Sunday, 1 June 2014

The UltraSubMarines Awards 2014

It’s that time of year again when the rugby is over, earlier than usual for us, and we must make do with that pale substitute: arguing about our opinions on rugby instead.  This year hasn’t been a classic for Tigers; scarred by injuries that seemed to come in debilitating bunches; always fighting an uphill battle in the league following bright starts from Saracens and Saints; Our captain deserting ship mid campaign.

But no season is complete doom and gloom.  The high points were still there.  The win in Montpellier, out singing the home fans in the process, will live forever in the memory.  The record tying win against the Saints.

So let us crack on, the same categories as last year in the same order.

Singing of the season
Last Year: Vereniki Goneva

Won last year by our Flying Fijian we have some strong contenders this year.

Pablo Matera is a quality operator but young and often naive to the whims of English referees, whilst David Mele could not shift Ben Youngs from his perch.  So they miss out.  Jamie Gibson benefitted from injuries to Mafi and Croft to cement his claim on the 6 shirt making 24 starts.  An honest worker to the end he seems to lack that bit of magic we require from our flankers. 

If work rate is what you require Blaine Scully will provide it in spades.  The Californian has made chasing lost causes a speciality.

The winner though has to be Owen Williams.  Arriving unheralded from Llanelli his calm demeanour and pin point kicking quickly saw him over take Lamb in the pecking order.  Following the fallout from Flood’s move to Toulouse he steered the ship to 7 league wins and a draw in 2014.  Scoring 187 points, including Tigers first drop goal for almost 2 years, he was the real find of the season.

An RFU injustice has robbed him of the chance to wear a Wales test jersey but on this season’s form another chance will surely come before the Rugby World Cup.

Try of the season
Last Season: Adam Thompstone v Treviso (A)

Tigers score a lot of tries.  Despite what the critics say we’ve scored 86 tries this season, a fantastic return.  You’d need a better memory than me to remember them all, but some stick out as classics.

Logo Mulipola’s 25 yard rampage against Exeter; Goneva’s weaving run versus Worcester on the opening day of the season; his “fumble and go” against London Irish will be replayed on rugby’s equivalent of “Own Goals and Gaffes” forever.  In the biggest games we scored some attractive tries too, Jordan Crane finishing Owen Williams cross field kick in Clermont lives long in the memory. 

But this year’s winner has to be Vereniki Goneva’s try away to Newcastle.  It starts with an Ed Slater break, spotting the referee in the defensive line he uses him and break the line swotting the Falcons away like flies.  After the ruck Ben Youngs speeds the ball away and Dan Bowden’s floated pass finds Goneva well marked.

Or is he?  He beats one man in a phone box, his footwork bamboozling, hands off another and is free.  Only the full back to beat, he goes for the chip.  And chases.  He out strips the defence to win the race and put us back in the lead after a difficult half when it looked like our play off dreams were fading.

Game of the season
Last Season: Northampton (Premiership Final)

One candidate stands head and shoulders above the others for me.  Montpellier away became a sort of bench mark for the side.  We hadn’t won in France for 7 long years and the monkey on the back was in danger of turning into a Gorilla. 

The only match I can ever remember that ended nil all at half time it was thoroughly absorbing none the less.  Both teams had chances in that half but Tigers broke the deadlock early in the second period.  Tom Youngs devastating side step taking him past the close defence.  Montpellier struck back with a strike against the head and a breakaway try from half way by fly half Selponi.

The advantage was extended by Lucas Delpoint after Gorgodze’s break.

We were 9 points down with 9 minutes to go.  Away in France and winless in 7 years across La Manche.  Ryan Lamb’s spell in Leicester was brief but he’ll be forever remembered for what came next.  A scrum won a penalty 45m out, Lamb nailed it to reduce the arrears to 6.  Then a frenzied final attack, a master break from Miles Benjamin set us up in the 22 before the ball went wide.  Well executed simple hands from Morris, Slater and Ayerza put Goneva in at the corner.

The Fijian maestro kept the ball off the floor in goal to make the conversion more central and Lamb stepped forward once more to nail the kick and send the travelling supporters into raptures.  This one lives long in the memory. 

Academy player of the season
Last Season: Henry Purdy

To be eligible this player must have featured in the Premiership Under 18s Academy League this season.

It was another strong year for the Academy in the league, a single loss away to Gloucester cost Tigers the chance to claim the inaugural national title but the rest of the Northern Conference was dispatched with try bonus points secured in all games.  Overall 38 tries were scored in 7 matches and 41 players were used.

Strong players this year were number 8 Charlie Beckett, centre Charlie Thacker, brother of Harry, and David Williams, who scored a great try in the Premiership 7s series. 

The one player to break through from this level into the first team was Wrexham winger Rhys Williams, who featured from the bench in the LV Cup against Bath.

My player of the year is loosehead prop Owen Hills.  The Market Bosworth native has had a terrific season with 7 tries in 7 starts in the league, squat and powerfully built he has the stature to go further in the game.

U23 Player of the season
Last Season: Ben Youngs & Manu Tuilagi

Last year I said in the rush to claim new blood every year we didn’t want to forget who was actually the best player.  This award would go to the best players, not the newest passing fancy.

So really it’s obviously Manu Tuilagi.  He is clearly the best qualifying player.  But let’s at least pretend to look at the other options.  In terms of serious minutes the other eligible players are Fraser Balmain, Owen Williams and Pablo Matera.

Balmain has grown this year, being involved in all but one match day squad, and is now a solid set piece option that carries industriously.  Williams has been discussed above and really came into his own once given the reigns.  Matera came with big expectations and hasn’t hit them, still so young and plenty of time to overtake Salvi.

So having looked at the options its still Manu.  His return from injuries ignited our back play almost instantaneously.  It’s not been his best year but it’s the mark of the man that it is still the best.

Player of the season
Last Season: Tom Youngs

There have been many individual highlights for our players this season, Blaine Scully qualified for the 2015 Rugby World Cup with his US Eagles, whilst Vereniki Goneva was honoured by his fellow players to become Players’ Player of the Season.  Ed Slater celebrated his first call up to the England squad and was also chosen to lead the club as captain. 

Ed Slater had a remarkable year coming from a bench place last year to leading the club as captain in 2014.  His industrious carrying has been coupled with some beautifully soft hands that really make him the modern lock.

Others to have had strong seasons were Logo Mulipola.  Covering Marcos Ayerza as a loosehead early season he switched sides to tighthead once Dan Cole injured his neck.  The 20 stone Samoan has proved almost impossible to tackle and often damages those who try.  Jack Nowell’s still yet to come back from that shoulder injury. 

Ben Youngs was also back to his best.  Cruelly ignored by Stuart Lancaster in favour of his Leeds prodigy Danny Care the British Lion was immovable from the number 9 shirt for Leicester.  The consistency of not being faffed about by England paid dividend for Tigers as he was constantly challenging and asking questions of forwards around the ruck. 

But really there can only be one winner.  Vereniki Goneva.  The Flying Fijian joined us last season from Tarbes in ProD2 and finished last season as a try scorer at Twickenham.  This season he was has carried our attack scoring 14 tries in 25 games.  When an injury crisis crippled our centre reserves he stepped into the breach and proved his genius on many occasions, genuinely carrying the attacking threat of our team singlehandedly on many occasions.

Long rumoured to be leaving the club to join Castres he squashed those rumours to sign on for at least 2 more years.  He has power, pace and sublime footwork.  If he hasn’t beaten you with his trickery then he can just run over you instead.  Voted by his fellow professionals as the best player this season who am I to argue?

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