Ireland’s Simon Zebo lit up this year’s Six Nations with an audacious piece of skill that you will not find in any coaching manual. In what was just one of many thrilling acts in an action-packed clash against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, the fleet-footed winger flicked out his heel to retrieve a wayward pass from team-mate Jamie Heaslip. The ball found its way back into Zebo’s hands, Ireland maintained their breath-taking momentum and prop Cian Healy barged over a couple of phases later for a score that will live long in the memory. Dishonourable mentions for Australia captain James Horwill’s stamp or ’loss of balance in the first Test against the Lions and Wales’ Mike Phillips equally ugly assault on Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper.
Coaching Call of the Year
Warren Gatland’s decision to axe veteran centre Brian O’Driscoll for the British & Irish Lions’ series decider against Australia in Sydney sent shockwaves through the rugby globe. How could he dispense with his most experienced and accomplished player on the eve of such a pivotal game when those qualities would be so valuable? How could he deny someone regarded as a flag bearer for northern hemisphere rugby for over a decade the chance to add a Lions series victory to his glittering CV?
It was a gamble with Gatland later admitting that ‘sometimes you need to put your balls on the line’, but he weathered the media storm and his decision was vindicated as the Lions romped to victory with Wales’ Jonathan Davies a more than able replacement for O’Driscoll. Gatland may have given O’Driscoll his first Test cap when Ireland boss but he showed there can be no room for sentiment in elite sport. All eyes are now on the forthcoming Six Nations clash between O’Driscoll’s Ireland and Gatland’s Wales in Dublin – it should be a cracker.
Referee of the Year
It is no coincidence that what were widely regarded as the two best Test matches this year – New Zealand’s Rugby Championship-sealing victory over South Africa in Johannesburg and the All Blacks’ nervy win against Ireland in Dublin – were controlled by the same man – Nigel Owens. The Welshman stands astride the hemispheres as an officiating Colossus, commanding the respect of players, coaches and even supporters for the way he handles the game and communicates his reasoning. His prowess is underpinned by a deep understanding of the game and all its nuances, commenting in a recent interview, “it’s disastrous for a referee to know that law book too well.” In this kind of form, the only thing likely to prevent him from taking charge of the 2015 Rugby World Cup final will be the presence of Wales in the title-decider.
THE moment of the year
The sport has treated us to many memorable moments over the last 12 months but only one left a global audience awestruck. Lions winger George North’s man-handling of his Wallabies rival Israel Folau during their second Test clash in Melbourne simply defied belief and left supporters and viewers rubbing their eyes. Here was one giant of the game weathering the tackle of another before scooping him up and running with both him and the ball down the field. It was not only a perfect example of how the game has evolved and of the increasing reliance on power but also of the special talent that is George North. Any casual observers would have been immediately hooked and the prospect of these two trading game-changing blows in the seasons to come is sure to keep them enthralled.
Quote of the Year Award
“Statistics are like a bikini, it shows a lot but not the whole thing”
Scotland coach Scott Johnson offered a word of advice to all stats-obsessed coaches ahead of his side’s Six Nations clash with England – a side they had not beaten at Twickenham for 30 years. The result? A 38-18 victory for England.
Coach of Year
So amazing is the All Blacks’ level of consistent excellence it is easy to gloss over their achievements but it is impossible to ignore their ‘perfect’ season of 14 straight victories and the influence of coach Steve Hansen. His talent-heavy squad often make it look so easy but their unrivalled skill levels are the result of a coaching set-up that demands the best. British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland may have made history against the Wallabies and New Zealand 7s master Sir Gordon Tietjens may have inspired another Rugby World Cup Sevens triumph but for his unblemished record in the sport’s fiercest furnace – Test match rugby – Hansen gets the nod.
Throwback of the Year Award
Coaches will often look for an edge in preparation for a game and during the contest itself but Australia coach Ewen McKenzie went a step further, or perhaps took a step back in time, in his attempt to lift the Wallabies out of the doldrums by keeping his side out on the field at half-time instead of retreating to the changing room. McKenzie originally opted to spurn the sheds against Argentina in Rosario due to the length of time it would take to get to and from the changing rooms and it was hoped they would be able to ‘stay in the moment’ and focus their efforts. It clearly had a significant impact with a convincing victory and some positive feedback from the players ensuring the sight of them on the field at half-time – including chairs, massage tables etc – became a feature of their end of year tour as they restored their reputation with a string of victories.
Error of the Year Award
“To play the game you have to play on the edge, but unfortunately he’s gone to the edge of the cliff and jumped off it.” That was how Lions coach Warren Gatland described the moment of madness from Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley that cost him the chance of touring Australia earlier this year. Everything was looking good for an in-form Hartley having steered the Saints into the Premiership finale and also earned selection in the squad that would tour Down Under. But his season would fall apart just before half-time at Twickenham when he became the first player to be sent off in the Premiership showpiece – having allegedly called referee Wayne Barnes a “cheat”. Hartley would protest his innocence – insisting he was talking to his Leicester rival Tom Youngs – but the damage was done and he was found guilty of an attack “contrary to the core values of rugby” and landed with an 11-week ban. A dejected Hartley’s dream of touring with the Lions was over and he was forced to unpack his Lions stash.
Clutch moment of the Year
History beckoned the All Blacks as they entered their 14th and final Test outing of the year in Dublin. Thirteen times over the previous six months they had gone into battle and triumphed and no side in the professional era had gone an entire season unbeaten. Facing them was an Irish side that had never tasted victory against the All Blacks but fired by the belief that this was their time they rocked the visitors on the heels from the outset. But the All Blacks are the world’s No.1 side for good reason and they clawed their way back into the contest with a last-gasp try from Ryan Crotty levelling the scores as time expired. Fly-half Aaron Cruden then had the chance to set the seal on a memorable year and break Irish hearts. His first conversion attempt drifted wide with the kicker apparently thrown by a premature charge from the hosts. Handed a second chance, he made no mistake and in doing so reminded us that New Zealand have a more than able deputy for Dan Carter.
Game of the Year
As thrilling the game in Dublin, the outstanding Test match of this year, and without doubt one of the all time great clashes, was that between New Zealand and South Africa in Johannesburg where the world’s two best sides served up an incredible advert for the game. The unbeaten All Blacks entered the game as favourites but victory was far from a foregone conclusion at a ground where they had registered just one victory in the pro era. A jumbo jet performed an incredible low-level fly past ahead of kick off and what followed was equally breath-taking nine-try feast of top-class rugby.
The Springboks required not only what appeared an unlikely bonus point win but also needed to deny their fierce rivals a bonus point if they were to clinch the Rugby Championship crown. But victory appeared within their grasp when captain Jean de Villiers crossed for the Boks’ fourth try just short of the hour mark that gave his side the lead. However, it would not be the last dramatic act in a gloriously entertaining spectacle with the All Blacks, inspired by No.8 Kieran Read, turning the game on its head once again – the lead changed hands a total of eight times – to set the seal on their Championship triumph and on the best Test match in recent memory.