The end of the 2017/18 campaign means that awards season is now well underway, before players, supporters and coaches can spend the summer on a beach somewhere warm unless, like me and Dan Fish, you’re ginger.
With the official Cardiff Blues awards ceremony set to take place on Thursday, I’m going to jump in there first and bring you the third annual Cardiff Rugby Life Awards, so get your bow ties on and settle in for a blog that mentions the European Challenge Cup Final win as many times as possible.
Most Improved Player
With the previous winners of this award being Jarrad Hoeata, who left the club immediately after claiming the title, and Dan Fish, who suffered a serious injury early in the season after winning and has hardly played since, this is fast becoming the award nobody wants to win.
However, with the criteria for the award being a player who has improved from last season to this, or, crucially, a player who’s form has picked up during the season, there’s a case to make for a lot of the squad after a slow start to the campaign ended with a Challenge Cup win.
Particular mentions have to go to Lloyd Williams, who has overcome the dreaded Team Wales-itis to put up a serious fight for the number nine jersey with Tomos Williams this season in a battle that will continue into 2018/19.
Matthew Morgan’s defence has noticeably improved this season, to add to his counter-attacking ability which is arguably one of the best in the league, and while he will never be the best tackler around, he is no longer an obvious weak link at full-back.
Also to Garyn Smith who, after making just two starts in the league and Europe last season, has made 17 this season and been a rock in the centre when called upon to cover for Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo.
However, my winner is Jarrod Evans, who has done more than improve this season, he has grown as a player in front of our eyes.
Like Smith, fly-half Evans found playing opportunities severely limited last season, in part thanks to a nasty jaw break, with just five appearances in all competitions. Rugby is a funny old game though, and with Gareth Anscombe in the treatment room at the start of this season, the Pontypridd-born player got his chance.
Sublime performances against Connacht, Toulouse, Lyon, Munster and Cheetahs saw him nail down the number 10 jersey, even keeping the position when Anscombe returned to fitness and forcing him to slot in at full-back at the business end of the season.
Warren Gatland decided to take a slimmed down squad on summer tour, but if he was taking three fly-halves as usual, few would have bet against Jarrod joining Anscombe and Rhys Patchell. If I’d said that at the start of the season, you wouldn’t have believed me, and that is why Evans is the deserved winner of most improved player.
Hopefully there is no actual curse!
Young Player of the Year
After last summer’s financial wobble, Cardiff Blues switched to focus on developing young players rather than bringing outside talent in, and while we had players with great potential coming through, I don’t think anyone would have predicted just how well these lads have taken to life in the first team.
Seb Davies, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Garyn Smith and last year’s winner Rhun Williams have all turned out excellent performances and become key members of the senior squad rather than just making up the numbers.
For me though, one player has stood out in the way he has burst onto the scene, and that man is Owen Lane.
We’ve known about the former Whitchurch High pupil since he came off the bench in a pre-season friendly against Bristol aged just 17, but having only just graduated from the Wales U20s setup and a stint with Wales 7s before the start of the season, most us were just expecting him to gain experience with Cardiff RFC and in the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
However, when Blaine Scully, Alex Cuthbert, Aled Summerhill and Rhun Williams were all unavailable for the game against Connacht at the end of November it was then 19-year-old Lane who was selected on the wing for a first Pro14 start.
Not looking out of place at all, he grabbed a try thanks to an excellent pick-up from a Gareth Anscombe pass on debut, and has gone on to finish the season a first-choice winger, scoring six tries in nineteen appearances.
Unfortunately he picked up a bad hand injury in the Challenge Cup Final win, which kept him out of contention to replace Josh Adams on the Wales summer tour, but he has plenty of time for international honours in the future. For now, he is a future Cardiff Blues star.
Although this season has ended in superb fashion with that night in Bilbao, it is always important to remember that no team is perfect and there are mistakes to learn from.
The big learning point for Cardiff Blues this season is what wrong on at the start of the season, and why we got off the mark so slowly. Defeats to Edinburgh, Leinster, Glasgow and Munster put us on the back foot immediately, while back-to-back losses in festive derbies against Ospreys and Scarlets didn’t help.
However, for a very unfortunate select group of Cardiff Blues supporters who were present at the AJ Bell Stadium on a cold Saturday in December, the 24-0 defeat to Sale Sharks will be a stain on our memories for years to come.
After an unexpected amount of hours to get up to Salford in the first place, there was still snow on the ground as the players took to the field and proceeded to kick possession away at every available opportunity, seemingly forgetting how to play rugby, let alone our brand of it.
It was an abysmal performance which only really seemed worth it after Gareth Anscombe kicked the winning penalty at Bilbao.
Many of those who didn’t make the trip might say to forget it now, but you don’t know man, you weren’t there!
Is it even worth running through the possibilities that didn’t quite win?
At 6-20 down at half-time in Bilbao, many of us were staring down the barrel of a wasted expensive and lengthy trip to Spain. It was an achievement just to get there, of course, but to go down in this fashion just seemed too disappointing to comprehend.
However, fast forward an hour and Cardiff Blues the world over were asking the same question, ‘how on earth did that happen?’.
We knew this group of players and coaches was different, it was special in a way we haven’t seen for many years, but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure we had it in us to come back from the schooling Gloucester had given us in game management in that first half.
In the end it came down to just playing though, and that is something we’re actually very good at now. Senior players stepped up when it mattered, individual skills came to the fore, and a distinct inability to know when to give up was evident. It was the ultimate 40 minutes of quality and effort combined, and what a time to produce it.
Have I mentioned we won the European Challenge Cup that day?
Try of the Season
Up until the last game of the campaign, this was all set to be the try that Olly Robinson finished against Connacht, with some superb handling from Macauley Cook, Owen Lane and Willis Halaholo to get over the line from nothing.
However, that was overtaken in dramatic fashion in the first minute of the second half in Spain thanks to two pieces of sublime individual skill.
Firstly, Gareth Anscombe produces a perfectly weight grubber kick in not much space on the blindside for himself to collect, and was then able to transfer the ball quickly back onto his boot in behind.
Then, Tomos Williams turns on the afterburners before showing off some footballing skills that Gareth Bale would be proud of and caps it off by collecting the ball as it cannons off the post while travelling at top speed and holds on to possession as he slides over the line.
An unbelievable try, and incredibly important in terms of giving us belief at the start of that second half on the way to a second European Challenge Cup Final win.
Best New Signing
Now, at the start of the season this seemed like an award that wasn’t going to be too difficult to select a winner from as only Jack Roberts and Damian Welch actually arrived at the club, while Sion Bennett signed permanently after a successful loan period.
However, with Roberts and Bennett missing large chunks of the season through injury, and Welch failing to nail down a regular first team spot, it would have ended up being the best of a bad bunch winning this award.
That was until Olly Robinson arrived at the Arms Park, and changed all our lives forever.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person thinking ‘here we go again’ with the ringers coming on board after last season’s never ending stream of injury replacement signings around the time of the great 2017/18 injury crisis, and with second tier Bristol happy to let him go, questions were certainly waiting to be answered.
Well, answer them Olly has as he has become an instant favourite amongst those on the terraces, with his all action performances in terms of carrying, tackling and jackaling winning him plenty of fans.
Despite arriving late for the start of the season and briefly heading back to Bristol in December, Robinson has made 23 appearances in all competitions for Cardiff Blues this season, and with his parents and siblings regularly seen at games, it feels like he has become an integral part of the furniture at the Arms Park.
Unusually though, the prize for best new signing this season is actually a free scrum cap fitting for the recipient. Enjoy Olly!
This year sees the first wheeling out of the special recognition award, but there is not one recipient, but two.
Danny Wilson has done three years of sterling work at the Arms Park, transforming the squad from a real bunch of Premiership and journeymen barbarians into the perfect mix of experience and potential, all against the backdrop of off-field turbulence.
Along with Matt Sherratt, he has got us playing an exciting brand of running rugby, playing to the strengths of our line breaking backs and consistently working to tactically outsmart opposition sides with a heavier and more physical pack than ours.
Add in the environment in which he has allowed the players to form a team culture that we haven’t seen at the Cardiff Blues for a few years, and he has really set us up for the next few years and beyond.
Meanwhile, on the playing front, Taufa’ao Filise retires this summer after 12 years and 255 appearances at Cardiff Blues alone.
The King of Tonga has been an absolute stalwart, playing a part in all three trophy wins since the re-brand, and still holding down the number three jersey at 40 years old. A physical freak of nature.
Add in that he is an unusually shy and unassuming man, who never turns down a supporter request for a signature or photo, and there’s a reason that Filise is woven into the fabric of Cardiff Blues and our historic Arms Park ground. Legend does not even come close to describing the King of Tonga.
Player of the Season
Now to finish off the awards with the big one, and this year it is more hotly contested than ever, with the number of possible winners stretching into double figures.
When I asked the question of who the player of the year should be on Twitter over the weekend suggestions included; Matthew Rees, Seb Davies, Olly Robinson, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, Nick Williams, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo and Garyn Smith.
While that is excellent in terms of just how much quality we have in the squad, it doesn’t make it easy to select just one man to receive the Cardiff Rugby Life Player of the Year award.
However, someone has to win, and for me, Josh Turnbull has embodied everything good about Cardiff Blues this season.
He has put in huge shifts in every position he has been asked to play, with outings at second row and right across the back row on the way to 30 games this season. A whopping 1855 minutes of action, the most of any Cardiff Blues player, has seen him miss just one game across the league and Europe.
At 30 years old he is one of the most experienced members of the squad, and has marshalled the young players around him superbly, particularly Seb Davies in the second row, as well as taking on the responsibility of lineout calling towards the back end of the season.
In playing terms he claimed the third most lineouts in the Pro14 this season, with 63, and made the fourth most tackles, with 226, averaging double figures per game. An unbelievable effort in leading our much improved defence.
Albeit with blue tinted glasses on, I would say that Turnbull is one of the most underrated players in Wales right now, and with versatility up his sleeve, he is unfortunate to miss out on this summer’s touring squad.
Selfishly though, after so many minutes played this summer, Cardiff Blues will be pleased to see the big man resting up and getting ready to lead our charge up the Pro14 next season, as well as launching an assault on the Champions Cup.
The Cardiff Rugby Life Player of the Year 2017/18 is Josh Turnbull.