After a year hiatus while the Indigo Group Premiership was out of action during the coronavirus pandemic, the Cardiff RFC edition of the Cardiff Rugby Life Awards are back with a bang!
Having celebrated what should have been a league title in 2020, the Blue and Blacks were finally able to lift the trophy a few weeks back after four bonus point wins in a row took advantage of Newport’s struggles at the end of the season to win the Premiership for the first time since 2009.
As with the last time these awards were held, only semi-professional players are eligible for most of the awards, but with some strong performances across the board there is plenty of competition to take home the non-existent trophies.
Most Improved Player
A tricky one to hand out as the squad has been performing at such a high level for the last few seasons there is little room for improvement, but there’s a few players who have got even better over the course of the last nine months or so.
Brynley Toms has taken another step forward in establishing himself as one of the top loosehead props in the league, while James Beal has had arguably his best season in a Rags jersey, scoring five tries in 14 games but also taking on a leadership role as part of what has often been a young set of outside backs.
The winner though is Ollie Drake who has become one of the best tighthead props in the Premiership over the last nine months. The 28-year-old stepped up well from Pontypool in the last campaign before covid hit, but pushed on again during 2021/22 to anchor one of the top scrums in the league, particularly impressing against Swansea, Pontypridd and Merthyr in the crunch final three games.
Young Player of the Year
This award will once again be for the U25s with the average age of the semi-professionals in the squad still high in the 20s, and young players such as Llyr Green, Tom Hoppe and George Gasson only appearing fleetingly throughout the season.
Nevertheless the winner is still thoroughly deserving of recognition for his performances, but also his comeback from a run of bad luck. Going back to September 2019 and Nathan Hudd broke his arm playing for Cardiff A away at Ulster A in the Celtic Cup. His return to action was then hit by covid before another injury in pre-season kept him out until January.
However, since getting on the field the flanker has been a key member of the back row alongside Alex Everett and Morgan Allen, acting as a key defensive cog and a pacey ball carrier, bagging two tries and being involved in others thanks to some quality handling skills. The 24-year-old will no doubt be hoping to build on this during an injury free year from August.
Try of the Season
Now this is a tricky award to give out as Cardiff have scored some unbelievably good tries during the course of last season. Each month’s try of the month award was of high quality, let alone the best try against the campaign as a whole!
Honourable mentions have to go to individual efforts from Theo Cabango against Newport and Jacob Beetham against Aberavon, but the winner for me is the team counter-attack try that stemmed from receiving a kick-off against RGC in January.
The ambition to attack from Cameron Winnett, the support from Alun Rees, Ethan Lloyd and Ryan Wilkins, and then the finish from Winnett who stayed alive to get over the line all add up to a score that is more than deserving of the award in this tough category.
Best New Signing
As ever in the Premiership off-season there are plenty of player movements, and with covid chucked in for good measure there were a lot of new faces in the Rags semi-professional squad when rugby returned last summer.
Of those there were two standouts in my mind. Alun Rees made a big impression at hooker on his return to the club after seven years away, as part of a good Cardiff scrum, and a very impression red zone catch and drive that helped him to an excellent tally of eight tries in 15 games.
Just pipping Rees to the award though is Sean Moore who made the switch from Pontypridd and immediately became a key member of the Blue and Blacks engine room, adding a level of physicality and athleticism in 22 appearances across all competitions, as well as being a capable lineout option and committed defender. Still only 24-years-old he is worth keeping an eye on.
Best Academy Player
Now the award for the non-semi-pro players, and my word it’s a tough one to pick a winner for this season. Altogether around 16 Academy players have turned out for the Rags this season, not including young professionals such as Will Davies-King, Teddy Williams, Ellis Bevan, Jamie Hill, Max Llewellyn and Mason Grady.
Of that 16 plenty of made a seriously good impression, with Rhys Anstey catching the eye in the second row, Gwilym Bradley often forming a key part of the back row, Ethan Lloyd looking very comfortable at scrum-half, Ioan Evans improving every week in the centre, Theo Cabango a constant try scoring threat on the wing and Cameron Winnett a proper talent at full-back.
The winner has been a standout player all season though, as Jacob Beetham has started developing into the all-round full-back as a footballing option, a strong defender, good under the high ball and a counter attacking threat, as well as stepping into the attacking line as a second playmaker and an option in the wider channels.
But for injury I’ve no doubt we would have seen the 21-year-old regularly in the first team during the second half of the campaign, but hopefully a full pre-season will mean he has an even bigger impact at that level come September.
Performance of the Season
Another tough one to pick a winner for as there have been some superb outings from the Rags this season, going back to the 60-5 demolition of RGC in September, the 45-6 hammering of Pontypridd in November, the bounceback 42-7 win over Carmarthen in January having lost to the Quins two weeks previously, and the 41-28 win over a strong Aberavon in March.
The winner has to come from the final run of four wins though, where Cardiff needed bonus point victories to stay in the Premiership title race and put pressure on Newport. Going away to Llandovery and Swansea to get five points were huge efforts, as was beating Pontypridd at home in what is always a big game.
However, the best performance in my book was that last game against Merthyr. Coming at the end of a long season, against a physical Merthyr side who were keen to see off Dale McIntosh in style, and with the pressure of knowing a bonus point win would see us lift the trophy, the team was fantastic to secure a 31-12 victory and finish the campaign as deserved champions.
Player of the Year
And so the awards come to an end with the big one, and there are plenty of already mentioned candidates with James Beal and Sean Moore particularly in the reckoning, as well as Alex Everett having another standout season having bounced back from his serious pre-covid ankle injury, and the current award holder Morgan Allen who was talismanic as number eight and captain once again.
There is only one man who can take the title this year though, and it’s the man who can’t be moved, the five-times retired Dan Fish.
Fishy is obviously in a totally different stage of his career than he was two years ago, having transitioned away from the professional game and towards a role as Cardiff Academy and Rags Backs/Attack coach, but has continued to turn out regularly for the side in the Premiership and lit up the league with his attack minded running, passing and kicking games.
More than that though he’s a natural leader on the pitch, particularly talking the young scrum-halves and centres through games in order for them to perform and improve throughout the season, and doing it all in the thickest Kairdiff accent recorded in history.
Dan Fish is the Cardiff Rugby Life Cardiff RFC Player of the Year.