Ben Kay Column
Waldrom and Tuilagi set for awards double?
May 4, 2011
Will Leicester's Thomas Waldrom be celebrating with the Aviva Premiership Player of the Year award? © Getty Images
Awards season is almost upon us and on the eve of the Aviva Premiership dinner in London next week I thought I would give you my thoughts on the nominees and who should be picking up the silverware.
The Player of the Season award is sure to be keenly-contested with all the nominees having decent claims. Northampton winger Chris Ashton is one of those in the mix and quite rightly as he has kicked on since emerging as a world-class talent last season. He just looks so confident and quite clearly enjoys terrorising defenders on the domestic and international stage. A potent attacking weapon, most notably on the inside channel of the No.10 at an attacking lineout, he has been phenomenal at times and in terms of impact players he would be right up there at the top.
But he is not the only one to have lit up the Premiership stage this year. Saracens hooker Schalk Brits is another to have pushed on from last season when he won the Rugby Players' Association award but lost out to Ashton for the Premiership honour. His work at the set-piece was the one area of concern last season and he has responded to that criticism by upping his game - although he owes a debt to his props. And while he sometimes still struggles for accuracy at lineout time, his throwing is a lot better and up to a couple a weeks ago Sarries were on top of the stats for most lineouts won. I also love his attitude to the game but don't be fooled by the smile that is always on his face - he is as physical as anyone.
Muscle is something that Northampton prop Brian Mujati also has in abundance. He has torn a few teams apart at the set-piece with his scrummaging ability - most memorably Leicester at the start of the season - but his work around the field has been just as valuable. He may not put in as much visible work as team-mate Soane Tonga'uiha but he more than holds his own and is a worthy candidate for this award.
Leicester's Thomas Waldrom is many people's favourite to win the main award and the fact that he is new on the scene and has made an eye-catching impact by offering something a little bit different stands him in good stead. He carries the ball extremely well and has fantastic feet for a big guy. He reminds me of Dean Richards in some respects - although he is a lot quicker than Dean ever was - and his ability to be in the right place at the right time has been a huge part of the Tigers' success this season.
Rounding out this category is Northampton flanker Tom Wood who was particularly strong at the start of the season before taking his career to another level during the Six Nations when injuries opened the door to his England selection. He didn't waste that chance and is clearly up to the challenge of Test match rugby - a fact he backed up on numerous occasions in the Premiership.
But who will be celebrating? It is such a strong list that I don't believe there is a clear winner and I am sure the judges have struggled to decide. If I was voting, I would go for Brits but I don't think he will win it with Waldrom the most likely to pip him.
The shortlist for the young player of the season, or the Land Rover Discovery award to give the honour its proper name, is equally talent-heavy. Saracens' Owen Farrell leads the nominations and is another to have benefited from the misfortune of others. The injury to Derick Hougaard and the not-so-successful experiment of playing Alex Goode at fly-half saw Farrell handed his chance to impress and he grabbed it with both hands. He runs the Saracens back division really well and is tremendously composed for someone of his age - remember, he is only 19-years-old. I am pretty sure there is going to be a huge battle for the England No.10 shirt in a few years between him and England assistant coach Mike Ford's son George who is currently plying his trade at Leicester.
Sale's James Gaskell had a lot of pressure thrust upon him at the start of the season with the Sharks' captaincy but then had more than his fair share of injury woe. He is undoubtedly a talent and has a great attitude but I think the time on the sidelines will have cost him here. Harlequins' George Lowe is another worthy of praise and his nomination. He has had another strong season and it seems that each time you flick on the results he has had his hand in something. He is a very strong player and performs above his years in terms of physicality.
It's no secret that I am a big fan of Gloucester's Charlie Sharples and I don't think there is anybody better than him under the high ball at the moment. Gloucester use him extremely well at kick offs where he is really effective but the rest of his game is just as impressive. If I was coach on the Premiership circuit I would definitely be inquiring into his availability.
But Sharples may well be beaten to the award by Leicester's Manu Tuilagi. The latest Tuilagi off the production line is the most rugby-astute of the Samoan brothers to have graced the Premiership stage but he still has a number of faults that need ironing out of his game - most notably the red mist that descends when he sees an opportunity to fly out of the line and floor someone. That part of his game can be a real plus but if he mis-times it he can leave a hole in the defensive line that director of rugby Richard Cockerill and head coach Matt O'Connor will be all too aware of.
But I think that is completely outweighed by the fear factor. If the opposition player receiving the ball is thinking 'Where is he? Where is he?' they will often make a mistake. For such a young lad to so obviously scare his opposition so much is a huge asset for the Tigers. He is going to be a huge star and I can see him winning this award because of the excitement he brings to the game.
So what about the rest of the awards? Well, you can close the book on the director of rugby award as Exeter's Rob Baxter has got that sown up. That may be a bit harsh on those coaches who have steered their sides to the top of the Premiership table but Baxter has created something very special down at Sandy Park. The impact they have made on the league is far and away better that what Leeds managed last season when Neil Back and Andy Key picked up the awards so Baxter can clear a space on his mantelpiece.
The ESPN TV team have also had the honour of selecting this season's Dream Team and while I'm not about to reveal it to the world, it will be no surprise when I say it includes several players from Leicester and Saracens - but don't forget what a good side a full strength Northampton Saints are and some of the performances they have produced. It was no easy task picking the team because so many positions boast an embarrassment of riches.
A final word on the last round of the regular season this weekend with the final play-off place and the likely relegation candidate set to be decided. I think you would be daft to back Leeds to be a Premiership club next season. Newcastle's bonus point against Bath last weekend appears to have done for Leeds and they can only hope that Northampton are hung over from the heady heights of their Heineken Cup success. But that is unlikely with Northampton chasing a win that would guarantee their place in the post-season.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN