So with the 2018/19 season fading into our rear view mirrors as quickly as Cardiff Blues faded from a play-off challenge, it’s time to suit up for the Cardiff Rugby Life Awards.
Whereas last year’s event came on the back of a European Challenge Cup triumph in Bilbao, this year there is a more sombre background as hopes of challenging in the Guinness Pro14 and making the Heineken Champions Cup again were dashed.
In an up-and-down season there is still plenty to look back on and celebrate though, so let’s have a look who wins absolutely nothing tangible over the next few hundred words.
Most Improved Player
Once a cursed award after Jarrad Hoeata’s immediate departure and Dan Fish’s serious hamstring injury, this award is now directly linked with international honours after last year’s winner Jarrod Evans got a Wales call-up on the back of it.
The aim generally is to leave aside young players in this category, as they have an award of their own later, and reward a senior player who had a particularly good season, however this year all the familiar faces have been at the forefront of the team.
Rhys Gill and Matthew Morgan were briefly considered, but in the end the award has gone to a player who has improved from a disastrous start to the season, to being a regular starter by the end.
Rory Thornton arrived at the Arms Park after a nightmare year with injuries looking to get regular game time and possibly force his way back into Warren Gatland’s plans ahead of the World Cup.
Unfortunately some noticeably mediocre performances in the first six weeks of the season left him out of favour over the middle of the campaign, however a chance to start against Connacht in January was taken well and six starts in the next seven games cemented his place in the Cardiff Blues engine room.
Young Player of the Year
Obviously last year’s winner Owen Lane is still eligible for this award, but unlike him with scoring tries, I like to share trophies around, so it’s going to go elsewhere this year.
There have definitely been some strong contenders, with Shane Lewis-Hughes and Harri Millard both making big impacts on the first team in what has been their breakthrough seasons, while Liam Belcher has impressed when given a chance.
However, the winner this year is Aled Summerhill (he’s under 25 so he fits the criteria), with an impressive 10 tries in 15 appearances across all competitions leaving him second in the club’s top try scorer list for this season.
His out-and-out pace, combined with his balance and a developing step, have been key in our first phase attacking strength, while he is adding the ability to come off his wing and find work in midfield as well as stepping in at full-back when required.
As always it’s fun to not only look back on the highlights of the season, but the low points as well, just to remember how lucky we are that we don’t have to watch them every week. (Sorry Dragons fans).
A couple of contenders this season, including the last 70 minutes away at Zebre, the trip to South Africa to play Cheetahs, and even the home win over Dragons was not the greatest spectacle I’ve ever experienced.
However, the first half away at Glasgow in the league, during one of our many defeats to the Scots this season, was comfortably the worse performance of the season for me.
After Jarrod Evans’ penalty in the first few minutes the home side went on the rampage and scored four converted tries to lead 28-3 at half-time against an unorganised defence that were second best all half.
Fortunately we clawed some pride back after the break, but the damage had been done and the memories cemented. One day we’ll beat you though Glasgow!
Back to the celebrations now and fortunately there were some happy memories to take away from the 2018/19 season with a couple of contenders for the best Cardiff Blues performance.
The home 37-13 victory over Munster to get a first win of the campaign under our belts was a cracker, while winning our first game back in the Heineken Cup away at Lyon was fantastic as well, especially having to come from behind.
There was also an excellent comeback win at Edinburgh during the Six Nations period, however the winner of this award comes from a few weeks later when Scarlets arrived at the Arms Park.
Totally opposite to the worst performance of the season, Cardiff Blues blew the opposition away scoring five tries and a penalty in the first half as we went into the sheds a massive 38-0 up, and while the Scarlets hit back in the second half, the final score was 41-17.
Try of the Season
There are loads of contenders for this award courtesy of the fact that we have probably been the most effective team on first phase ball in Europe this season! (Based on absolutely no stats at all).
We have also had a few excellent individual tries, Gareth Anscombe’s away at Lyon sticks in the mind in that sense, but for me there is a clear winner and it comes in the form of Matthew Morgan skipping through the Saracens defence at Allianz Park.
It’s not only the fact that he sees off the kick chaser and makes the line break, but that he then converts that line break into a try courtesy of a massive fend. A quite brilliant try that underlines the talent that the full-back possesses.
Best New Signing
One of the categories that doesn’t quite have the long list of nominees that others have had, with only four signings actually coming in last summer in the shape of Samu Manoa, Rory Thornton, Jason Harries and Dmitri Arhip.
With Manoa having only played a handful of games before returning to the USA for family reasons, while Thornton’s poor start to the season has been mentioned above, they are both out of the running.
This leaves just Harries and Arhip, and although the Moldovan has been an excellent addition in terms of adding quality depth to our tighthead ranks, the award goes to winger Jason Harries.
From the relative rugby wilderness his six tries in 17 games have been good return from a player not on the biggest wage and without a huge amount of top level XVs experience. A pacey winger with strength in contact, he has been solid under the high ball and can hopefully push on further next season.
Just like last year there are two recipients of this year’s Special Recognition Award, and following on from one of those, Fa’ao Filise, they complete the experienced front row that we saw pack down a few times over the last few years.
Gethin Jenkins called time on his playing career back in November, running out one last time against Zebre, before hanging his boots up on the back of some persistent injury problems at the age of 37.
He finished with 195 Cardiff Blues appearances to his name, as well as spending a season with Toulon, won 129 Wales caps to finish as the most capped Welshmen ever and most capped loosehead in rugby history, and toured with the British and Irish Lions in 2005 and 2009.
Meanwhile Matthew Rees hung his boots up at the end of the season after nearly 20 years at the top playing for Pontypridd, Celtic Warriors and Scarlets before switching to Cardiff Blues in 2013. He finishes with over 300 career club appearances and 60 Welsh caps, as well as touring with the Lions in 2009.
As well as that he overcame cancer in 2013, returning to play and captain at the Arms Park for five more years in an inspirational story for cancer sufferers everywhere.
Two more than worthy recipients of the Special Recognition Award who will go down in Cardiff Blues history as legends of the club and the game.
Player of the Year
We finish on the big one, and although this season didn’t quite match last in terms of on-field achievements, there are still a few players putting their hands up and making it a tough decision.
Olly Robinson has been superb, honoured once again in the Pro14’s end of season awards, this time for his turnovers, while Nick Williams has had another consistently good campaign as a key man in the squad.
Owen Lane and Aled Summerhill both earn recognition for their try scoring records and danger off the wings during the second half of the season, but there is one man who has stood out throughout the year as a whole, and that is Rey Lee-Lo.
His attacking stats are quite remarkable, with nine tries in 23 games across all competitions and 187 carries for 841 metres, averaging 4.5 metres per carry and 36.5 metres per game.
Not the obviously loudest player but a clear leader on the field, he has been consistently excellent whether at 12 or 13 this season and has been key as Cardiff Blues have become one of the most dangerous first phase sides in all of Europe.
The 2018/19 Cardiff Rugby Life Player of the Year is Rey Lee-Lo.