So another season reaches it’s conclusion and it’s time to bring the curtain down on the campaign in the usual way, with the annual Cardiff Rugby Life Awards!
Just when we thought the 2020/21 season may have been the most bizarre in the club’s history it’s possible that the year just gone has topped it with the Blue and Blacks spending a month stranded between South Africa and quarantine hotels, seeing games still called off and played behind closed doors due to covid, with added cancellations for storms and then finished off with a poor run of results.
It’s a campaign that will probably go down in the record books for all the wrong reasons, but there were still some moments to celebrate, and I have done my best to dig them out and highlight them, so get your tuxedos or dresses on from wherever you’re reading this and re-live the best bits of Cardiff’s 2021/22 campaign.
Most Improved Player
It’s not necessarily been a season for improvements at the Arms Park, in fact you could argue it’s been very much the opposite, but there are a handful of candidates as Rhys Carre kicked on from talented youngster to international worthy form in the final part of the campaign, while Max Llewellyn visibly grew in confidence as he put together a run of games.
The winner though comes from a very specific part of the season, and almost won the award in the space of one half of rugby.
As 32 members of the Cardiff first team were unavailable back in December, it came down to a bunch of “misfits” to take the field for the Blue and Blacks in the Heineken Champions Cup. At loosehead prop was Rowan Jenkins, the Aberavon player and groundsman who had previous experience with Ospreys in the British and Irish Cup, and had a spell as a professional with Cardiff 12 months before, but had never gone up against anyone like 50-cap All Black Charlie Faumuina.
The first scrum, inside 90 seconds of the game getting underway, resulted in a penalty against Jenkins, as did the second a few minutes later, but by the 20th minute the scrum was solid enough to provide the platform for Josh Adams to score, and then on the 33rd minute Jenkins was winning a scrum penalty to launch an attack from.
He backed up that huge effort against Harlequins the next week, and thoroughly earned recognition as a key part of the success of those two games.
Young Player of the Year
This is the award that goes to the best U23 player in the first team, and while I would usually run through a few contenders I think the majority of supporters have probably already come to the same conclusion, that the winner is Theo Cabango.
The 20-year-old burst on to the scene with a strong showing against Toulouse before really catching the eye with a stunning try away at Harlequins. Following on from that he continued to impress for the Rags and took his second chance in the first team with both hands when he started against the Lions in March.
Three tries in eight games followed as his sheer pace and surprising level of physicality given his relatively small stature became a real bright spark in 12 weeks of almost constant misery towards the end of the season. While there appears to be no quick fixes for Cardiff, the development of Cabango will surely bring more than an element of excitement to the Arms Park over the coming months.
Now there may be a theme emerging here as, while the win over Connacht after both fly halves had gone off injured inside 20 minutes was well earned, and the victory over Leinster in January came with the particularly memorable moment of the game winning kick, there are only two real candidates for this award.
The performance against Toulouse was a brilliant one. With just the week before the game to put the misfit side together, and uncertainty over whether the game was going to go ahead just a few days beforehand, to even be on the field was some achievement let alone take the lead after 20 minutes. The atmosphere at the Arms Park was also something else.
However, on a purely on-field basis the outing against Harlequins the following week was another step up. With an extra few days of training to improve cohesion, and Dan Fish slotting in at 10 to pull the strings, Cardiff kept the game to just a one-score margin right up to the hour mark at the home of the reigning English champions, playing some fantastic rugby along the way.
Try of the Season
It wasn’t a classic season for Cardiff tries, on the basis that we didn’t score a huge amount, nor were there many particular stunners within that. Owen Lane’s finish against Zebre in the final home game of the season was fairly memorable, and the counter attack that Corey Domachowski finished off at home against Harlequins were good scores, but to stick with the theme I’m going to concentrate on three.
Josh Adams’ out-to-in line to go under the posts against Toulouse was a brilliant moment, as was Cameron Winnett bagging a try on debut at The Stoop to round off an attacking sequence that had everything that fans of the Blue and Blacks want; dynamic carrying, a fast-pace, and a Dan Fish delayed pass.
The winner though came from later in that game as Ellis Jenkins won a trademark turnover on the halfway line, Seb Davies produced a brilliant offload with his long levers reaching over the Quins defender, and then Theo Cabango going 50 metres and beating four defenders to score his first try of many for the club. A superb score.
Previously this award has gone to individuals who have contributed enormously to the club, both on and off the field, but this year the Cardiff Rugby Life Special Recognition Award goes to The Misfits as a group for what they did for the Blue and Blacks over that two week spell in December.
After a tough few weeks dealing with the majority of the first team players and staff becoming stranded in South Africa as the Welsh Government washed their hands of offering assistance, the club was desperate for any piece of good news, so just getting a 23-man squad out on the field in front of a sold out Arms Park was an achievement in itself.
For them then to go and perform the way they did across both games was unbelievable and embodied everything that is great about this club. They had pride in the jersey, played their hearts out for themselves, their families and the fans, played positive and attacking rugby, and most of all were competitive against two of the best sides in Europe.
As a result it’s huge credit to Rowan Jenkins, Geraint James and Aberavon RFC, Joe Cowell and Cardiff Met RFC, Evan Yardley, Alun Rees, Alex Everett and the Rags, and Jacob Beetham, Rhys Anstey, Ethan Lloyd, Ioan Evans, Ryan Wilkins, Cameron Winnett, Theo Cabango, Nathan Evans, Alex Mann and the Academy for the way they stepped up.
There’s also the remaining first team players, particularly senior leaders like Seb Davies, Olly Robinson, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Willis Halaholo and Josh Adams stepping up, and a particular nod to Gruff Rees heading up the coaching team alongside Richie Rees and T Rhys Thomas, who did an incredible job fostering the culture and getting the performances out of those players.
In a particularly tough situation it was a brilliant two weeks for the club and, despite the season as a whole being one to forget, I’m sure the game against Toulouse at the Arms Park in particular will be one that lives long in the memory.
Player of the Year
And so we finish with the big award, and a slight for dilemma for myself as the one-man judging panel because in terms of the season as a whole there’s a clear winner in the form of James Botham.
The back rower has carried the side almost single-handedly at times during the 2021/22 campaign, slotting in at 6, 7 and 8 with ease, and offering plenty on both sides of the ball as a strong carrier, committed tackler and effective jackal. At just 24 he plays with a maturity beyond his years and can’t be far off being a regular on the international scene.
However, there’s been a strong theme throughout these awards, and I’ve no doubt that Botham will be in a position to win Player of the Year again, so focusing on that December period there is one man who stands head and shoulders above the rest, and wins a unique award double after the recent Rags awards, it’s the one and only Dan Fish.
The 31-year-old came out of retirement from professional rugby for at least the third time and, particularly when stepping in at fly-half against Harlequins showed all the rugby IQ and quality that have made him such a crowd favourite with the Blue and Blacks faithful over the years. In truth he has almost won the award for the outrageous dummy and line break at The Stoop alone!
So, collecting his second Player of the Year Award of the summer, Dan Fish is the Cardiff Rugby Life 2021/22 Player of the Year.