Saracens battle past Cardiff Blues in Champions Cup

Saracens solidified top spot in Pool Three of the Champions Cup with a 26-14 away victory over Cardiff Blues on Saturday.

Both sides scored two tries apiece with Sean Maitland and Jamie George crossing the whitewash either side of half-time for the visitors and Rey Lee-Lo and Dan Fish dotting down for the Blues, who held a slender 14-13 lead at half-time.

Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell was in fine form off the kicking tee and he finished with a 16-point haul courtesy of four penalties and two conversion and Gareth Anscombe converted both Cardiff's tries.

Although they had to dig deep to secure the result, the Premiership champions held a slight edge throughout and their forwards deserve plenty of praise as they laid the foundation for the win.

Cardiff Blues gave a good account of themselves against their more fancied opponents and stood up well to Saracens' physicality.

Sarries' scrum was particularly impressive and they used the set-piece as an attacking platform especially in the second-half when the game turned into an arm wrestle with most of the exchanges restricted to the forwards.

The decision by Sarries to restrict play mostly to the forwards was especially effective during the latter stages of the match.

They did well to prevent the Blues from adding to their points tally during the second-half and especially midway through the second period when Will Skelton was yellow carded.

The win means Saracens are still unbeaten at the top of the pool while Glasow Warriors stay second with Cardiff Blues third and Lyon still firmly rooted to the bottom of the table.

Glasgow's 21-10 victory over Lyon saw wing Niko Matawalu cross twice while fly-half Adam Hastings contributed 11 points off the kicking tee.

The game was played in horrendous conditions that hindered both sides and meant it was incredibly difficult for Glasgow to claim the maximum.

Rob Baxter lauds Exeter Chiefs players after comeback victory

Exeter Chiefs boss Rob Baxter was full of praise for his side after they bounced back from defeat with a 29-17 Champions Cup win over Gloucester at Kingsholm on Friday.

The Chiefs' victory - their first in Pool Two this season - not only avenged a home defeat by the Cherry and Whites just six days earlier, but put the Devonians back on course in their attempts to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition.

Exeter's pack laid the foundations for the triumph, producing a powerful display - particularly at set-piece time - that yielded tries for forwards Sam Skinner, Don Armand, Jack Yeandle and Harry Williams.

Fly-half Gareth Steenson completed the job, slotting three conversions and a penalty, while in reply Jason Woodward scored two tries for the hosts, alongside another for replacement Tom Hudson.

Post-game, however, Baxter was quick to salute the efforts of his players, who had come in for some criticism in the wake of the Gloucester win at Sandy Park.

“I think it just shows what a funny old game all sport is, especially rugby,” he said.

“It’s interesting how the pressure has flipped week on week. Last week it was us losing at home and Gloucester looking like strong contenders to get out of the pool, now all of a sudden, we did some things that created pressure, it was almost like a polar opposite of last week’s game where we were fighting and going nowhere to get a losing bonus point, and that happened to Gloucester today.

“What we did today, though, was that we stuck to sound basics, we worked hard, we stuck more to plan and, the biggest thing, we didn’t get hurt by mistakes. Yes, we made plenty of mistakes out there, but we bounced through them so much better than last week.

"Last week it was as if every mistake we made drained the life out of us. Whereas today, it almost enriched us and enlivened our performance.We weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but our desire to get on with the game was perfect and that was what was able to see us through in the end.”

Having drawn with Pool Two leaders Munster in their opening European fixture, successive losses to Castres (away) and Gloucester (home) had left the Chiefs bottom of the pile and with seemingly very little to fight for.

However, Baxter was defiant in the wake of the Gloucester loss that there were “still 15 points to play for” and that his team would be doing everything in their power to try and achieve each and every one of them.

The response at Kingsholm on Friday underlined that message, much to the admiration of the Chiefs’ director of rugby.

“These five points certainly mean there is now real value in the Castres home game, which is fantastic for us as a club,” added Baxter.

“Now the supporters can come and there is a glimmer for them because at the end of the day, if we can go to Munster with something to play for, it’s almost like you’ve qualified for the last 16 and you’re fighting to get into that last eight.

“That would be a fantastic thing to look forward to, if we can get there. For now, we have just got to accept a few lessons that probably - and I have to hold my hand up here - that were dripping into our levels of performance for probably four or five weeks. It’s like anything, when you’ve won every Premiership game, you have drawn with Munster and only lost by four to the French champions, it’s so easy not to want to over-react to things.

“I think in hindsight, we never really hit our straps coming out of that Premiership Rugby Cup period and with the internationals away. We scrapped a win in the last few seconds up at Bristol, it was a weird game against Gloucester in the Premiership where se scored two long-range tries in a bit of a slugfest, and then we weren’t great at Harlequins and then we lost to Gloucester at home in Europe.

“It wasn’t really until we sat down this week, just a few little things have dripped away from maybe our focus, but the interesting thing is by talking about those two things - and I’m not going to tell you what they are - but it wasn’t our scrum, wasn’t our line-out, it wasn’t our maul, it wasn’t our pick-and-go, it was other Exeter Chiefs qualities. Then, what happens?

“All of a sudden, we get a couple of pick-and-go scores, our scrum looks dominant, our line-out maul is functioning, it really is one of those things that shows how rounded the game is. However, there is never one answer to one thing. If you get two or three of your basic qualities right, then the fundamentals of your game start to stand up again and that’s what happened tonight.”

Steve Hansen to step down as All Blacks coach

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen has announced that he will be stepping down from the job at the end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

In announcing his decision, Hansen said while he still had the desire, energy and commitment to continue in the role - as well as the support of the All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby - he felt that the end of the 2019 season was the right time to stand down so he could spend more time with his family.

Hansen has been head coach of the All Blacks since 2012 and prior to that was an assistant coach for eight years.

"After being involved in the All Blacks for 16 years, I do feel it's right for the team for me to stand down. I think change after the Rugby World Cup will bring a new outlook for the team and it'll be time for someone else to enhance the legacy of the All Blacks," he told the All Blacks' website.

Hansen revealed there had been no pressure from his family to step aside.

"As only people who have done the job will understand, there are not only heavy demands on yourself, but also on your family. My family has given me unreserved love and support over the last 16 years and I feel it's now time to make them the sole focus," he said.

"It's been a huge privilege to be part of the All Blacks for such a long time and I'm really looking forward to, and excited by the challenges, of the next 12 months. We'll be attempting to do something that has never been done before - to win three consecutive Rugby World Cups. I'm highly motivated by that, as is the whole group, and we're really looking forward to it."

Hansen added he wanted to make the announcement about his future now so that New Zealand Rugby had plenty of time to identify a successor.

"This is a critical process which shouldn't be rushed and shouldn't be made in the turbulent period that tends to follow a Rugby World Cup campaign."

New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew said Hansen had overseen "one of the richest periods in All Blacks history".

"On his watch the All Blacks have had a winning rate of close to 90 percent - a remarkable run of sustained success," he said.

"As well as his success on the field, he will also be remembered for his bold selections and the way he and his management team provided the opportunity and environment for the players to achieve their full potential on the international stage.

"He cares deeply about the game and the wider issues facing it and his views are hugely respected not only in New Zealand but internationally.

"On behalf of New Zealand Rugby, we congratulate Steve, his wife Tash and his family on his contribution to New Zealand Rugby - and the contribution he'll continue to make in 2019 - and we all look forward to what next year will bring."

Stade Francais teenager dies from neck injury

French rugby is in mourning after the passing of Stade Francais teenager Nicolas Chauvin, who suffered a broken neck in an academy match.

The 19-year-old sustained the injury in Sunday's match against Bordeaux-Begles and was rushed to hospital to undergo an emergency operation.

However, on Wednesday, Stade Francais confirmed the death of Chauvin from 'cervical trauma that resulted in cardiac arrest and cerebral anoxia'.

A statement released by the French club read: "It is with great sadness that Stade Francais Paris announces the death of Nicolas Chauvin, a young hopeful of the club, who died tonight at CHU Pellegrin in Bordeaux.

"Following an accident at the Espoirs game in Begles, Nicolas suffered a cervical trauma that resulted in cardiac arrest and cerebral anoxia.

"Today, all our thoughts are with the family of Nicolas to whom all the members of the club send their most sincere condolences.

"Stade Francais Paris is in mourning."

A number of European clubs have honoured Chauvin with tributes following the tragedy, while the president of the French Rugby Federation, Bernard Laporte, also expressed his condolences.

"I address all my heartfelt and profound condolences to Nicolas' family," Laporte told Sky Sports.

"He will remain forever engraved in the memory of French rugby. Solidarity from the Federation and the whole of the rugby family."

Preview: Champions Cup, Friday

Two games are on the Champions Cup schedule on Friday with Gloucester hosting Exeter Chiefs at Kingsholm while Ulster and Scarlets face off in Belfast.

Gloucester v Exeter Chiefs

Springbok second-row Franco Mostert will make his first start as Gloucester make half a dozen changes to their starting line-up for this fixture.

It’s the second leg of the traditional December European double-header, and Gloucester will be looking to back up last Saturday’s win at Sandy Park, whilst also anticipating a response from the Chiefs.

The Cherry and Whites make three changes to the pack and three to the back-line. In the backs, Jason Woodward, Charlie Sharples and Billy Twelvetrees all return to the starting line-up.

In the forwards, in addition to Mostert making his full debut, Ed Slater comes into the second-row and Gareth Evans will line up on the openside flank.

Meanwhile, Exeter Chiefs direcor of rugby Rob Baxter’s plans have been hampered somewhat with a number of new additions to the club’s injury list.

Last Saturday’s home defeat to the Cherry and Whites saw Ollie Atkins, Alex Cuthbert, Matt Kvesic, Henry Slade, Stu Townsend and Nic White all sustain issues during the contest and none of them will feature on Friday.

That means there are numerous changes to the Chiefs line-up. Up front, Alec Hepburn and Tomas Francis come into the front-row, Sam Skinner is shunted from back-row to lock, while there are also starts for Sean Lonsdale and Tom Lawday.

Behind them, Jack Maunder gets the nod at scrum-half, Sam Hill and Ian Whitten form a new midfield pairing, while there are also new faces in the back three with Tom O’Flaherty and Joe Simmonds joining Santiago Cordero, who a week ago set a new European record of 17 defenders beaten in one game.

The teams:

Gloucester: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Billy Twelvetrees, 12 Owen Williams, 11 Ollie Thorley, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Willi Heinz (c), 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Gareth Evans, 6 Freddie Clarke, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Ed Slater, 3 Fraser Balmain, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Josh Hohneck
Replacements:
16 Henry Walker, 17 Alex Seville, 18 Ciaran Knight, 19 Gerbrandt Grobler, 20 Alex Craig, 21 Callum Braley, 22 Matt Banahan, 23 Tom Hudson

Exeter Chiefs: 15 Joe Simmonds, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Sam Hill, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Gareth Steenson, 9 Jack Maunder, 8 Tom Lawday, 7 Don Armand, 6 Sean Lonsdale, 5 Sam Skinner, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Jack Yeandle (c), 1 Alec Hepburn
Replacements:
16 Elvis Taione, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Mitch Lees, 20 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 21 Sam Maunder, 22 Ollie Devoto, 23 Phil Dollman

Venue: Kingsholm
Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant referees: Vincent Blasco Baqué (France), Cédric Marchat (France)
Television match official: Denis Grenouillet (France)

Ulster v Scarlets

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has named an unchanged matchday 23 for Friday’s Champions Cup Round 4 match against Scarlets.

The Ulstermen registered a superb 24-25 bonus-point win against last season’s semi-finalists at Parc y Scarlets on Friday past.

The game will see Rory Best become Ulster’s most capped player in the European competition (72), moving one ahead of Andrew Trimble.

Best will again captain the side and will pack down in the front-row beside Marty Moore and Eric O’Sullivan, the Abbey Insurance Academy prop who made 22 tackles last week in an impressive 80-minute display.

Iain Henderson and Kieran Treadwell are paired together in the second-row, while Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee will combine in the back-row.

Billy Burns will again partner John Cooney at half-back, with Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison retained in midfield. Jacob Stockdale, who was named as BBC NI Sports Personality of the Year earlier this week, is selected in the back three alongside the experienced Louis Ludik and Henry Speight.

Kyle McCall, who was recalled to the squad last week after a six-month spell on the sidelines through injury, could make his 50th Ulster appearance if called upon from the bench.

Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Matty Rea and Nick Timoney are the other forward replacements, with Dave Shanahan, Johnny McPhillips and Darren Cave providing cover for the backline.

Meanwhile, Scarlets have made three personnel changes to their side.

Jake Ball makes his comeback after recovering from a head injury sustained in the PRO14 loss to Glasgow almost a fortnight ago so Lewis Rawlins moves to the back-row to deputise for injured flanker James Davies.

Prop Rob Evans and centre Keiron Fonotia have also been ruled out with Wales duo Hadleigh Parkes and Wyn Jones both starting.

The teams:

Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Will Addison, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 8 Marcell Coetzee, 7 Jordi Murphy, 6 Sean Reidy, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Marty Moore, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Eric O’Sullivan
Replacements:
16 Rob Herring, 17 Kyle McCall, 18 Tommy O’Toole, 19 Matty Rea, 20 Nick Timoney, 21 David Shanahan, 22 Johnny McPhillips, 23 Darren Cave

Scarlets: 15 Johnny McNicholl, 14 Tom Prydie, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Rhys Patchell, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Uzair Cassiem, 7 Will Boyde, 6 Lewis Rawling, 5 David Bullbring, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Wyn Jones
Replacements:
16 Ryan Elias, 17 Phil Price, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Tom Price, 20 Josh Helps, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Dan Jones, 23 Paul Asquith

Venue: Kingpan Stadium
Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Karl Dickson (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)

Challenge Cup teams: Friday

Round Four of the Challenge Cup kicks off with Agen hosting Grenoble before Perpignan entertain Connacht and Ospreys visit Stade Francais. 

Agen v Grenoble

Agen: 15 Mathieu Lamoulie (c), 14 Clément Laporte, 13 Timilai Rokoduru, 12 Tamaz Mchedlidze, 11 Fouad Yaha, 10 Leo Berdeu, 9 Paul Abadie, 8 Yoan Tanga, 7 Facundo Bosch, 6 Jessy Jegerlhener, 5 Denis Marchois, 4 Christiaan van der Merwe, 3 Yohan Montes, 2 Paula Ngauamo, 1 Dave Ryan
Replacements: 16 Marc Barthomeuf, 17 Giorgi Tetrashvili, 18 Alex Burin, 19 Andres Zafra Tarazona, 20 Antoine Miquel, 21 Ricky Januarie, 22 Thomas Vincent, 23 Valentin Saurs

Grenoble: 15 Gervais Cordin, 14 Lucas Dupont, 13 Etienne Dussartre, 12 Junior Rasolea, 11 Teiva Jacquelain, 10 Matthieu Ugalde, 9 Theo Nanette, 8 Edgar Tuinukuafe, 7 Clement Ancely, 6 Antonin Berruyer (c), 5 François Uys, 4 Killian Geraci, 3 Halani Aulika, 2 Duncan Casey, 1 Alexandre Dardet
Replacements: 16 Alexandre Savonnet, 17 JC Janse van Rensburg, 18 Ali Oz, 19 Hans Nkinsi, 20 Loic Baradel, 21 Lilian Saseras, 22 Adrien Latorre, 23 Bastien Guillemin

Venue: Stade Armandie
Kick-off: 19:30 local (18:30 GMT)
Referee: Craig Evans (Wales)
Assistant referees: Mike English (Wales), Rhys Jones (Wales)

Perpignan v Connacht

Perpignan: 15 Julien Farnoux, 14 Eroni Sau, 13 Adrea Cocagi, 12 Afusipa Taumoepeau, 11 Tima Fainga'anuku, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Tom Ecochard (c), 8 Karl Chateau, 7 Pierre Reynaud, 6 Eru Shahn, 5 Yoann Vivalda, 4 Tristan Labouteley, 3 Yassin Boutemmani, 2 Manu Leiataua, 1 Quentin Walcker
Replacements: 16 Cyril Deligny, 17 Kevin Tougne, 18 Nicolas Lemaire, 19 Johan van Heerden, 20 Alan Brazo, 21 Sadek Degmache, 22 Enzo Selponi, 23 Jonathan Bousquet

Connacht: 15 Darragh Leader, 14 Cian Kelleher, 13 Kieran Joyce, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Conor Fitzgerald, 9 James Mitchell, 8 Robin Copeland, 7 James Connolly, 6 Sean O'Brien, 5 Gavin Thornbury, 4 James Cannon, 3 Dominic Robertson-McCoy, 2 Dave Heffernan (c), 1 Peter McCabe
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Matthew Burke, 18 Conor Carey, 19 Joe Maksymiw, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Kyle Godwin

Venue: Stade Aimee Giral
Kick-off: 20:00 local (19:00 GMT)
Referee: Ian Tempest (England)
Assistant referees: Adam Leal (England), Anthony Woodthorpe (England)

Stade Francais v Ospreys

Stade Francais: 15 Kylan Hamdaoui, 14 Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, 13 Julien Delbouis, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Lester Etien, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Tala Gray, 7 Hendre Stassen, 6 Sylvain Nicolas, 5 Yoann Maestri (c), 4 Paul Gabrillagues, 3 Paul Alo Emile, 2 Laurent Panis, 1 Siegfried Fisiihoi
Replacements: 16 Laurent Sempéré, 17 Stéphane Clement, 18 Giorgi Melikidze, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Sergio Parisse, 21 Clement Daguin, 22 Jules Plisson, 23 Tony Ensor

Ospreys: 15 Dan Evans, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Johnny Kôtze, 12 Cory Allen, 11 Keelan Giles, 10 James Hook, 9 Thomas Habberfield, 8 Rob McCusker, 7 Sam Cross, 6 Olly Cracknell (c), 5 James King, 4 Lloyd Ashley, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Rhodri Jones
Replacements: 16 Sam Parry, 17 Gareth Thomas, 18 Gheorghe Gajion, 19 Will Griffiths, 20 Guido Volpi, 21 Harri Morgan, 22 Cai Evans, 23 Joe Thomas

Venue: Stade Jean-Bouin
Kick-off: 20:45 local (19:45 GMT)
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
Assistant referees: Sam Grove-White (Scotland), Dave Sutherland (Scotland)

Kendra Cocksedge crowned New Zealand's best

Black Ferns scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge made history on Thursday when she became the first woman to be named the Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year.

Cocksedge, a 47-Test cap Black Fern and playmaker for the successful back-to-back Farah Palmer Cup champions Canterbury was in sublime form in 2018.

She emerged the winner of the prestigious award from a strong field of nominees featuring All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Richie Mo’unga, and Codie Taylor.

She was also named the New Zealand Rugby Women’s Player of the Year – her second time (last in 2015) winning that award - and won the Fiao’o Faamausili Medal for player of the Farah Palmer Cup. The awards cement her status as the most outstanding player in fifteens rugby in New Zealand – male or female – in 2018. She joins an impressive alumnus of previous winners including Sam Whitelock, Beauden Barrett, Ma’a Nonu, Retallick, Kieran Read and Richie McCaw.

The Black Ferns Sevens were crowned the New Zealand Team of Year – their first time winning the honour after a remarkable year with double-gold at the Commonwealth Games and at the Rugby World Cup 7s.

This year’s expanded awards celebrated the best of Provincial and Super Rugby teams with back-to-back Super Rugby champions, the Crusaders, winning the inaugural National Team of the Year and Auckland head coach Alama Ieremia named the National Coach of the Year.

It was a huge night for the Crusaders whose classy fly-half Mo’unga saw off his team-mate Matt Todd and the Chiefs' Solomon Alaimalo to win Super Rugby Player of the Year; Crusaders and All Blacks hooker Taylor was named the Tom French Memorial Maori Player of the Year, and Crusaders and Canterbury lock Luke Romano was awarded the Duane Monkley Medal for player of the Mitre 10 Cup.

Commonwealth gold medal and Rugby World Cup 7s winning All Blacks Sevens Coach Clark Laidlaw was named New Zealand Coach of the Year, rounding out an impressive haul for the Sevens teams with Scott Curry named the Richard Crawshaw Memorial All Blacks Sevens Player of the Year, and Michaela Blyde – who last month was named World Rugby’s top women’s sevens player - taking out the Black Ferns Sevens Player of the Year.

New Zealand Rugby’s highest recognition of an outstanding contribution to rugby, the Steinlager Salver, was awarded to All Blacks legend Waka Nathan, who was chosen especially by the New Zealand Rugby Board. The New Zealand Rugby Players' Association (NZRPA) David Kirk Award was presented to All Blacks centurion Keven Mealamu and Black Ferns skipper Fiao’o Faamausili for their contributions to the game off the field.

Canterbury’s Tom Christie, who also starred in this year’s New Zealand U20 team was New Zealand Age Grade Player, and Brett Ranga from the Meads Cup champions side, Thames Valley, was named the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship Player of the Year.

Former acclaimed professional rugby player turned international referee Glen Jackson won Referee of the Year for a remarkable fifth time in seven years. He is just shy of the record still held by former New Zealand referee Paddy O’Brien’s who won the award six times.

The accolade that pays tribute to rugby’s tireless volunteers, the Charles Monro Rugby Volunteer of the Year, was this year presented to Horowhenua-Kapiti’s Irene Eruera-Taiapa. A long-serving volunteer with the local rugby union, she is the union’s Respect and Responsibility and Child Protection Advisor and has been a driver of discussion about these topics in the rugby environment.

A try by Chris Hala’ufia from the national First XV champions side, St Peter's College, was voted by the public, as the SKY Fan’s Try of the Year, edging out a star-studded list of tries from All Blacks to Black Ferns, Super Rugby and national provincial competitions.

New Zealand Rugby chairperson Brent Impey congratulated all award winners.

“It has been a wonderful and successful year right across rugby," he said.

"It has been another positive year for women’s rugby particularly for the Black Ferns Sevens and their continued dominance on the world stage. Kendra’s award tonight is another remarkable achievement, and her utterly sublime performances in both the Black Ferns and Canterbury jersey have clearly made her a standout individual, and she thoroughly deserves the many accolades she has received.

“Congratulations also to the Crusaders for retaining the Super Rugby title this year. Their dominance in the competition was incredible. It is no small coincidence that Crusaders players also took home the Super Rugby and Tom French Memorial Maori Player of the year awards and their consistent excellence is a credit to their club.”

2018 New Zealand Rugby Awards winners:

Kelvin R Tremain Memorial Player of the Year: Kendra Cocksedge (Canterbury)

National Team of the Year: Crusaders

New Zealand Team of the Year: Black Ferns Sevens

New Zealand Coach of the Year: Clark Laidlaw (All Blacks Sevens)

Super Rugby Player of the Year: Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders)

Tom French Memorial Maori Player of the Year: Codie Taylor (Ngati Raukawa/Muaupoko)

Richard Crawshaw Memorial All Blacks Sevens Player of the Year: Scott Curry (Bay of Plenty)

Black Ferns Sevens Player of the Year: Michaela Blyde (Bay of Plenty)

New Zealand Rugby Women’s Player of the Year: Kendra Cocksedge (Canterbury)

Fans Try of the Year: Chris Hala’ufia (St Peter's College)

New Zealand Rugby Referee of the Year: Glen Jackson (Bay of Plenty)

Charles Monro Rugby Volunteer of the Year: Irene Eruera-Taiapa (Horowhenua Kapiti)

New Zealand Rugby Age Grade Player of the Year: Tom Christie (Canterbury)

Mitre 10 Heartland Championship Player of the Year: Brett Ranga (Thames Valley)

Duane Monkley Medal: Luke Romano (Canterbury)

Fiao’o Faamausili Medal: Kendra Cocksedge (Canterbury)

National Coach of the Year: Alama Ieremia (Auckland)

Previous Kelvin R Tremain award winners (last 10 years):

2017: Samuel Whitelock
2016: Beauden Barrett
2015: Ma’a Nonu
2014: Brodie Retallick
2013: Kieran Read
2012: Richie McCaw
2011: Jerome Kaino
2010: Kieran Read
2009: Richie McCaw
2008: Andrew Hore

Andrei Ostrikov suspended for four weeks

Sale Sharks lock Andrei Ostrikov has received a four-week suspension after appearing before an independent disciplinary hearing on Tuesday.

Ostrikov was sent off by the referee, Ian Davies (Wales), in the 68th minute of the match against Bordeaux-Bègles at Stade Chaban-Delmas for striking UBB centre Jean-Baptiste Dubié with his arm in contravention of Law 9.12.

Meanwhile, Bordeaux-Begles centre Cyril Cazeaux has received a two-week suspension following that game.

Cazeaux was sent off by referee Davies in the 38th minute of the match for striking Sale lock Ostrikov with his knee in contravention of Law 9.12.

Nehe Milner-Skudder on his way to Toulon?

All Blacks utility back Nehe Milner-Skudder is set to join Toulon after next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan, according to media reports.

French media outlet RMC Sport reports that the 27-year-old has agreed to a three-year contract with the Top 14 outfit which will be formally announced by their president, Mourad Boudjellal, on Friday.

This announcement comes after another French club, Pau, confirmed the sigining of New Zealand full-back Ben Smith although they are said to have missed out on another All Black, openside flanker Ardie Savea, who is set to sign a new deal with New Zealand Rugby.

Milner-Skudder has played in 13 Tests and last represented the All Blacks in November when they beat Japan 69-31 in Tokyo.

He burst onto the scene in 2015 and was in the New Zealand's starting line-up in their Rugby World Cup Final victory Australia.

Milner-Skudder scored one of the All Blacks' three tries in that match but his career has been plagued by injuries since then.

He is expected to represent the Hurricanes at Super Rugby level in 2019 but could be granted a release from his provincial duties if he is not included in New Zealand's Rugby World Cup squad.

Toulon already have fellow All Blacks Liam Messam, Julian Savea and Malakai Fekitoa in their ranks.

David Alred named Reds kicking coach

The final piece of the Queensland Reds 2019 coaching puzzle has been finalised with the appointment of Dave Alred as the team's kicking coach.

Alred has mentored some of the biggest names in world sport, most notably the man who kicked England to a fairytale Rugby World Cup victory over the Wallabies in 2003 – Jonny Wilkinson.

He is also a trusted advisor for many golfers and most recently worked with Francesco Molinari, who with Alred’s help, became the first Italian professional to win a Major when he took out the 2018 Open Championship.

Alred holds a PhD in Performing Under Pressure from the sports-renowned Lougborough University in England and is regarded as one of the world’s best elite performance coaches with more than 30 years of experience.

He has a proven ability to help athletes exceed their own expectations and has worked with world-class organisations, including the England Rugby team (four World Cups), the British and Irish Lions (three tours), the Springboks, the England Cricket team, and Manchester City.

Alred has already dipped his toe in the water at Queensland Rugby having spent time at Ballymore earlier this year developing the kicking skills of Reds contracted players who were preparing for the 2018 National Rugby Championship (NRC), including Hamish Stewart, Moses Sorivi and James Tuttle.

Alred said he’s looking forward to the opportunity with the Reds and working within a team environment again.

“I’ve missed working with a team. I’m still working with individuals in Europe and in professional golf, which challenges my thinking about skill development and performing under pressure,” he told the Reds' official website.

“Having been in touch with Brad and seeing the ethos, work ethic and attitude he’s created is really a coaching dream to come in and start form scratch and try to have an influence on players in a way which hopefully will help them throughout the whole of their Rugby career.

“First of all my role is to give the players confidence and to give them a technique which is not physically debilitating. I’m very concerned about the biomechanics and how that works. Also teaching them how to kick under pressure and to have more of an appreciative idea of a kicking game.”

Queensland Rugby Union (QRU) Interim CEO David Hanham said: “Dave is a world-leader in his field and his appointment completes our 2019 coaching staff roster.

“Improving the quality of our kicking from our Academy through to the Reds is a priority and we believe Dave will provide our players the development needed to achieve this.

“We’ve been focused on ensuring we have the best coaches with experience and proven success surrounding Brad Thorn.

“Dave will complement the coaching group to ensure the QRU continues to develop elite playing talent coming through the Queensland Pathway.”

Jamie Shillcock pens new Worcester Warriors deal

Worcester Warriors have announced that highly-regarded fly-half Jamie Shillcock has committed to the club by signing a new two-year contract.

The new deal is another indication of Warriors' commitment to building the club through the talented players who have come through the Three Pears Academy at Sixways.

Shillcock burst onto the first-team scene as a 17-year-old when he was called up to the matchday squad for Warriors' Championship play-off semi-final against London Scottish in 2015, coming off the bench for his debut in the second leg.

He made his Premiership debut against Bath in September 2016, before starring a week later as he crossed the whitewash for two tries at Sixways as Warriors drew with Sale Sharks.

Shillcock, who joined the Warriors Academy set-up at the age of 14, has already made 44 first-team appearances at the age of 21, racking up 131 points in the process.

He has also represented England U18 Counties and the England U19 Academies.

Shillcock said: “I have some great memories of being part of this group of players and I am delighted to have signed a new deal with the club.

“It’s nice to have the confidence from the coaches at a young age and I want to repay that confidence with my performances.

“Our squad depth is greater than ever and I’m looking forward to pushing on individually and as a team in the future.”

Warriors Director of Rugby Alan Solomons said: “Jamie is a talented young player who has already made almost 50 appearances for the first-team.

“In keeping with our vision Jamie is yet another player who has come through the ranks at the club. This underscores the importance of our Academy system.”

SA Rugby Player of the Year nominees announced

Two previous winners, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Malcolm Marx, are among the five nominees for the prestigious SA Rugby Player of the Year Award for 2018, while the Blitzboks and their coach, Neil Powell, were yet again nominated in two categories following the successful defence of their World Rugby Sevens Series crown.

The two bruising Springbok forwards – winners in 2017 (Marx) and 2016 (Du Toit) – are up against their national team-mates Aphiwe Dyantyi, who won the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year Award last month, Franco Mostert and Handré Pollard.

And in the category for Young Player of the Year, Springbok lock RG Snyman is up against four fleet-footed backs in Aphelele Fassi, Sbu Nkosi, Embrose Papier and Damian Willemse.

Two teams and their coaches were nominated in the categories for Team and Coach of the Year –Powell of the World Rugby Sevens Series champions, the Springbok Sevens team, and Swys de Bruin of the Lions, who finished as runners-up in Super Rugby.

They are joined by SA Rugby’s Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus (Coach of the Year nomination) and Currie Cup Premier Division champions, the Sharks (Team of the Year nomination).

“These are exciting times for South African rugby and the number of new players who made their mark for the Springboks is encouraging for the future,” said Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby.

“I would like to congratulate all the nominees for their outstanding performances over the last year and wish them well for 2019, which is a massive year for us.

“The Springboks have shown a great resurgence under Rassie Erasmus and his coaching team and the fact that the media nominated him as one of the three coaches of the Year is testimony to this. We believe we are heading in the right direction in our preparation for the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

“We’re also very proud of the Blitzboks and their coach, Neil Powell, who recently started their defence of the World Rugby Sevens Series trophy, which has stood proudly in South Africa for the last two years. Their nominations are just reward for consistently performing at a world-class standard.”

The nominations for the Junior Springbok Player of the Year award were very close, with four players making the short-list – Tyrone Green, Salmaan Moerat, Wandisile Simelane and Damian Willemse.

And the three Blitzboks who are nominated for the Springbok Sevens Player of the Year award are Werner Kok, Dylan Sage – who was included in the World Rugby Sevens Dream Team – and Ruhan Nel.

The other categories where awards will be made are: Craven Week Player of the Tournament, Referee of the Year and Springbok Women’s Achiever of the Year.

Details of the announcement of the winners’ names will be made early in the new season next year. The winners will be announced before the start of the Super Rugby season.

The nominees are (in alphabetical order):

SA Rugby Player of the Year:

Pieter-Steph du Toit
Aphiwe Dyantyi
Malcolm Marx
Franco Mostert
Handré Pollard

SA Rugby Young Player of the Year:

Aphelele Fassi
Sbu Nkosi
Embrose Papier
RG Snyman
Damian Willemse

Team of the Year:

Lions (Super Rugby runners-up)
Sharks (Currie Cup Premier Division winners)
Springbok Sevens (World Rugby Sevens Series winners)

Coach of the Year:

Swys de Bruin (Lions)
Rassie Erasmus (Springboks)
Neil Powell (Springbok Sevens)

Springbok Sevens Player of the Year:

Werner Kok
Ruhan Nel
Dylan Sage

Junior Springbok Player of the Year:

Tyrone Green
Salmaan Moerat
Wandisile Simelane
Damian Willemse

Super Rugby Player of the Tournament:

Aphiwe Dyantyi (Lions)
Malcolm Marx (Lions)
Franco Mostert (Lions)

Currie Cup Premier Division Player of the Year:

SP Marais (Western Province)
Sergeal Petersen (Western Province)
Akker van der Merwe (Sharks)

Currie Cup First Division Player of the Year:

Divan Nel (SWD Eagles)
Anrich Richter (Valke)
Etienne Taljaard (Valke)

SuperSport Rugby Challenge Player of the Year:

Enver Brandt (Griquas)
Ruwellyn Isbell (Pumas)
Chris Smith (Pumas)
Stefan Ungerer (Pumas)

David Pocock reveals neck injury concerns

Wallabies and Brumbies back-row David Pocock has revealed he cancelled an off-season trip to Zimbabwe due to ongoing "grief" with his neck, and the concern is so serious doctors have raised post-rugby impacts.

Pocock finished 2018 with a swag of awards but the 30-year-old is also carrying a very stiff and sore neck after suffering a series of injuries through the year.

The outstanding flanker, who added Australia's Rugby Union Players' Association (RUPA) medal of excellence to his John Eales medal on Wednesday, missed the Wallabies' last Test of the year against England after hurting his neck against Italy, and Pocock earlier missed the Australian's win over the Springboks in September with the same issue.

Throughout the year, Wallabies and Brumbies officials repeatedly expressed their concern and frustrations about rivals trying to move Pocock by his head and neck at the breakdown.

While Pocock diplomatically sidestepped questions about blame, he admitted he was still feeling the impact of his latest injury on the Spring Tour almost a month ago.

“It’s still pretty sore, to be honest,” Pocock said at the RUPA awards lunch.

“I usually go away for December, try to get back to Zimbabwe, but this year I decided I wanted to spend the time here getting my body right for next year.

“I recognize that next year is hopefully my biggest year of rugby, I want to be playing my best rugby I’ve played and physically be able to do that.

“I’ve got a fair bit of concern in the neck, it’s caused me a fair bit of grief. I actually missed a game against South Africa. So, your concerned about not being able to play and in the back of your head when you talk to medical professionals, they’re trying to remind you about life after rugby.

“It’s something that I guess I’m going to have to really manage and be smart with and I don’t really know what it looks like at the moment.”

Pocock said he didn’t anticipate missing the start of the Super Rugby season in February.

When asked whether he felt his neck injuries were the result of opposing players targeting him, Pocock largely dead-batted but pointedly alluded to Brumbies officials sending in clips earlier in the year of him being subjected to neckrolls.

Nothing was done by SANZAAR, and World Rugby has also repeatedly washed their hands of the problem.

“There were a number of occasions where the Brumbies tried to cite people this year,” he said.

“So, it’s kind of happening a lot. I get that there’s plenty of action at the breakdown and sometimes it’s very hard to control what you’re doing. Personally, you know your neck’s pretty sore after games.”

Despite World Rugby’s self-proclaimed zero tolerance on dangerous play on the head-and-neck, World Rugby boss Brett Gosper denied Pocock was “particularly targeted” when he was in Sydney this year.

Asked if he would like World Rugby to take a stronger stance on neckrolls and other dangerous contact in the region, Pocock said: “As a player it’s probably not territory you want to venture into. The refs are doing the very best job they can do as players are and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for referees.”

Ben Smith heading to Pau

All Blacks utility back Ben Smith's long association with the world champions will end when he joins Pau after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Pau club president Bernard Pontneau told French broadcaster RMC Sport on Tuesday that the 32-year-old will join the Top 14 outfit after next year's global showpiece in Japan.

Smith, who plays for the Highlanders in Super Rugby, lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in 2015 and the 32-year-old has featured on 76 occasions for his country, scoring 33 tries since making his international debut in 2009.

He will move to an unnamed Japanese club after finishing the 2020 Top 14 season and will be unable to feature for his national side while playing outside of New Zealand.

"It's a great satisfaction. He will have an impact on the squad and considering his calibre it will allow him to help our youngsters," said Pontneau.

Could Stuart Lancaster reunite with Andy Farrell?

Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster has revealed he will speak with future Ireland boss Andy Farrell about the possibility of reuniting as a team in 2020.

Farrell and Lancaster were part of an England coaching group that also included Graham Rowntree at the 2015 Rugby World Cup but ultimately they all lost their jobs after the host nation failed to progress from the pool stage, leaving the trio to look for employment elsewhere.

Farrell soon took a position with Ireland as Joe Schmidt's assistant while Lancaster joined Leinster as part of Leo Cullen's coaching team. And now it appears the duo could reform once Schmidt departs his job as head coach of the national side following the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

"It's up to Andy to build his coaching team," Lancaster said.

"The reality is he needs it to be ready by January 2020. I've not caught up with him since the announcement, I will do soon I'm sure and it will be up to him to shape that. I'll have that conversation.

"He's the right man for the job in my opinion. When Joe announced he was going there was only one person I felt was qualified to do the job and that was Andy.

"He's sat as an assistant coach for eight years now. When you're sat in that assistant coaching role you can learn a lot about what you would do when you get your chance and Andy has got the opportunity."

Lancaster, who has also been linked with a return to England, added: "I was contracted in 2015 right through to 2019 as England coach and that didn't obviously transpire through what happened in the World Cup.

"So as a consequence, I've given up planning too far ahead now, I'm going to concentrate on the here and now.

"Obviously, there's a situation that I'm out of contract at the end of this year but I'm certainly not going ahead trying to plan the next five years of my career.

"I'm much more exercised in doing a really good job with Leinster, coaching as best as I can, and Leinster being successful."

Bernard Jackman leaves Dragons - report

Head coach Bernard Jackman has parted company with the Dragons after just 18 months in the role at the Rodney Parade-based outfit, according to reports.

The former Ireland hooker signed a three-year deal ahead of the 2017/18 season but only won two games in the PRO14 during that campaign.

They have improved slightly in 2018/19, securing three victories in the opening 10 encounters, but it was not enough for the ex-Grenoble boss to remain in charge.

With Ross Moriarty and Richard Hibbard among those to join in the off-season, expectations were higher going into the league, but they reside in sixth place in Conference B.

The Welsh region have also faltered in Europe and were beaten heavily by Northampton Saints at the weekend, leaving them third in Challenge Cup Pool 1.

 

Johnny Sexton signs new IRFU contract

World Rugby Player of the Year and Ireland vice-captain Johnny Sexton has signed an IRFU contract extension which will see him play his rugby in the country up to the end of the 2020/21 season.

Sexton made his international debut against Fiji in November 2009 and has subsequently amassed 78 caps for his country, scoring 738 points.

A pivotal figure in the recent Six Nations successes (2014 and 2015 Championships and 2018 Grand Slam), Sexton was central to the victories over New Zealand in Chicago and Dublin and in claiming last June's Test series against Australia.

A two time British and Irish Lions tourist, the fly-half featured in all six of the Lions’ most recent Test matches, helping to achieve a series victory in Australia and a drawn series in New Zealand.

Sexton made his Leinster debut back in 2006 against Border Reivers and has gone on to make more than 150 appearances scoring over 1,300 points. At Leinster he has won four European Cups (2009, 2011, 2012, 2018) a European Challenge Cup (2013) and three Celtic Cup/PRO12/PRO14 titles (2008, 2013, 2018).

David Nucifora, IRFU performance director, commented: "Johnny's hunger and drive mark him out as a truly world class competitor. He sets a performance benchmark for those around him and is investing in the development of young out-halves in the Ireland squad while also seeking improvement in his own performance.

“He is a model professional and has been at the centre of a lot of the success enjoyed by Irish Rugby over the past few years."

Sexton said: "I am delighted to sign a new IRFU contract to continue to play for Leinster and Ireland. It is where I have always wanted to play so I am delighted to extend.

“We get looked after extremely well here and it is an exciting time for Irish rugby. I am looking forward to hopefully being a part of that over the next few years."

Bulls bring in Pote Human as head coach

The Bulls have announced that Pote Human will take the head coach’s role for the upcoming Super Rugby campaign, replacing John Mitchell.

Mitchell left to become England’s defence coach, allowing Human, who had been in charge of the Blue Bulls during the Currie Cup, to take the reins.

Victor Matfield had been the preferred candidate, but the former second-row turned down the opportunity to become boss of the three-time Super Rugby winners.

The Pretoria outfit have also confirmed the appointment of Alan Zondagh as their new director of rugby after he signed a three-year deal.

Zondagh coached both Eastern and Western Province in the 1990s before departing for England and plying his trade at London Scottish and Saracens.

Tommy Seymour inks new Glasgow deal

Scotland wing Tommy Seymour has agreed a one-year contract extension with Glasgow Warriors, keeping him at the club until at least 2020.

The wing was top scorer on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017 and has also crossed 19 times for Scotland including a hat-trick against Fiji in this year's November Test window.

The news means that the 30-year-old will extend his stay at Scotstoun to nine seasons, having joined from Ulster in the summer of 2011.

He has since gone on to play 122 times for the PRO14 club and is the second highest try scorer in Glasgow’s history. His 39 scores bettered only by DTH van der Merwe.

Seymour said: “It’s a decision I’m very happy with. My family is very happy in Glasgow and it’s a club I feel a massive part of. Among the coaching staff and players I’ve made some great friends here and I can’t really imagine being anywhere else.

“There are so many things Glasgow as a club has enabled me to do in my career and I can’t thank them enough. I’m really proud and happy to be able to say I’ve been a part of this club for as long as I have.”

Glasgow Warriors head coach Dave Rennie said: “We’re absolutely rapt that Tommy has re-committed. He’s very highly regarded and has been an important part of the fabric here for a number of years.

“His skillset makes him a crucial member of our back three. He is world class under the high ball and has electric pace. He’s a good man and we’re pleased that he sees his future in Glasgow.”

New Worcester deal for Michael Heaney

Michael Heaney has become the latest Worcester Warriors player to commit his future to the club after signing a new two-year contract.

The scrum-half, who joined Warriors from Doncaster Knights in the off-season, made his debut during September's trip to Sale Sharks and has since acquitted himself well.

He was part of the Challenge Cup victories over Stade Francais and Ospreys in October and has been a regular in Warriors' Premiership matchday squads.

He made his first Premiership start against Gloucester earlier this month and has racked up eight appearances for the club.

Heaney said: "I have really enjoyed challenging myself in the Premiership so I am very happy to be extending my Sixways stay.

"I have learnt a lot from the coaches and the other scrum-halves at the club since I arrived in the summer so I will be working hard to keep improving as a player."

Warriors director of rugby Alan Solomons said: "Michael has shown that he can take the step up to Premiership rugby. He is a first-class bloke and an excellent team man, and he will no doubt continue to make a positive contribution going forward."