Player of the Season
Back: Andrew Trimble (Ulster). The resurrection of his international career under the tutelage of Joe Schmidt has seen Trimble take his game to a new level in 2013/14. A deserved recipient of both the Irish Players’ player of the year and Ulster player of the year gongs, Trimble scored a hat-trick against Connacht at the tail end of the season.
Forward: Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors) was a key figure in the Warriors’ most impressive season to date. The Glasgow XV is all the more formidable with Strauss in the back row alongside Rob Harley (who didn’t miss a game this season) and Chris Fusaro at openside. The magnificently bearded South African already has a Currie Cup medal as skipper of the Golden Lions, falling just one game short of adding to that with a Pro12 trophy.
Back: Noel Reid (Leinster). With one great centre hanging up the thirteen jersey for the final time after Saturday’s final, Reid is well placed to step into Leinster’s midfield next season on a more regular basis and, significantly, on a bigger stage. The former student of St.Michael’s college has seven tries to his name this campaign including one against fellow finalists Glasgow.
Forward: Leone Nakarawa (Glasgow Warriors) was used primarily, and to good effect, as an impact replacement. The Fijian only started 5 games for Glasgow but, coming from a 7s background, Nakarawa is equipped with the skills to make a huge contribution over the course of the season. An incredibly mobile lock forward, he has the versatility to play in the back row as demonstrated during his match winning performance in the Munster playoff win, one of the highlights of the season.
Try of the Year
3rd: Tommy Seymour v Treviso
Warriors speedster Tommy Seymour flew down the right wing, chipped over Matt Berquist, gathered the ball with one hand at full pace, and saw off Luke McLean’s challenge with a well executed hand off. Oh, and this sealed a hat-trick. Not too shabby at all.
2nd: Luke Marshall v Connacht
A move straight off the training pitch, any one of three on the outside could have finished this set move as slick hands between Darren Cave and Paddy Jackson on a wraparound ripped through the helplessly flailing Connacht defence.
1st: Gordon Reid v Treviso
One to please the front row union, nothing was stopping Gordon Reid as he ran in this try from outside the twenty-two. There were a few nice off-loads in the build-up too but this try is all about the support line, the pace and power of the Warriors’ loose-head. Not sure about the celebration though.
Hit of the Year: Stephen Ferris on Kristian Phillips
No contest! There has been speculation aplenty that we may have seen Stephen Ferris on the pitch for the last time – let’s hope that isn’t the case – but his return to action after almost 16 months in rehab stands out as one of the highlights of this season for all to enjoy – except perhaps Kristian Phillips.
Coach of the Season: Gregor Townsend
In other quarters outgoing Munster head coach Rob Penney has received the coaching award, and there’s no doubt Penney has looked to develop a new brand of rugby during his two year stint, but even some in Munster were divided as to whether they were heading in the right direction.
For that reason I favour Gregor Townsend. Glasgow’s nine consecutive wins leading to their first pro12 final was an outstanding achievement for the Scottish side. They conceded the fewest number of tries over the course of the season (22) and scored 53, amassing a record total of 79 points to secure a home playoff.
Townsend hasn’t shied away from bold selections either, backing unproven Finn Russell over stand-offs Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson, and recently omitting want away Scotland star Stuart Hogg from their playoff squad.
The Welsh region again fell short of pre-season expectations, and their failure to finish in the top four can only be compounded by the nature with which Ospreys conceded ground to Ulster in a late battle for the fourth playoff position with a shock loss against Zebre in Italy.
Strange as it sounds for a team propping up the bottom of the table, but given their limited resources Zebre made significant strides forward in their second season and almost nudged ahead of Treviso into the Italian European RCC place. Five victories including a double against Cardiff Blues and that significant win over Ospreys helped Zebre to 29 points, just one point shy of Treviso but a marked improvement on a winless campaign last year.
XV of the season
15. Robbie Henshaw (Connacht) 14. Andrew Trimble (Ulster) 13. Casey Laulala (Munster) 12. Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors) 11. Jeff Hassler (Ospreys) 10. Dan Biggar (Ospreys) 9. Gareth Davies (Scarlets) 1. Jack McGrath (Leinster) 2. Sean Cronin (Leinster) 3. Samson Lee (Scarlets) 4. Devin Toner (Leinster) 5. Jonny Gray (Glasgow) 6. Rob Harley (Glasgow) 7. Jordi Murphy (Leinster) 8. Josh Strauss (Glasgow)
Thanks lads, love you and leave you
A final word of gratitude is owed to those that hang up their boots at the end of this season. Johann Muller has been the spiritual focal point of the Ulster team since joining in 2010. His absence will be felt just as keenly as that of Leo Cullen at Leinster, who takes up a coaching role.
Every club will have their own moving on to pastures new, young and old it’s impossible to mention them all, but it seems appropriate to finish with a very brief special word for that man Brian O’Driscoll, truly a great of the game and a gentleman to go with it!
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images