Welcome ladies and gentleman to the annual Cardiff Rugby Life awards, celebrating the 2016/17 Cardiff Blues season!
It’s been a frustrating campaign of a few poor performances, a lot of injuries and plenty of missed opportunities to make the season a success, alongside a sprinkling of positives that give very cautious cause for optimism heading into an uncertain future.
For now though it’s time to celebrate the 2016/17 season, so get the ties and ball gowns at the ready, and feel free to disagree with every single winner on the night.
Most Improved Player
The criteria for this award can be either a player who has improved their performance from last season to this, or someone that has seen a marked upturn in form throughout this season.
Injury disruption has made this quite a difficult award to find a winner for, as on more than one occasion just as a player was coming into form they ended up in the treatment room for a few weeks. However, there are still some candidates to go through.
James Down had a strong middle part of the season, starting 10 games around the festive period when George Earle was suspended, and made an impression with his set piece work and presence at the breakdown, but started just once in the league since January.
In the backs we saw Steve Shingler come into his own at inside centre for a spell between January and April, scoring 97 points while wearing the 12 shirt, while Blaine Scully made seven more appearances and scored for more tries than his first season in Cardiff, despite an injury cutting his campaign short, as the American made strides to becoming a cult hero.
However, the winner of the Cardiff Rugby Life 2016/17 most improved player award is quite a simple one overall, and it goes to Jarrad Hoeata, after an excellent second half of the season.
The New Zealander only started four games before the turn of the year, and it seemed like a back injury would restrict him to a bit-part role, but 14 starts between January and the end of the season saw him make the most appearances he’s made since he’s been in Cardiff, and the performances earned rave reviews.
Unfortunately the lock will move on to pastures new over the summer, much to the disappointment of many Cardiff Blues fans, but we wish him all the best on wherever he ends up next.
Young Player of the Year
If there are any positives to come from a hefty injury list they come in the form of the young players who get a chance at some decent Pro12 minutes. This season we’ve seen Shane Lewis-Hughes, Seb Davies and Kieron Assiratti appear in the Pro12, with none of them doing anything to harm their burgeoning reputations.
The award though is a straight shoot-out between two players. The unfortunate runner-up is Corey Domachowski, who many people would not have expected to be up for this award in the first place.
Starting the season behind Gethin Jenkins, Rhys Gill and Brad Thyer in the loosehead ranks it was only really the development tournaments, the B&I Cup and the Anglo-Welsh Cup, that Domachowski would have expected to feature in. When the injury crisis struck though it hit all three senior looseheads and the young prop was thrust into action.
The former Gilfach Goch junior man made his debut against Pau, going on to make seven Pro12 and four European appearances, impressing with his physicality in the scrum and open play. The experience gained will be invaluable and Cardiff Blues fans will be looking forward to seeing Domachowski pulling on the number one jersey for many years.
Cardiff Rugby Life’s Young Player of the Year can go to only one man though, as Rhun Williams has made such a big impression in his debut season at Cardiff Arms Park. From his try scoring debut away in Treviso, where he also made a try saving tackle, it’s been an upward trajectory for the North Walian.
Appearances in the away European game in Pau, trips to Ireland and at Judgement Day against the Ospreys were all successfully negotiated and will no doubt prove to be invaluable experiences as his career progresses. He will slowly make the permanent move to full-back over the next few years, and will no doubt become a terrific asset for Cardiff and Wales.
Onto the team awards and the first one is for the worst performance we’ve seen this season. Unsurprisingly after a disappointing year overall there is a few candidates for this award, and they make for painful memories.
Home defeats to Scarlets, Ulster, Munster and Connacht were all tough to witness, as were the trips to Connacht and Scarlets, plenty of which we could have won were we playing at even close to our full potential.
Even some victories were outside contenders, with the win over Zebre at home being particularly frustrating, as was the win over Treviso in Italy back in November.
The winner though was the loss that really kicked off the run of poor form that stretched through Christmas and into the New Years, a 46-24 thrashing at the hands of the Ospreys.
It was a particularly humbling performance after the positivity of the opening six weeks, where the Ospreys beat us up physically before displaying a devastating cutting edge. Why is it the worst performance of the season? Plain and simply because Cardiff didn’t look like they wanted to compete, and that should never be the case in any Welsh derby.
Despite the disappointing generality to the season, there is still some candidates for the best Cardiff Blues performance of the season, although not necessarily all from wins as there wasn#t very many of those!
Cast your minds back to September, and back-to-back wins over Munster in Cork and Glasgow at CAP gave great optimism for the season ahead. With Glasgow then hot favourites to win the league having been beaten in the play-offs the previous season, it was a particularly good scalp to snatch a 23-19 win, while any win in Ireland should be applauded.
Heading forward and the home victory over Bath in some particularly unsavoury weather was a highlight of the mid-season poor form, while the away win over Pau was a ground out affair, but impressive in coming from behind to snatch a victory and set up qualification for the European quarter-finals thanks to another contender, the bonus point hammering of Bristol.
A narrow defeat against Leinster and a draw in Ulster aren’t to be sniffed at, while for 55 minutes the award was heading straight to the team that played Gloucester, before a spectacular implosion.
In the end there was only one winner though, with the 35-17 bonus-point Judgement Day victory over Ospreys the standout performance from 2016/17. Bringing an end to the losing run, which stretched back to 2010, in that fashion was superb, and particularly the first half performance is one that will stick in the memory for a long time.
A far cry from the heavy loss, the team were on fire, with tries from Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Fa’ao Filise, Nick Williams and a brace from Kris Dacey seeing us over the line comfortably, and started a run of three victories to end the Pro12 season on a high, as well as secure bragging rights over our Swansea-based rivals for a few months.
Best New Signing
With seven signings coming in last summer there’s plenty of nominees for this award, but one clear winner in my book.
Kirby Myhill has shown potential when on the pitch but has been unlucky with injuries that have seen him fall down the pecking order. Rhys Gill has been very solid, although he has also missed chunks of the season due to injury, while George Earle’s good performances have been coupled with suspension and fitness problems.
Steven Shingler was a steady presence at fly-half in the first half of the season, before a successful stint at inside centre. Nick Williams split opinion with some perhaps over-hyping him before he arrived, but he was certainly a ball carrying presence and defensive strongman, while Matthew Morgan had a terrific attacking season, but a horrific defensive one.
In the end though, it was Willis Halaholo who proved the real sensation. Despite only arriving in November he has finished second in the Pro12’s defenders beaten statistics, and that’s with 18 months of rugby in his legs having joined the Blues straight off a Super Rugby and New Zealand Provincial season.
Towards the end of the season we saw his partnership with Rey Lee-Lo really start to hot up, and with a whole summer of rest following a full pre-season, we could well see Halaholo take Northern Hemisphere rugby by storm next season.
Try of the Season
In terms of attacking it was a pretty successful season, only scoring 30 less points than 2015/16, with the defence being the big issue. Of the 81 tries scored in all competitions there were some real crackers this year.
Gareth Anscombe’s solo effort against Leinster, Willis Halaholo’s hot stepping efforts against Treviso and Newport Gwent Dragons, Alex Cuthbert’s score against Treviso, Matthew Morgan’s destructive run against Bristol and scores for Tomos Williams and Sion Bennett away in Leinster spring to mind.
However, sometimes if you’re having a bad day in work, then this season’s best try will never fail to cheer up any situation, as Blaine Scully’s flying effort against Scarlets was probably the highlight of the season.
Not just the fact that it was up there with the best finishes I’ve seen at the Arms Park, but also that he gets up, wanders towards the North Terrace and high fives a random bloke. Only Superman Scully could do that!
Ringer of the Year
A whole new award is the penultimate prize this year, which reflects the injury crisis face by the Blues through the middle of the season.
Rhodri Davies signed up briefly from Llandovery, scoring against the Ospreys in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and acting as an unused substitute in Connacht, before signing for Rotherham, while Marc Thomas joined from Jersey in February but didn’t really make any impact on the first team.
Samoan international scrum-half Pele Cowley was brought in just before Christmas, but did not get into any first team squads as he was restricted to the British and Irish Cup appearances before departing back to a previously signed contract with Waikato.
You might expect the winners to come in the form of Anton Peikrishvili or Sion Bennett, who will both stay beyond the summer having signed new contracts, or Nicky Robinson, just because he’s King Nicky, but no.
The winner comes in the mustachioed form of BJ Edwards. Parachuted in on loan from Bristol, the second row literally only appeared in two Anglo-Welsh Cup matches, both of them being heavy defeats and he even managed to pick up a yellow card, before being sent back to whence he came.
So why is he the winner? Just look at the facial hair.
Player of the Season
The awards finishes with the big one, the Cardiff Rugby Life 2016/17 player of the season.
Those injuries once again effected the nominees list for this award, with plenty of players ending up in the treatment room just as they were hitting their stride.
Dan Fish was going well before his season ended in Connacht, while Tom James was in fine try scoring form before an illness hit. Gareth Anscombe was his typical classy self either side of a lengthy leg injury, while Ellis Jenkins had a superb end of the season after returning from a bad concussion.
Jarrad Hoeata’s second half of the season should be acknowledged, Tomos Williams was impressive despite limited game time, Josh Navidi was his reliable self, while Rey Lee-Lo was a consistent performer in the centre all season.
There can only be one winner though, and this year my choice is someone who rarely grabs the headlines, but deserves the plaudits for the season he has had.
Macauley Cook has missed just two games across the Pro12 and Europe in 2016/17, playing 1886 minutes of rugby this season at second row, flanker and number eight. Week-in, week-out the Rhondda boy will offer 100% for the Cardiff Blues jersey, doing all the unglamorous work.
He carries and tackles all day, is a big weapon at defensive mauls as well as coming second in the lineouts claimed statistics for all of the Pro12 with 72, his jumping speed being a huge asset in an otherwise precarious looking set piece.
It’s true to say that there have been players in better form at differing parts of the season, but over the campaign as a whole Cook has been the personification of reliability and deserves recognition for getting through a whole load of work that goes largely unseen.
Over the next few years the financial belts will tighten, but it’ll be important to keep players like Cook around who have the experience, 126 appearances despite being only 25, who are prepared to do that dirty work, have the attributes of speed and quality to go with it, while never offering less than 100% in an example to the younger players coming through.
Congratulations on an excellent season Macauley, and here’s to many more!