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Should coaches help crown the world's best player? Posted over 2 years ago

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The recent crowning of Real Madrid and Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best footballer certainly caused a stir and the controversy begs the question as to what is the best way of recognising the stand-out talent in any sport in a given year or season.

The afore mentioned Ballon d’Or is decided via a voting process that takes into account the opinion of all the national coaches and captains plus a select number of journalists. They are asked to rank their top three players from the calendar year and the most popular player claims the prestigious honour.

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Being opinion-based, there will always be those who query the results – with many baffled as to how Bayern and France midfielder Franck Ribery missed out – but even so, should rugby follow football’s lead and give coaches a greater say in deciding such honours? At present it is clear that some of the greatest rugby minds are woefully under-used.

The International Rugby Board Player of the Year – the sport’s ultimate honour that was awarded to New Zealand’s Kieran Read last month – is decided by an ‘independent panel’ that most recently comprised Australia’s RWC 1999 winning captain John Eales and fellow former internationals Will Greenwood, Gavin Hastings, Raphaël Ibanez, Francois Pienaar, Agustín Pichot, Scott Quinnell, Tana Umaga and Paul Wallace. That group certainly boasts a wealth of rugby experience but is relatively short on coaching credentials and surely would benefit from a little help or guidance.

Elsewhere, the Six Nations has attempted to embrace the modern age with their voting process. A 15-player shortlist was compiled during last year’s battle for northern hemisphere surpremacy through ‘a mixture of technical statistics and supporter opinion on social media sites’.

A public vote then decided the winner with Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny collecting the honour. He was a deserving winner but as well-intentioned a public vote may be, it can produce a questionable result with Italy’s Andrea Masi a previous winner in 2011 – following a wooden spoon season for the Azurri.

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If any nation was qualified to pass judgement then it would be the well-informed New Zealand public but not even they are trusted with the task of pinpointing the best of the best. The Kel Tremain Memorial Trophy – their top honour that was also won by Read – and their Super Rugby Player of the Year award are among those decided by a panel that this year featured former All Blacks captain and NZRU president Andy Leslie, broadcaster Grant Nisbett, former All Blacks captain Graham Mourie and NZRU general manager of community and provincial rugby Brent Anderson.

In Australia, the responsibility lies with their leading international players with the Wallabies asked to rank performances in the immediate aftermath of each Test clash. They award points on a 3-2-1 basis to the three players they thought performed the best with the overall winner at the end of the year awarded the John Eales Medal with the most recent recipient flanker Michael Hooper.

What about the domestic stage? The reigning European Player of the Year is Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson who was crowned following perhaps the most exhaustive process. Once again a judging panel of noted rugby media minds including Sky Sports’ Stuart Barnes, the Daily Telegraph’s Will Greenwood and Midi Olympique’s Jacques Verdier were called upon to produce a shortlist.

This was then forwarded to the clubs competing in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup for their input while supporters were also given the chance to share their opinions via Twitter – although the final decision fell to the panel.

The Aviva Premiership takes a similar approach when it comes to deciding the best player in English rugby’s top flight. The responsibility falls exclusively on a panel made up of some of the leading lights in the rugby media. Last season Leicester hooker Tom Youngs was the choice of a distinguished group that included commentators Nick Mullins, Miles Harrison and Alastair Ekyn, journalist Stephen Jones and photographer David Rogers.

The media are also called upon to decide Australia’s Super Rugby Player of the Year with 18 of the country’s ‘esteemed rugby television, radio and print journalists and commentators’ asked to vote on a weekly 3-2-1 basis with the player accumulating most votes crowned the winner – part of a notable double for Hooper in 2013.

The RaboDirect PRO12 surveys the opinion of their players before crowning their best with Ulster’s Nick Williams claiming the honour at the end of last season while the Top 14 adopts a similar approach with Castres’ Rory Kockott the choice of his peers in France. But can players be trusted to acknowledge those rivals that deserve recognition? It would not appear so in football with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi opting not to include each other in their votes for the Ballon d’Or

All jokes aside, there is one notable absentee from the examples given above – South Africa. The South African Rugby Union have arguably the most sound approach to awards season with ‘stakeholders, including the media, public, administrators and the provincial and franchise coaches’ involved in the process.

The inclusion of coaches is the most interesting especially when they are afforded very little input into similar awards elsewhere. “The coaches play a vital role in the success of a team,” said SARU chief executive Jurie Roux when recently detailing an awards process that will culminate next month with the naming of the South African Player of the Year.

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It is amazing that given their unrivalled rugby acumen that coaches the world over are not called upon to help decide more awards. Comment from coaches drives part of the media machine with some journalists often hanging on their every word. But that opinion apparently lacks the required punch when it comes to deciding the best players. It is simply baffling.

Coaches’ lives are dedicated to identifying and then either nurturing or nullifying the best players the game has to offer. Who knows a team’s strengths better than an opposing coach whose livelihood depends on figuring out how to stop those same threats? Who can identify the threats in an opposing team better than a coach who has monitored them closely both in person and via video analysis? That hunger to learn and understand the game and its best players makes them the obvious choice to be part of any awards process.

Journalists who serve on such panels – including myself – may boast an in-depth knowledge of the game but few will have studied the game as closely or be blessed with the same level of insight. And while the modern player may well spend more time these days analysing their own performances and those of their opponents, their attention to detail will not be as great as that of their coaches.

So while such an approach is not fool-proof – somehow Italy coach Cesare Prandelli and Belgium coach Marc Wilmots both omitted Ronaldo, Messi and Ribery from their Ballon d’Or selection – and opinions will always differ to a certain degree, it is surely time coaches had a greater say in who are hailed as the world’s best rugby players?

Do you agree with Graham? Should coaches be included in the decision making process? Comments below…

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist and former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com. He has been reporting on sport for over 20 years for various media outlets including the BBC and ESPN with the majority dedicated to the game they play in heaven. A veteran of four World Cups, England's 2003 triumph remains the most memorable moment of his professional career closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal

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