All is right in the world of New Zealand rugby once more, the aberration of a defeat to an Irish team who had never previously beaten the all-conquering All Blacks is in the past as another unbeaten run beckons and at the World Rugby Awards last week New Zealand picked up team, coach and player of the year.
With Italy vanquished the All Blacks attention turns to revenge next Saturday as they prepare to avenge the ignominy of a defeat in America, where they travelled to demonstrate to one of the world’s largest sporting economies that they are THE team in world rugby. It is hard to argue with the confident vibes coming out of the All Black camp after a second string New Zealand thoroughly demolished an abject Italian team but it must be noted that this current incarnation of Roman rugby is at the start of yet another new dawn and as such anything other than a walloping would have been a bad result for the men in black. The real test of whether all is good with New Zealand rugby will take place in Dublin at the weekend against a coach who is more than capable of outthinking Steve Hansen, which leads me to the World Rugby Awards.
Breakthrough Player of the Year
I admit as an England supporter I am biased but the one award I have no issues with was Maro Itoje who won breakthrough player of the year. Itoje was one of the standout players in the summer tests against Australia and the player I am most excited in seeing, fitness permitting, when the British Lions tour New Zealand next year. An honourable mention has to go Ardie Savea who, along with Itoje, could in the future be challenging year after year for the main award.
Player of the Year
Listening to New Zealand rugby commentators you would be justified in believing Beauden Barrett was Jesus’ more successful brother. In their eyes the Hurricanes fly half can do wrong and whilst Barrett was a key member in his team’s maiden Super Rugby championship he did mistakes and although personally I cannot stand the player I believe Dan Coles has been a bigger influence for both club and country than his teammate. In addition, Owen Farrell has had a stellar international season and for me it would be a straight fight between the All Black hooker and the English goal kicker.
Team of the Year
This is where I begin to question the World Rugby awards. True, New Zealand had an impressive year, they won, and were unbeaten, in their international championship but so were England. They beat Australia three times, but so did England, and so far they have only lost once this year but so did . . . In fact England are still unbeaten this year yet I feel the international rugby team of the year should have gone to the Fiji sevens team who not only won the World Sevens Series but also picked up their country’s first ever Olympic gold medal, if the rugby authorities are really interested in growing the world game they need to ensure they look outside of New Zealand’s shores. This was the fifth time in a row that the All Blacks have won this award and whilst I agree for the four previous years they have easily been deserved winners, this year two more deserving teams have been overlooked.
Coach of the Year
Finally, on a similar theme to the Team of the Year, I do not believe Steve Hansen was one of the top two coaches in World Rugby this year. His All Black team came into 2016 in a position of strength, world champions and easily the best team in the world and will leave it as world champions and probably the best team in the world, in short in relative terms they have gone backwards. In contrast Eddie Jones’ record with England has been just as impressive yet his England team have gone from being a laughing stock to possibly the only genuine challengers to the All Blacks.
But yet again I feel World Rugby should have looked outside the traditional rugby super powers and rewarded Ben Ryan for the achievements and the pride he has instilled in Fijian rugby.
The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Team of the Year – Fiji Sevens
The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Coach of the Year – Ben Ryan
The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Player of the Year – Dan Coles
The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Breakthrough of the Year – Maro Itoje