Technically the 2019/20 season hasn’t even come to an end yet, with the Guiness Pro14 set to conclude at the end of August for Cardiff Blues, but some five months after we last played a game it seems fair enough to start handing out awards.
The campaign itself was already a disjointed one, with the Rugby World Cup overlapping with the first two months before John Mulvihill had to deal with a number of injuries ahead of the international players heading back into Wales camp for the Six Nations.
As a result some of the selections below are quite tough, with very few players having extended runs in the starting XV, but they do offer a chance for some of the squad players to take the limelight with the star names playing in red more than blue over the last 12 months.
Most Improved Player
With the opportunities for a number of players to get plenty of Pro14 and European Challenge Cup minutes under the belt in the first part of the season, there are a number of candidates for this award.
Particularly in the front row where the likes of Corey Domachowski, Rhys Gill, Kirby Myhill and Keiron Assiratti helped the Cardiff Blues scrum to become second best in the league, winning an incredible 97% of our own put-ins.
Elsewhere there was a welcome return to form for Seb Davies towards the end of the season, while in the backs there were signs that Lloyd Williams was getting some pace back into his game from scrum-half.
However the winner is a different member of the front row union, as Scott Andrews had arguably his best season as a Cardiff Blues player in 2019/20 as part of that successful scrum, combining solid set piece work with his work rate around the field.
Asked of the Cardiff Blues Podcast with Karl earlier in the campaign whether he thought he was playing the best rugby of his career, the 31-year-old responded that he didn’t think so, but it’s difficult to remember a time when he was performing to a higher standard as he graduated from a fourth choice squad player to someone who many would have selected ahead of Dmitri Arhip at one point.
Young Player of the Year
As with fringe players getting their opportunities in the first team, a Rugby World Cup year also offers plenty of minutes for young players making their way through the system, with the likes of Will Davies-King, Ben Murphy, James Botham, Alun Lawrence, Max Llewellyn and Ioan Davies all getting first team exposure.
In terms of the of the award itself, serious candidates come in the form of Keiron Assiratti, making his most league and European appearances for two years, James Ratti who has made a serious impression in the second row, and Ben Thomas who finally made the step up to the first team and looked assured at inside centre.
The winner though is Shane Lewis-Hughes, who capped a superb 2019 with a call-up to Wayne Pivac’s first Wales squad for the Barbarians game in November and went on to reach the season suspension with 16 appearances in all.
There isn’t an award for individual performance of the season, but if there was the flanker’s showing against Ospreys just before Christmas would be a serious contender, with his 13 tackles and nine carries combining with the fact that he covered every blade of Liberty Stadium grass.
It wasn’t necessarily a particularly memorable season in terms of top performances as the inconsistent nature of Cardiff Blues led to as many dreadful moments as there were moments of real quality.
However, three games stand out when it comes to the best team performance, and all three came in the space of four weeks across the end of November and the middle of December.
The win over the Ospreys in Swansea, the first for a decade, was one borne of grit and determination, grinding out victory against a tough side at a rainy Liberty Stadium, while the bonus point victory against Pau was almost the total opposite of that, a festival of running rugby against a good French side at the Arms Park.
The award winner though perhaps slipped under the radar outside the Cardiff Blues bubble at the time as, clashing with Wales’ game against the Barbarians in November, John Mulvihill’s squad went up against a full-strength Benetton side in Treviso.
With almost an entire first team XV missing through call-ups and injuries, and trailing 28-17 with 13 minutes to go, the players launched a stunning comeback culminating with Jason Harries’ match winning try with the clock red. The best moment of the season and the best performance of the season for it’s backs to the wall, underdog nature.
Try of the Season
Now although there was some good tries scored during the campaign, with Owen Lane finishing off a clinical first phase attack against Edinburgh back in October, and Josh Adams and Rey Lee-Lo linking up for an incisive counter attack against Scarlets in January, this award is really ‘Try of the home win over Pau’.
That evening in December produced a number of tries of the highest quality, with Cardiff Blues’ December Try of the Month vote being taken up entirely with four tries from that game.
There was Tomos Williams’ chip kicks for Jarrod Evans, Will Boyde’s offload for Ben Thomas, Jarrod’s kick for Josh Adams, Adams’ out-the-back-door flick for Matthew Morgan, Thomas’ kick for Owen Lane and Lloyd Williams’ brilliant skill to secure Adams his hat-trick. And breathe.
The winner though is the opener on the night, as Tomos Williams’ quick through allows Jarrod Evans to jink past a few Pau defenders. Williams pops back up before flicking the ball out the back for Olly Robinson who links with Josh Adams for the Wales winger to score his first Cardiff Blues try.
Best New Signing
At one point the summer of 2019 was shaping up to be a superb summer of recruitment activity of Cardiff Blues, with Hallam Amos and Josh Adams signed, with money set to be available for bolstering the pack. Then Project Reset struck and it became more about who we could hold on to, rather than who we could sign.
In the end only three other players arrived at the Arms Park, and for me it’s between them two of them to win this award, with Hallam Amos and Josh Adams having spent much of the season with Wales or in the treatment room, while Jason Tovey was largely used as a back up fly-half to Jarrod Evans.
James Ratti was up for this award as well as Young Player of the Year, catching the eye over the festive derbies in particular after stepping up from the Cardiff RFC squad, but I think there’s a clear winner here as Will Boyde made such an impression after his switch from Scarlets.
Featuring right across the back row, the 25-year-old has caught the eye with his all-court game, bringing a carrying and jackal presence that matches some surprisingly powerful carrying, sort of in the mould of Josh Navidi.
Underlining just what an impact he has had at the Arms Park, Boyde actually captained the side against Pau in that European Challenge Cup win, and as Nick Williams prepares to hang up his boots and Navidi continues to be a key member of the Wales squad, the West Walian will become an increasingly important player for Cardiff Blues.
Player of the Year
So now to the big award, and this is the tricky one, as there have been very few players who have featured consistently for Cardiff Blues between September and February due to the aforementioned international periods and injuries that come with such a hectic calendar.
Of the players who have done that, Josh Turnbull won this award at the end of the 2017/18 season, while Rey Lee-Lo is the reigning champion having not taken home the non-existent trophy last season, and there is a generally recognised precedent that repeat winners don’t come around very often.
However, there is one player who stands out as a clear candidate to win the Cardiff Rugby Life Player of the Season for the 2019/20 campaign, and that is Matthew Morgan.
It caps off a rollercoaster four years at the Arms Park for the diminutive full-back who, rewind to the summer of 2017, was public enemy number one after a serious of frail defensive performances, capped in the Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat away at Gloucester.
The player we have seen this season is a world away from that though, making a number of superb try saving tackles especially early in the campaign, looking solid under the high ball and stepping up as an attacking organiser, all alongside continuing to be one of the best counter attackers in Europe.
At 28, Morgan is right in the prime of his career, and with 85 Cardiff Blues appearances under his belt there is no reason he cannot go on to become a real Arms Park favourite over the next few years, continuing his story of redemption.