The 2011 awards

JON CARDINELLI and RYAN VREDE rate the real winners and losers of the 2011 season.

THE HEROES by Ryan Vrede

The Irresistible Force - To watch Schalk Burger live borders on a spiritual experience. His work-rate can only be fully appreciated when you watch him effect a tackle then spring from the ground as if it were strewn with scorpions, track across the field and make another, then another and yet another. There is nothing elegant about his ball carrying, but what it lacks in panache it makes up for in power which is fuelled by a deep determination to cross the gainline. He was outstanding at the World Cup and has yet to show signs of a drop-off in potency. Thank God. The Springboks are significantly less formidable without Schalla.

Rocking Rookie - Jaco Taute is an excellent prospect and has the makings of a Springbok. The Lions fullback plays with a healthy disregard of failure, a trait I last saw as strongly exhibited in a young Frans Steyn. He will be central to the Lions’ Super Rugby cause in 2012. Franchises with better prospects of Super Rugby success are sure to be suitors in the coming years. The Lions have to secure his short-term future if they are serious about significant advancement.

And now for something completely different - Israel Dagg plays Test rugby with the freedom of kid on a run out with mates in the local park. There are players I’d pay to see left on the team coach, then those, like Dagg, who somehow justify the mind-blowing ticket prices for Tests. He has a complete technical skills set and the temperament to amplify his threat. But, like the greats, he has something in reserve – that indefinable quality that ‘x-factor’ doesn’t completely do justice too. The try he crafted for Ma’a Nonu in the World Cup semi-final is a prime example and was the most sublime piece of individual play I’ve ever seen live. He will be, at least, as good as the great Christian Cullen. He is my Player of the Year.

Bloody Legend - Richie McCaw’s foot was held together by hope and steel during the World Cup. Doctors had advised him to miss the tournament, explaining that there was no way he could endure the pain the injury would cause. They said the strong pain killing injections being administered wouldn’t dull the sensation of him tramping on needles everytime he put pressure on it. They said he would cause further, potentially permanent, damage. He said ‘thanks’ and set about confirming his status as the most decorated captain in the game’s history by lifting the Webb Ellis trophy.

#thatawesomemoment - For those fans with an appreciation for the theatre of the game (as opposed to the morons who chant ole ole ole) the All Blacks’ Haka in their pool match against France at Eden Park was breathtaking. The stadium fell silent and Piri Weepu’s call to prepare for battle was clearly audible. Then the super-charged collective challenge put to France reverberated around the stadium in a way I’ve never experienced. ‘Wow’, best encapsulates the magnitude of that moment.

Ground breakers from broken ground - Many of the Crusaders players were affected directly and indirectly by the earthquake that ravaged Christchurch early in 2011. It destroyed the AMI Stadium, forcing the Crusaders to play the bulk of their home Super Rugby matches in Timaru and Nelson. They travelled more than any franchise in the tournament, spending time on the road while family and loved ones who were rebuilding their homes and indeed their lives. Few gave them a chance of making the semi-final given the gruelling travel schedule they endured to get to Cape Town. Yet they won and then came desperately close to what would have been one of the great sporting achievements in history. We always knew they were big on talent. Now we know their hearts are equally sizeable.

THE VILLAINS by Jon Cardinelli

In the category of Dimwits in Denial, there were some strong contenders: the Springbok supporters who said Bryce Lawrence was solely to blame for South Africa’s early World Cup exit, as well as the South African journalists who joined the ‘Blame It On Bryce’ campaign instead of facing up to a less parochial reality. In the end, there is only one King of Calamity and in his last year in charge he stood head and shoulders above all the other candidates. Peter de Villiers has refused to admit that the Boks have been in decline since late 2009. The senior players have enjoyed too much freedom which has contributed to the creation of an insular culture rather than a progressive one. Unsurprisingly, De Villiers has maintained his stance that nothing was ever wrong and will be reapplying for the head coach post. Denial thy name is Divvy.

The Immovable Object – John Smit will be remembered as one of the greats of the South African and international game. In the context of the 2011 World Cup, however, he will be remembered as the man who stood in the way of Bismarck du Plessis. The best hooker in the world was in a foul mood towards the end of the tournament, as promises that he would start in South Africa’s big matches were broken. Smit also broke a promise made to the Boks in 2010 when he said that he would stand aside when it was clear that his best days were done. That time came and went long before the global showpiece.

Flop of the Year – In another example of the Bok selection shambles, De Villiers announced two weeks before the start of the World Cup that Morne Steyn would be his No 1 flyhalf. It came as a shock to many, including Butch James who had been told by the coach that he would start the big matches in New Zealand. Predictably, Steyn’s limitations on attack and frailty on defence cost the Boks, and his supposedly dependable goal-kicking game was anything but flawless.

Dinosaurs must die – Tobie Titus and the other freemasons at the Western Province compound have had the final say on the Cape Town Stadium issue, and woe betide anybody that brings this topic up again. When it was announced that Saracens would be playing Biarritz in a historic European Cup game at the Cape Town Stadium in January, Titus blew a fuse, stating that Newlands is the home of rugby in the Western Cape. Eventually Saracens decided to move the game back to England, and so Capetonians will miss out on the chance to watch the best of Europe slugging it out. Bizarrely, the Saracens team will still be coming to Cape Town in January for some R&R and to conduct a few coaching clinics. God, we have some useless administrators in this country.

…and while we’re talking about WP, a special mention must be made of the player management at the union. Peter Grant will enjoy a second stint in the Japanese league and miss the Stormers’ pre-season yet again. Just a couple of months after Lionel Cronje had been snapped up by the Bulls, the Stormers started targeting other young flyhalves like Burton Francis. The biggest management bungle, however, relates to a promising centre and an established international midfielder. Johann Sadie left Cape Town because Jaque Fourie was expected to hold a monopoly on the No 13 jersey in 2012, but just last week Fourie confirmed that he would be moving to Japan for the next two seasons. D’oh!

Daai’s (Nie) ‘n Try – Ahead of the 2011 league match between the Stormers and Crusaders, a mass contingent of Cape-based Crusaders fans mobbed the open training sessions. Some of the fans claimed to be connoisseurs who favoured the Crusaders because of their brand of rugby. Others said that their reasons for supporting a Kiwi team were rooted in South Africa’s segregated past. What escaped both groups of supporters was the fact that the Crusaders held a reputation as one of the more pragmatic teams in the tournament, and that the Crusaders were a predominantly white side. Fortunately we will enjoy a break from this deluded bunch next year, as the 2012 league match will take place in Christchurch.

Daai’s Nie ‘n Ref – Did Bryce Lawrence take one two many relaxants before the World Cup quarter-final match between Australia and South Africa? Lawrence adopted an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards managing the breakdown, and consistently avoided penalising either side in this facet of play. In the end, it was the Aussies that adapted best. Last week, Lawrence was honoured with a referee award in New Zealand. Perhaps there aren’t too many professional referees to choose from in Kiwiland, or Lawrence is in fact, as once suggested by Peter de Villiers himself, the son of IRB referee chief Paddy O’Brien.

Union in Turmoil – The chain of controversial events that characterised England’s World Cup campaign read like the script of a Will Ferrell movie. Dwarf-tossing, hotel-staff harassment, senior team members cavorting with mystery blondes, drunk junior players diving off moving ferries… all that was missing was a KY jelly wrestling match and Lewis Moody streaking through the quad en route to KFC. The rugby was also beyond ordinary, and unsurprisingly some important changes have since been instigated at RFU headquarters.

The Frank the Tank award – The colourful behaviour of the England squad paled in comparison to that of Zac Guildford post the World Cup. Bleeding from the head and naked, the All Blacks winger stumbled into a family restaurant in the Cook Islands and proceeded to clout a couple of patrons. Reports of this incident were succeeded by news that Guildford had verbally harassed a Cook Islands athlete, also while he was heavily intoxicated. Will Ferrell and co do come up with some madcap characters, but would struggle to dream up a fighting nude rugby player who also cruises the streets on a hired scooter shouting obscenities at young women. Crazy.

By Jon Cardinelli and Ryan Vrede