ESPN rugby awards: Player of the year, moment & one wish for 2018

It has been a busy 12 months in rugby union. The British & Irish Lions' tour of New Zealand dominated the landscape, but was by no means the only show in town.

England have continued their progress under Eddie Jones, the All Blacks produced another world-class wing in Rieko Ioane, and all the while World Rugby's 'To-Do list' grew longer and longer.

And as 2018 comes into view, Greg Growden and Tom Hamilton delve into their collective short-term memory banks to dish out their awards for the year.

Player | Breakthrough player | Club man | Coach | Moment | Issue facing World Rugby | Wish for 2018

Player of the Year

Greg Growden: Sam Whitelock. He is without doubt the standout lock in world rugby, and his presence was crucial in ensuring the All Blacks remain ahead of every other nation. His leadership and authority was also at the core of the Crusaders Super Rugby tournament success. World Rugby got it wrong when it gave the best player award to Beauden Barrett. The British & Irish Lions showed him up. Whitelock is the man.

Tom Hamilton: Owen Farrell. The man is an absolute machine. How World Rugby ignored his claims and gave the official gong to Beauden Barrett only they know, but Farrell has enjoyed a superb 2017. He was the man who guided Saracens to their second Champions Cup title on the bounce, and then was the man with nerves of steel to steer the Lions to their series draw in New Zealand. He is truly world-class and has only improved over the last 12 months.

Breakthrough Player

GG: Marika Koroibete. Mark this name down. He could easily be one of the most dynamic forces at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The Wallaby winger had an exceptional first season following his move from the Melbourne Storm league club. His pace and drive from a standing start is exceptional, as are his ball-handling and tackling abilities. At last the Wallabies have a winger who frightens opponents.

TH: Step forward Rieko Ioane. Watching his performance against Wales in Cardiff was one of the year's great joys. He was magnificent, scoring twice and playing a key role in a further two of their eventual five scores. He scooped this award in the World Rugby annual knees up, and rightly so. His potential is frightening, but notable mentions need to go to Marika Koroibete and, in a strange way, Elliot Daly for his regeneration on the wing.

Club man

GG: This must go to special club men plural -- the Warringah Rats in the Sydney grade competition. Their 2017 season was inspirational. In June, one of their lower-grade players Lachlan Ward collapsed and died during a match. For the rest of the season, the Rats attempted to win a premiership in Lachlan's honour. How fitting that in the Shute Shield grand final, his brother Sam scored a first-half try. The Rats, one of the most popular battler clubs going around, went on to win their first major premiership, defeating Northern Suburbs 30-25.

TH: Gareth Steenson has been through it all with Exeter. He has lived, breathed, battered and booted every moment of their journey from England's second tier to being crowned Premiership champions. Watching him kick the winning penalty restored some faith in this runaway train of gluttony, cash-torching, finance-driven 21st century rugby. Exeter have built a sustainable model and it was rewarded by them winning the Premiership crown just seven years after promotion. It was a wonderful moment.


GG: Eddie Jones. He has completely transformed England, and knows how to out-coach opponents, in particular Michael Cheika. His achievements are on a level above Steve Hansen. As the late great Australian Test cricketer Bill O'Reilly used to say: "A border collie dog could coach the All Blacks."

TH: Eddie Jones was the correct choice as World Rugby's top head honcho of 2017 but arguably his greater feats were achieved in 2016 when he took England out of the abyss and moulded them into an unbeaten unit. So how about a left-field choice of Andy Farrell? Warren Gatland was the man who brought the Lions together, and he did a wonderful job of it, but Farrell was the man who orchestrated their defence. The drawn series will go down as one of the Lions' greatest moments and in the shadows was Farrell. The All Blacks' free-scoring, try-rich Rugby Championship that followed added further clout to Farrell's achievements. Next year's winner will be Gregor Townsend.


GG: Forget Test footy, Super Rugby, etc. Easily the best moment of 2017 was being at a capacity-full North Sydney Oval in August to witness the Sydney club grand final between the Warringah Rats and Northern Suburbs. Rugby in its best, purest form, and a game that meant something. This was also a protest vote. There are so many infuriated by how a poorly run Rugby Australia has decimated club football, and this was the moment where thousands upon thousands of those who have turned their backs on Super and Test rugby shouted to the administrators: "Up yours." Tribalism works.

TH: For those who were there, the second Test between the Lions and All Blacks in Wellington was a moment to rival any in sport this year. The atmosphere was all encompassing. You were wrapped in a red shroud of Lions fervour, that Maro Itoje chant rolled around the Westpac Stadium like a wave, and the tourists, against the 14-man All Blacks, won against the odds. It was a tour labelled "suicidal" by Sir Graham Henry in his interview with ESPN; the Lions proved they are a slightly ethereal entity in this rugby sphere and further emphasised their importance to the modern game.

One issue World Rugby must address

GG: The over-use of the Television Match Official (TMO). The referee now appears too scared to make any decision, and so we have endless delays as we wait for the TMO to watch something 10 to 20 times before giving his call. It is tedious, and unnecessary, especially as some of the TMOs aren't up to the task, or need to organise an optometrist's appointment quick smart. It is another reason why many watchers are either turning off or turning over to rugby league or AFL where there are no interruptions.

TH: As rules over Test eligibility are rightly tightened, and lengthened, it is time for World Rugby to adjust others over those previously capped. The likes of Charles Piutau and Frank Talai have already expressed their interest in lining up for Tonga having last played for the All Blacks in 2015 and 2013 respectively. There will be hoards of others who won a handful of caps for a Tier 1 nation, and were then discarded, who would like to play again for their country of birth. It will make the World Cup more competitive, and that can only be a good thing.

Wish for 2018...

GG: A rugby match where there is not one TMO decision.

TH: That the magnificent Alivereti Raka ends up in a Fiji shirt alongside Nemani Nadolo, rather than a French one with Virimi Vakatawa. It's a forlorn hope...