Cardiff Rugby Life 2016/17 Awards

Welcome ladies and gentleman to the annual Cardiff Rugby Life awards, celebrating the 2016/17 Cardiff Blues season!

It’s been a frustrating campaign of a few poor performances, a lot of injuries and plenty of missed opportunities to make the season a success, alongside a sprinkling of positives that give very cautious cause for optimism heading into an uncertain future.

For now though it’s time to celebrate the 2016/17 season, so get the ties and ball gowns at the ready, and feel free to disagree with every single winner on the night.

Most Improved Player

The criteria for this award can be either a player who has improved their performance from last season to this, or someone that has seen a marked upturn in form throughout this season.

Injury disruption has made this quite a difficult award to find a winner for, as on more than one occasion just as a player was coming into form they ended up in the treatment room for a few weeks. However, there are still some candidates to go through.

James Down had a strong middle part of the season, starting 10 games around the festive period when George Earle was suspended, and made an impression with his set piece work and presence at the breakdown, but started just once in the league since January.

In the backs we saw Steve Shingler come into his own at inside centre for a spell between January and April, scoring 97 points while wearing the 12 shirt, while Blaine Scully made seven more appearances and scored for more tries than his first season in Cardiff, despite an injury cutting his campaign short, as the American made strides to becoming a cult hero.

However, the winner of the Cardiff Rugby Life 2016/17 most improved player award is quite a simple one overall, and it goes to Jarrad Hoeata, after an excellent second half of the season.

The New Zealander only started four games before the turn of the year, and it seemed like a back injury would restrict him to a bit-part role, but 14 starts between January and the end of the season saw him make the most appearances he’s made since he’s been in Cardiff, and the performances earned rave reviews.

Unfortunately the lock will move on to pastures new over the summer, much to the disappointment of many Cardiff Blues fans, but we wish him all the best on wherever he ends up next.

Jarrad Hoeata
Jarrad Hoeata has put his body on the line despite a back injury

 

Young Player of the Year

If there are any positives to come from a hefty injury list they come in the form of the young players who get a chance at some decent Pro12 minutes. This season we’ve seen Shane Lewis-Hughes, Seb Davies and Kieron Assiratti appear in the Pro12, with none of them doing anything to harm their burgeoning reputations.

The award though is a straight shoot-out between two players. The unfortunate runner-up is Corey Domachowski, who many people would not have expected to be up for this award in the first place.

Starting the season behind Gethin Jenkins, Rhys Gill and Brad Thyer in the loosehead ranks it was only really the development tournaments, the B&I Cup and the Anglo-Welsh Cup, that Domachowski would have expected to feature in. When the injury crisis struck though it hit all three senior looseheads and the young prop was thrust into action.

The former Gilfach Goch junior man made his debut against Pau, going on to make seven Pro12 and four European appearances, impressing with his physicality in the scrum and open play. The experience gained will be invaluable and Cardiff Blues fans will be looking forward to seeing Domachowski pulling on the number one jersey for many years.

Cardiff Rugby Life’s Young Player of the Year can go to only one man though, as Rhun Williams has made such a big impression in his debut season at Cardiff Arms Park. From his try scoring debut away in Treviso, where he also made a try saving tackle, it’s been an upward trajectory for the North Walian.

Appearances in the away European game in Pau, trips to Ireland and at Judgement Day against the Ospreys were all successfully negotiated and will no doubt prove to be invaluable experiences as his career progresses. He will slowly make the permanent move to full-back over the next few years, and will no doubt become a terrific asset for Cardiff and Wales.

Rhun Williams
Rhun Williams has been a shining light in an otherwise miserable season

 

Worst Performance

Onto the team awards and the first one is for the worst performance we’ve seen this season. Unsurprisingly after a disappointing year overall there is a few candidates for this award, and they make for painful memories.

Home defeats to Scarlets, Ulster, Munster and Connacht were all tough to witness, as were the trips to Connacht and Scarlets, plenty of which we could have won were we playing at even close to our full potential.

Even some victories were outside contenders, with the win over Zebre at home being particularly frustrating, as was the win over Treviso in Italy back in November.

The winner though was the loss that really kicked off the run of poor form that stretched through Christmas and into the New Years, a 46-24 thrashing at the hands of the Ospreys.

It was a particularly humbling performance after the positivity of the opening six weeks, where the Ospreys beat us up physically before displaying a devastating cutting edge. Why is it the worst performance of the season? Plain and simply because Cardiff didn’t look like they wanted to compete, and that should never be the case in any Welsh derby.

Ospreys Loss
Ospreys run over, through and round us at the Liberty Stadium

 

Best Performance

Despite the disappointing generality to the season, there is still some candidates for the best Cardiff Blues performance of the season, although not necessarily all from wins as there wasn#t very many of those!

Cast your minds back to September, and back-to-back wins over Munster in Cork and Glasgow at CAP gave great optimism for the season ahead. With Glasgow then hot favourites to win the league having been beaten in the play-offs the previous season, it was a particularly good scalp to snatch a 23-19 win, while any win in Ireland should be applauded.

Heading forward and the home victory over Bath in some particularly unsavoury weather was a highlight of the mid-season poor form, while the away win over Pau was a ground out affair, but impressive in coming from behind to snatch a victory and set up qualification for the European quarter-finals thanks to another contender, the bonus point hammering of Bristol.

A narrow defeat against Leinster and a draw in Ulster aren’t to be sniffed at, while for 55 minutes the award was heading straight to the team that played Gloucester, before a spectacular implosion.

In the end there was only one winner though, with the 35-17 bonus-point Judgement Day victory over Ospreys the standout performance from 2016/17. Bringing an end to the losing run, which stretched back to 2010, in that fashion was superb, and particularly the first half performance is one that will stick in the memory for a long time.

A far cry from the heavy loss, the team were on fire, with tries from Lloyd Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Fa’ao Filise, Nick Williams and a brace from Kris Dacey seeing us over the line comfortably, and started a run of three victories to end the Pro12 season on a high, as well as secure bragging rights over our Swansea-based rivals for a few months.

Ospreys Win
Everything clicked perfectly at Judgement Day

 

Best New Signing

With seven signings coming in last summer there’s plenty of nominees for this award, but one clear winner in my book.

Kirby Myhill has shown potential when on the pitch but has been unlucky with injuries that have seen him fall down the pecking order. Rhys Gill has been very solid, although he has also missed chunks of the season due to injury, while George Earle’s good performances have been coupled with suspension and fitness problems.

Steven Shingler was a steady presence at fly-half in the first half of the season, before a successful stint at inside centre. Nick Williams split opinion with some perhaps over-hyping him before he arrived, but he was certainly a ball carrying presence and defensive strongman, while Matthew Morgan had a terrific attacking season, but a horrific defensive one.

In the end though, it was Willis Halaholo who proved the real sensation. Despite only arriving in November he has finished second in the Pro12’s defenders beaten statistics, and that’s with 18 months of rugby in his legs having joined the Blues straight off a Super Rugby and New Zealand Provincial season.

Towards the end of the season we saw his partnership with Rey Lee-Lo really start to hot up, and with a whole summer of rest following a full pre-season, we could well see Halaholo take Northern Hemisphere rugby by storm next season.

Willis Halaholo
Here comes the hot stepper!

 

Try of the Season

In terms of attacking it was a pretty successful season, only scoring 30 less points than 2015/16, with the defence being the big issue. Of the 81 tries scored in all competitions there were some real crackers this year.

Gareth Anscombe’s solo effort against Leinster, Willis Halaholo’s hot stepping efforts against Treviso and Newport Gwent Dragons, Alex Cuthbert’s score against Treviso, Matthew Morgan’s destructive run against Bristol and scores for Tomos Williams and Sion Bennett away in Leinster spring to mind.

However, sometimes if you’re having a bad day in work, then this season’s best try will never fail to cheer up any situation, as Blaine Scully’s flying effort against Scarlets was probably the highlight of the season.

Not just the fact that it was up there with the best finishes I’ve seen at the Arms Park, but also that he gets up, wanders towards the North Terrace and high fives a random bloke. Only Superman Scully could do that!

Blaine Scully
Super Scully! USA, USA, USA

 

Ringer of the Year

A whole new award is the penultimate prize this year, which reflects the injury crisis face by the Blues through the middle of the season.

Rhodri Davies signed up briefly from Llandovery, scoring against the Ospreys in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and acting as an unused substitute in Connacht, before signing for Rotherham, while Marc Thomas joined from Jersey in February but didn’t really make any impact on the first team.

Samoan international scrum-half Pele Cowley was brought in just before Christmas, but did not get into any first team squads as he was restricted to the British and Irish Cup appearances before departing back to a previously signed contract with Waikato.

You might expect the winners to come in the form of Anton Peikrishvili or Sion Bennett, who will both stay beyond the summer having signed new contracts, or Nicky Robinson, just because he’s King Nicky, but no.

The winner comes in the mustachioed form of BJ Edwards. Parachuted in on loan from Bristol, the second row literally only appeared in two Anglo-Welsh Cup matches, both of them being heavy defeats and he even managed to pick up a yellow card, before being sent back to whence he came.

So why is he the winner? Just look at the facial hair.

BJ Edwards
No words are needed

 

Player of the Season

The awards finishes with the big one, the Cardiff Rugby Life 2016/17 player of the season.

Those injuries once again effected the nominees list for this award, with plenty of players ending up in the treatment room just as they were hitting their stride.

Dan Fish was going well before his season ended in Connacht, while Tom James was in fine try scoring form before an illness hit. Gareth Anscombe was his typical classy self either side of a lengthy leg injury, while Ellis Jenkins had a superb end of the season after returning from a bad concussion.

Jarrad Hoeata’s second half of the season should be acknowledged, Tomos Williams was impressive despite limited game time, Josh Navidi was his reliable self, while Rey Lee-Lo was a consistent performer in the centre all season.

There can only be one winner though, and this year my choice is someone who rarely grabs the headlines, but deserves the plaudits for the season he has had.

Macauley Cook has missed just two games across the Pro12 and Europe in 2016/17, playing 1886 minutes of rugby this season at second row, flanker and number eight. Week-in, week-out the Rhondda boy will offer 100% for the Cardiff Blues jersey, doing all the unglamorous work.

He carries and tackles all day, is a big weapon at defensive mauls as well as coming second in the lineouts claimed statistics for all of the Pro12 with 72, his jumping speed being a huge asset in an otherwise precarious looking set piece.

It’s true to say that there have been players in better form at differing parts of the season, but over the campaign as a whole Cook has been the personification of reliability and deserves recognition for getting through a whole load of work that goes largely unseen.

Over the next few years the financial belts will tighten, but it’ll be important to keep players like Cook around who have the experience, 126 appearances despite being only 25, who are prepared to do that dirty work, have the attributes of speed and quality to go with it, while never offering less than 100% in an example to the younger players coming through.

Congratulations on an excellent season Macauley, and here’s to many more!

Macauley Cook
Macauley Cook runs in one of his two tries against Stade Francais to cap off the season

 

 

 

 

The Blues Life 2015/16 Awards

Get your bow ties on and your ball gowns ready, it’s time for the first annual glittering Blues Life awards! As the end of the first season for the blog draws to a close it’s time to reward those that are deserving of accolades, and those not so deserving. So get the drinks in and we’ll start the show…

Most Improved Player

We’ll start with the player that has come on the most over the season under Danny Wilson. Now it would be easy to of course hand this to a senior academy player who has broken through but we’ll have a separate award for that later, this is solely for senior players who perhaps at the start of the season we weren’t so sure about, but have proved us wrong.

Contenders came in the shape of Rey Lee-Lo, who started slowly but became a key player by the end of the year, Gareth Anscombe was a surprise option having been in excellent form towards the end of the campaign after a slow start to his Cardiff Blues career in 2014/15, while Gavin Evans was also considered having been a very solid performer during a difficult first few months.

However in the end there was just one man who deserved the prize, and that man is Dan Fish. In his sixth season with Cardiff now he bounced back from a disappointing 2014/15, where he made just 11 first team appearances, to play 26 times this campaign and score nine tries on the way. He has been a rock in the back three, playing predominantly at full-back but also on the wing having really flourished under Danny Wilson’s coaching. With our running rugby and plastic pitch remember the golden rule, ‘Feed the Fish’.

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Dan Fish slides away with the Most Improved Player trophy

 

Best Young Player

Now we move on to the senior academy lads and there’s plenty to pick from this year as no fewer than 11 were involved with the first team squad to various degrees. Aled Summerhill scored six first team tries, Garyn Smith started each of the last six matches and performed well scoring a try, while Jarrod Evans has looked composed leading the backline from outside-half. In the forwards Brad Thyer and Ethan Lewis have both established themselves as first team front-rowers after successful first senior seasons.

However, my winner may not be everyone’s first choice, but I have chosen Dillon Lewis as the best young player. He hasn’t played as much as some others, with just three starts and 10 substitute appearances, but I have been impressed enough by what I’ve seen to give him the award. He is a strong scrummager, the cornerstone of all tightheads, but to go with that he offers plenty in open play with neat hands and some fancy feet. He is willing to carry and offload and hasn’t just impressed with Cardiff but also Wales U20. I hope he has a big summer at the Junior World Championships before next season.

Dillon Newport
Dillon Lewis has impressed for Cardiff and Wales U20 this seaon

 

Best Win

Onto the team awards and first up our best victory of the season. Obviously despite a slow start we improved to record some fantastic wins in the second half of the campaign. Newport away was a cracking game, as was Munster at home, while of course doing the double over Llanelli was a real high point. However my winner in this category is the defeating of Montpellier at home just before Christmas.

In a 37-27 victory we ran in five tries to record just our fourth win in three and a half months. The win itself was impressive but to do it on the back of such poor form was a real confidence booster. Looking back on the season it really kickstarted our impressive second half of the campaign and to do that against a team jam packed with internationals was quite some feat. A European night under the lights at CAP that won’t be forgotten in a hurry!

Re-live the best win of the season here: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/15/cardiff-37-27-montpellier/

Worst Performance

From the top of the pile to the bottom of the heap and there are, unfortunately, a number of possible winners. The 20-32 loss to Harlequins at home in the Challenge Cup doesn’t sound a particularly bad scoreline but when you consider it was a second, or even third, Quins starting XV it was a very disappointing performance. There was also the loss to Zebre away in October, 26-15, that came at the end of four straight losses to the Irish provinces that was a real contender.

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Cardiff players look downbeat after losing to Zebre

 

However the winner in my eyes is another defeat in Italy, this time 13-7 to Treviso. It always seems worse to lose to Zebre so this decision may surprise some but this season I think the Treviso loss was the worst by a distance. To put it in context, at the time Cardiff were on a run of four wins in the last five and high on confidence, while the Italians were yet to win a game in any competition all season. Considering the game took place in February, that’s pretty bad.

Despite some poor Southern European weather that weekend there was no excuses for not winning. The discipline was poor to allow Treviso to take the lead from the tee and a general lack of any desire, the thing which annoys me the most, meant we didn’t get into the game until just after half-time. Following the break we let the home side retake the lead from a penalty try and then spent 30 minutes actively trying to mess up scoring a try. Overall not good enough and a clear winner of 2015/16’s Worst Performance Award for me.

Treviso 13-7 Cardiff. Dreadful: https://cardiffbluesblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/treviso-13-7-cardiff/

Best Signing

There wasn’t a huge amount to choose from in this category with recruitment a bit thin on the ground last year but those that did come in made a decent impact. The Americans, Blaine Scully and Cam Dolan, still have some settling to do, as mentioned above Rey Lee-Lo improved dramatically after a slow start, while Tom James finished the season as top club try scorer with eleven in all competitions.

However the best signing of last summer can go to just one man and that is Danny Wilson. He arrived last season to take on the difficult task of turning the team around from a frankly desperate season, where we finished bottom of all four Welsh clubs, back to the high echelons of the Pro12 and eventually the Champions Cup. At one point in late October that seemed further off than ever but, with full credit to Wilson leading his coaching team, the culture at the club has changed from a divided and downbeat one to a teamwork-based positive side.

The players have responded to this brilliantly, many talking about the buoyant atmosphere around the club and how much they are enjoying their rugby. A change in style of play has worked wonders as well with fast running rugby really suiting the type of players we have, and those that are being recruited. The future is certainly bright again in Cardiff, in Danny we trust!

Dwil
Danny Wilson has turned the season from failure to success

 

Best A Team Player

As this season was the first for the A team to be competing in the British and Irish Cup on behalf of the Cardiff Blues this becomes the inaugural A Team Player of the Year award anywhere around. A lot of players were used across the six group games and solitary friendly played this season, making it difficult for players to really stake a claim for the award. The player with the most appearances was skipper Jevon Groves who led well but didn’t really set the World alight, while Aled Summerhill and James Sheekey made impressions from the younger players.

The winner though goes to a player who is actually no longer a Cardiff Blues squad member. Elis Wyn Benham finished as top scorer in the A side with three tries, including two at home to London Welsh in a fantastic performance. His showings in the A team earned him a place in the Wales U20 squad and he made an appearance on the bench in the Pro12. However he has been deemed not capable of making the grade by Danny Wilson and is on the search for a new club, good luck to him.

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Elis Wyn Benham wins A Team Player of the Year on the way out the door

 

A Team Try of the Year

While Benham is busy packing up out of Cardiff he can take a second trophy with him as he also takes home the try of the year award in the A side British and Irish Cup campaign. Receiving possession from deep against London Welsh at CAP he moves towards the defensive line, steps inside, steps outside then turns on the afterburners to coast through to the line from halfway.

Fast forward to four minutes from here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY_zT4Tr0vE

Senior Try of the Year

Into the first XV and it’s not been a vintage year for tries, despite the number we have scored. The majority of our scores this season have come from forward drives, rolling mauls and two yard touch downs in the red zone as Danny Wilson has transformed the attacking threat of the forwards. However that doesn’t mean we haven’t had the odd moment of brilliance.

From those forwards tries we have had a few special ones, Matthew Rees’ try from a lineout move against Munster at CAP and Josh Navidi’s solo carry against the Ospreys at Judgement Day coming to mind. There have also been some nice backs work leading to tries for Rey Lee-Lo against Newport and Aled Summerhill vs Ulster, both at home, while individual skill from Garyn Smith and Gareth Anscombe saw tries at home to Munster and at Parc y Scarlets.

The winner though comes from early on in the season, so cast your minds back to Connacht away. Dan Fish comes into the line from full-back on the right wing, sticks a little grubber kick through into the Irish side’s 22 before dribbling past the opposing full-back and a final kick taking him over the try line for a score. A piece of skill that Lionel Messi would be proud of and a worthy winner of this season’s best try award.

1:33 for the Dan ‘Ronado’ Fish score: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqawYM9G2wc

Player of the Year

Ladies and Gentleman it is now time for the final and biggest award of the night, Player of the Year. This year has been an up and down season for sure and at different times there have been different players in really good form. However there has not been someone who has put their hand up for the trophy throughout the entire season so we have no real clear winner.

At the beginning of the season we had Manoa Vosawai acting as a rock of the side from number 8 but he struggled to get into the side as the year wore on with others selected ahead of him as it became clear he would be leaving come the summer. In the second half of the season we had Rey Lee-Lo becoming invaluable to the side from inside centre and Gareth Anscombe coming back into the team and performing very well.

We have had a few players turn out consistently across 2015/16. Josh Turnbull and two-time winner Dan Fish were mainstays of the starting XV throughout, Tom James finished as top scorer in all competitions while 174 year old Tau Filise put the younger lads to shame with his performances. Honourable mentions also go to half-back pairing Lloyd Williams and Rhys Patchell for their continued influential outings.

Turnbull v Newport
Josh Turnbull was unlucky to miss out on the award

 

However, for me, there is one winner and it comes in the shape of Ellis Jenkins. Despite being just 22 at the start of the season he already had 41 appearances under his belt and has added 21 this season, impressive considering he missed two months including the Christmas period with injury. Had he not sustained that injury at home to Harlequins I am hopeful he would have been selected for Wales’ Six Nations campaign, which is as good as it gets under Gatland, but missing out on the squad meant his impressive performances for Cardiff could continue.

He’s a willing runner with some nice handling skills, a strong tackler and most importantly is excellent at the breakdown. He possesses all the skills to become a world class flanker and is just another on the Cardiff number 7 conveyor belt. It was a shocker that Jenkins was not selected for Wales’ summer tour to New Zealand originally, but he thoroughly deserves his seat on the plane as an injury replacement for Dan Lydiate.

Ellis Jenkins Treviso
Ellis Jenkins is The Blues Life’s Player of the Year 2015/16

 

So there we have it, the first Blues Life Player of the Year is Ellis Jenkins and that rounds of this season’s awards from me. It’s been a good season overall but I do hope I have an even harder time picking winners next year. Come on Cardiff!!