JON CARDINELLI applauds the outstanding individuals, teams and moments of the 2014 Test season.
TEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DUANE VERMEULEN
In 2014, Brodie Retallick was the best player in the world’s best team. That is why he received the World Rugby Player of the Year award. While I can appreciate the logic, I can’t help but feeling that Vermeulen was hard done by. He was the best No 8 over the course of the Test season, which is some statement considering Kieran Read made some outstanding contributions for the All Blacks. Vermeulen pushed Read hard for the crown in 2013, and usurped the New Zealander in 2014. If there was any justice, the South African would have been recognised with the top gong as well as this bragging right. There wasn’t anyone better in Test rugby this past season.
TEST ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: HANDRÉ POLLARD
It’s been a long time since a rookie has forced the top Test teams to rethink their strategies. In the buildup to the final Rugby Championship Test in Johannesburg, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said that Pollard’s inclusion at No 10 made the Boks more dangerous on attack. Pollard went on to score two tries in that fixture. While there are areas of his game that require work, the 20-year-old has made a bigger impact than most in his first year of Test rugby.
TEST COACH OF THE YEAR: STEVE HANSEN
Not even a debate. Some in the north will argue for Ireland’s Joe Schmidt, but for consistency, innovation and player management there has been none better than the All Blacks mentor. Hansen’s record with the team over the past three seasons is intimidating. What’s even more impressive is that he has achieved these results while rotating his players and strengthening New Zealand’s depth.
TEST TEAM OF THE YEAR: ALL BLACKS
Again, there’s no argument. Many will focus on the game they lost to the Boks or the Test they drew to the Wallabies, but the All Blacks deserve credit for the 12 they won this past season. That record included a clean sweep in the three-game Test series against England in June, and a four-from-four return on their end-of-year tour. It’s also worth noting they clinched the Rugby Championship title before that defeat to the Boks in Johannesburg. Even the great teams can be guilty of complacency.
TEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR: ALL BLACKS vs WALLABIES IN AUCKLAND
The All Blacks battled against the Wallabies in a rain-afflicted match in Sydney, and were done no favours by some incompetent officiating. Their reaction in the following clash in Auckland would be emphatic. What better way to put the Aussies back in their place and to remind the world of their own No 1 status than via a 51-20 performance? The All Blacks dominated that clash from start to finish, and would score six tries in total.
TEST TRY OF THE YEAR: FRANCOIS HOUGAARD VS ALL BLACKS
World Rugby has got this one bang on. In the Rugby Championship Test at Ellis Park, the Boks attacked from their own 22, shifting the ball to the right wing. Jean de Villiers sums the situation up quickly, and kicks a grubber through the advancing All Blacks defence. Cornal Hendricks gathers and then delivers a pass to Jan Serfontein. The centre is caught by the cover defence, but still has the presence of mind to look for an offload. Hougaard comes through at pace, collects the pass, and scores. Jamie Roberts’s try against Scotland was another stunning example of teamwork, but Hougaard and the Boks deserve this accolade considering the quality and reputation of the All Blacks’ defence.
BEST HIT OF THE YEAR: DUANE VERMEULEN ON RICHIE McCAW
Talk about making a statement. In just the second minute of play, Vermeulen lines up the All Blacks captain. A driving left shoulder knocks McCaw back, and then to the ground. Spurred on by this brutal individual effort, the Boks go on to produce a powerful forward performance. It may have not been enough to win the game, but Vermeulen and the Boks certainly rattled the All Blacks on that occasion.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images