Player of the Tournament
All Blacks number eight and stand-in captain Kieran Read was simply outstanding in every facet of his game. His hard-nosed ball-carrying ability was matched by a wonderful pair of hands that provided the assists for several Kiwi tries. Read crossed the line himself a few times, and showed that New Zealand have a ready-made replacement skipper when Richie McCaw hangs up his boots. Arguably the best player in world rugby just now.
Try of the Tournament
This year’s Rugby Championship was not lacking in entertaining attacking play, but few of the tournament’s tries matched that scored by Will Genia in Australia’s curtain-raising clash with New Zealand. Gathering a beautiful inside ball from Michael Hooper, the scrum-half raced in from seventy metres, bamboozling the covering Kiwi defence. Unfortunately, it was a brief highlight in an otherwise failing performance from the Wallabies.
Still learning his trade at test-match level, 22-year-old second row Brodie Retallick stepped in for the injured Luke Romano in week one, and turned in a string of world-class performances from the lock position. His partnership with Sam Whitelock is probably the best duo around just now, with both getting through a phenomenal amount of work around the field. Retallick’s tackle counts were consistently among the highest in the games he played, and he combined tireless carrying with good hands and awareness with the ball.
Hero of the Tournament
There is no shortage of contenders for this one, too, among the men who strove bravely for test-match glory. Jean de Villiers carried the hopes and dreams of a nation with him as he powered over the New Zealand line in their Ellis Park title-decider, and several Wallabies battled courageously through some painful defeats. However, this award goes to Argentine captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, whose pride and passion for the Pumas jersey was near-tangible as he continuously ran through brick walls to take his team forward.
Villain of the Tournament
I’m sure those of a South African persuasion will feel a certain Monsieur Poite should be force-fed this particular award – perhaps via a somewhat painful orifice. However, the undoubted rogue of the Championship was troubled Wallaby back James O’Connor, who was sent packing from the Australian set-up after yet another off-field incident. His long string of altercations and plights away from the rugby pitch have been well-documented, most recently by Jamie here, and he now finds himself with neither a club nor a country seeking his services next season.
Match of the Tournament
No contest here. New Zealand’s final round visit to Ellis Park, finishing 38-27 to the Blacks, reminded us what test-match rugby is all about. Entertaining from start to finish, with nine tries scored in total, and a sumptuous display of running rugby and skill from the two best teams on the planet. The game was overseen masterfully by Welshman Nigel Owens, whom many regard as the IRB’s top referee, and there is now an obvious and sizeable gap between the Kiwis and South Africa, and the rest of the international sides.
Blunder of the Tournament
Round One saw a worryingly lacklustre Pumas side hammered by sixty points in Soweto. There were a number of embarrassingly simple tries scored by the Boks that day, but none more so than that bagged by Jean de Villiers. Following a kick downfield, the skipper latched on to a telegraphed Argentine inside pass to canter in for a humiliating five-pointer.
The Duracell Award for Longevity
Felipe Contepomi made his international debut in 1998, and has showed astonishing durability to continue performing at the highest level for fifteen years. He was a key component of Argentina’s rise from relative obscurity to the top-tier of world rugby, and would have won well over one-hundred caps had he hailed from any of the home or big three Southern Hemisphere nations. A close runner-up to Contepomi was All Black veteran Conrad Smith, who remains one of the Kiwis’ most important players, and unparalleled in the sport at outside centre.
The Martin Johnson Award for Excessive Speed
Though Ben Smith grabbed the headlines for his try-scoring exploits, there were few more awesome sights in this year’s Rugby Championship than young Springbok second-row Eben Etzebeth stretching his legs and flying up the touchline in the tournament’s final round. Leaving several would-be tacklers in his wake, Etzebeth’s pace and power saw him gain over forty metres with the barnstorming run.
The Barney Stinson Award for Prolific Scoring
Ben Smith is undoubtedly the game’s form winger at present, and with his touchdown in that Ellis Park decider, broke the record for most tries in a season of Rugby Championship or Tri Nations matches. He blitzed the Wallabies with five scores in two games, and powered through Nicolas Sanchez in La Plata to notch a crucial last-minute bonus point try against the Pumas.
The Huggies Award for Teething Problems
The IRB’s latest scrum directive has certainly attracted plenty of opinion, speculation and conjecture since its implementation at the start of August. Having spoken to plenty of the game’s leading set-piece figures, I can attest to the fact that the scrum remains a veritable minefield of contrasting views. Having said that, in the Rugby Championship at least, the new protocols looked to bring about an improvement in safety, the importance of technique and a better contest for possession, and a more palatable viewing spectacle for the spectator. Juan Figallo and Marcos Ayerza were particularly impressive under the directive, despite the Pumas relative shortfall in terms of pack weight at the scrummage.
The Award for Most Catastrophic Commentating
None of the SANZAR nations’ commentary teams are renowned for their impartiality, but the Australian group – despite boasting a plethora of ex-elite players – take the proverbial biscuit. In between struggling to remember or pronounce the names of Argentine internationals, Phil Kearns (great hooker though he was) interjects with some ill-informed gripe on the scrum protocols (funnily enough, an area the Aussies have struggled in) and some dumbed-down, cringe-worthy banter is shared with viewers. The lack of insight offered by such an illustrious posse of pundits and observers is startling.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images