on him.

Meanwhile, on a similar note, Johan Ackermann and Matt O’Connor both stepped back for this tournament and allowed Head of Academy Richard Whiffin and Assistant Coach Geordan Murphy respectively to take charge. This is a great chance for both coaches to further their own development in the game and both look to be talented in this area. Whether they move on to other clubs in the next few years or eventually take over from the current bosses, I think the future is as bright for these 2 coaches as for some of the young players on the pitch.