And the winners are …

Keo.co.za reviews 2008 and acknowledges the best performers and some villains.

Player of the Year

This was an extremely tough call given that a number of players enjoyed a very good year. Ryan Kankowski was arguably the finest loose forward in the Super 14 – a feat of note given the calibre of players who wear numbers six, seven and eight. Beast Mtawarira excelled for the Sharks in the Super 14 and lifted his game even more in his rookie Test season. And this list would not be complete without the brilliant Sharks loose forward Jean Deysel, who has Springbok written all over him and veteran Sharks fullback Stefan Terblanche who held back the years to deliver a series of outstanding performances.

But ultimately two players stood tallest. Adi Jacobs and Jean de Villiers could not be separated.

Jacobs went from being consistently overlooked for a starting berth for the Sharks in 2007 (and considering an oversees deal) to finishing 2008 as the Springboks’ first-choice outside centre. In the process he dispelled suggestions that he didn’t have the aptitude for Test rugby – particularly the defensive demands thereof – and excelled in midfield, scoring six tries in 11 appearances.

A torn bicep muscle ended De Villiers’ World Cup in 2007, and he finished the year unsure of whether he’d be able to wrest the Springboks’ No 12 shirt from Frans Steyn, who was outstanding as his cover in France. However, he shone in the Super 14 with the Stormers. This with the added responsibility of captaincy, and then carried that form through to Test level, where he was at the centre of everything that was good about the Springboks from an attacking perspective.

Young Player of the Year (23 years old or younger)

A number of young bucks announced their arrival in a big way in 2008. Beast Mtawarira was outstanding throughout the Super 14, Test season and in the latter stages of the Absa Currie Cup. For a 23-year-old prop to sustain that level of performance for an entire season is unbelievable.

Heinrich Brussow earned a Springbok call-up on the back of an impressive season with the Cheetahs, while his team-mate Robert Ebersohn and Western Province loose forward Nick Koster, made a good impression in the Currie Cup. However, Ryan Kankowski’s all-round brilliance trumps his competitors. The 23-year-old’s explosiveness troubled even the most organised defences, and only injury robbed him of more of an opportunity at Test level. He is firmly established as the Sharks’ premier No 8 and will seriously challenge Springbok incumbent Pierre Spies for the berth in the Lions series in 2009.

Team of the Year

The Sharks easily take this one on the back of a good run in the Super 14 (they lost in the semi-final) and their title-drought breaking Currie Cup victory. Their Super 14 campaign featured an unbeaten run of 11 matches, while they lost just twice in the Currie Cup, despite being seriously depleted by Springbok call-ups. Much is expected of this group of players in the 2009 Super 14.

Coach of the Year

Sharks coach John Plumtree built on the ground work done by Dick Muir and refined their play, emphasising more structure while not shackling a side laden with game breakers. His technical knowledge is excellent, while his man management skills have been lauded by his players. Plumtree’s next challenge will be to lead a ridiculously talented squad to southern hemisphere glory.

Rookie of the Year

Robert Ebersohn and Western Province’s Nick Koster were the two standout players in this category.

Ebersohn, 19, was deemed good enough to start the bulk of the Cheetahs’ Currie Cup games in midfield and he enhanced his reputation as one of the best young backs in the country. He won’t play a role in the Super 14 as he has been contracted to the Springbok Sevens side, but is sure to build on his rookie season when the 2009 Currie Cup rolls round.

However, Nick Koster, inches this one, based on the telling impact he made for Western Province throughout the Currie Cup. The 19-year-old possess the size and power to hold his own against the best sides, and is also blessed with pace and skills that belie the number on his back. He is likely to play a bit-part role in the Stormers’ Super 14 campaign, but is certainly one for the future.

Most Improved Player of the Year

Morné Steyn spent many seasons living in the shadow of Loftus darling Derick Hougaard. However, Hougaard’s departure to the Leicester Tigers paved the way for Steyn to establish himself as the union’s premier pivot. He did so, thriving under a philosophy that encouraged him to express himself, and in doing so showing that he had matured into a flyhalf capable of controlling a match off his boot or with ball in hand.

Watch this space

The Bulls’ young flyhalf Burton Francis has class written all over him. He will develop further in the 2009 Super 14 and is poised to be a key member of the squad in future.

Flops of the Year

A couple of players stuck their hands up in this category. What Western Province senior professional coach Rassie Erasmus was thinking by contracting Willem de Waal, AJ Venter and Wylie Human is unclear. The trio were awful. The Cheetahs would have been better served leaving Chris Rossouw in the French second division and the Lions should have followed that same course of action with Lawrence Sephaka. Wylie Human, however, sweeps this award for being pure and utter rubbish – questionable conditioning, no pace, defensively fragile …

Special merit award

This one goes to Luke Watson for his unbelievable service to South African rugby. We salute you. His decision to avail himself for the Springboks again after the King Protea was confirmed as the national emblem (rather the vomit-inducing Springbok) was a godsend. The Springboks would have been dead and buried without Watson. A top player with a personality that endears him to all.

By Ryan Vrede