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!

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

Eyes On: 2017/18 Premiership Semi-finals

The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Yesterday, I took a look at the Pro14, now here are my thoughts on the Premiership games.

Saracens and Wasps were breaking records left right a centre in a 55-7 thriller. Owen Farrell’s set a record for points scored in a semi-final (becoming the first player to break 100 points in Premiership semis), Chris Wyles scored his fifth semi-final try in 8 years in his final season before retiring and the combined 11 tries and 90 points were both records. In the other semi, defending Champions Exeter dominated Newcastle on their way to a 36-5 victory that sees them reach their third consecutive Premiership final.

semirefsNow you may remember I had a little rant yesterday about the performance of John Lacey and his officials. I generally feel that the quality of refereeing in the Premiership is better than the Pro14, however this weekend I was proved wrong. At Allianz Park, JP Doyle and TMO Graham Hughes both went temporarily blind watching the replays and disallowing as they agreed Elliot Daly had grounded the ball against the base of the corner flag, despite the replays clearly showing that the other end of the ball was clearly grounded on the line before the ball rolled against the flag. There were also a couple of tries (for both sides) that JP Doyle chose to award without checking with Doyle despite some questionable passes and some that were definitely forward. For one of the best leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s just not good enough. I really hope the quality of officiating is better at Twickenham on Saturday (if it’s Wayne Barnes refereeing the final then I’m confident it will be).

Saracens 57 – 33 Wasps

When it comes to knockout rugby, it’s so hard to bet against Sarries. They may not have had the best of seasons by their standards, but they turned it on against Wasps to get the win. Owen Farrell has developed over the last few years from a good kicking and defensive 10 to a solid all-rounder who is now able to cause problems for the defence by taking the ball to the line and exploiting any gaps, as he did for Alex Lozowski’s opener. He was fantastic in his Man of the Match performance, nailing every kick off the tee to finish with 27 points (a record for a Premiership semi-final) almost had a try too, only to be held up over the line by Jimmy Gopperth. When you have such a metronomic kicker, having a defence as smothering as the Wolfpack almost makes playing rugby easy. What will peak Exeter’s interest though will be the way Wasps had some luck outside, with Gopperth and Daly both having tries disallowed in the corner and a number of other tries coming from beating the Sarries defence out wide. Given the way that Exeter have been playing recently (more on that later), I imagine that Sarries will be spending some time looking at their wide defence in the build-up to Saturday’s final.

sarwasWasps played some absolutely wonderful rugby in this match, but were simply too wasteful. Though Elliot Daly’s try should have been awarded but for a terrible call by the officials, Jimmy Gopperth should have scored and would have had he grounded the ball with 2 hands rather than putting an arm down to cushion his fall. Frequently they were turned over by a smothering Wolfpack defence as their support was too far away and they struggled at times to match Sarries in the set piece. What really killed Wasps in this match, though, was their defence. Owen Farrell exploited too large a gap between Joe Launchbury and Jake Cooper-Woolley for Lozowski’s try mere minutes into the match, while the Wasps defence struggled to get to terms with Saracens’ strong running close to the ruck, repeatedly losing ground when Sarries attacked the area 1-3 men out from the breakdown. Usually 33 points would be enough to win you a semi-final, especially away from home, but the Wasps defence is just not good enough to keep out the opposition on a regular basis. Can Wasps improve in this area next season? They will need to if they want to make it back to the final.

refscrap
Exeter’s dominant style of play is highly effective at inning games, but it’s not going to get much love from Scarlets fans apparently

Exeter 36 – 5 Newcastle

Some people may call it boring, but Exeter’s tactics are certainly effective! The Chiefs do the basics so well and run the ball so hard, they can dominate possession just by hitting the ball up repeatedly in narrow channels until the defence are all drawn in and they can be exploited out wide. This Exeter tactic made them completely dominate the halftime stats, as can be seen in the table below. While it may not be immediately high scoring, as the game wears down there is no way an opposition team cannot be tired out from such a constant defensive effort, and it showed as Exeter got the opening try right before half time through Nic White, before running away with the 2nd half 20-5. It may not be the sexy rugby of Scarlets, but it is effective and wins them games. When it comes to knockout rugby, that’s what matters.

dominant
The halftime stats show just how dominant Exeter were in this game

How could I not feel sorry for Newcastle watching this game? They did such a great job to break into the top 4 at Leicester’s expense and won the most away matches of any team in the Premiership this season, but they just couldn’t get into the game at Sandy Park! They barely touched the ball in the first half and star wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti were starved of ball – the only time I remember Goneva getting the ball was an interception! Fair play to the Falcons, they got a few attacks in the second half and got a try on the board, but it summed up the game for them when Alex Tait dropped the ball over the try line after collecting a cross-field kick in acres of space. I fully expect them to be pushing for the playoffs again next season, but this match showed just how far they still have to go to break into the top 3.

Final thought

This looks set to be a cracking game. Both teams are very similar in the way they rely on solid defence and effective attacking, doing the basics very well. This really could come down to a couple of questions: How long can Billy Vunipola last? Can Joe Simmonds keep his cool on the big stage? Can the Wolfpack stop Exeter’s usual tactics. When these teams met in the semi-final last year, we were treated to a wonderful match ending with Henry Slade’s incredible penalty to touch to set up Sam Simmonds’ winning try. I expect another thrilling match but would argue that Exeter are a better squad than this time last year, so I am going for them to win.

Exeter to beat Saracens

 

Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.