I need to confess before we start handing out the prizes that the selection committee have once again chosen to discount the Super 14 and Tri Nations from its deliberations - this year on the basis that the two tournaments were played under a set of laws that, quite frankly, the committee fails to recognise. And we're not even sorry.
Moving on...our first award this evening is the Could You Have Cocked Things Up Any More If You'd Tried Award. More than a few contenders for this one, including the RFU for their shambolic treatment of Brian Ashton post 2007 Rugby World Cup and 2008 Six Nations. However (and I promise this the last time I'll mention it this evening), the clear winner is the IRB for the quite shocking way they have attempted to railroad the world of ruby into accepting the ELVs, with the chaotic consequence that rugby is now being played under differing sets of laws in different competitions in different parts of the world. Astonishing incompetence, even for an organisation for which incompetence is the watchword.
Our second award this evening is the Can Anyone Recommend a Good Book to Read During the Second Half Award, given to the team that has managed to bore the pants off every neutral spectator during the second half of a game this year. The popular view might be to give this award to England for years of perceived conservatism but I would argue somewhat vociferously that England this year have been mainly crap rather than boring. No the choice comes down to a choice between Wales for their interminable series of rucks in the last 15 minutes of the Grand Slam decider against France (admittedly effective but seriously tedious) and Munster, who started running down the clock almost immediately the whistle blew for the start of the second half of the Heineken Cup Final. I'd love to hand this one to Wales but it was quite possible, during that desperate second half aganst Toulouse, to go out for 10 minutes to make a cup of tea and then return to find the Munstermen still going through the phases about 15 metres away from where the move had originated. Munster therefore take this award with something to spare.
Next up is the Can it Possibly Get Any Worse Award, given to the team that have plumbed the depths of true appallingness in a performance this year. England are almost certainly shoe-ins for this one but not, as some of the broadsheet hacks would have us believe, for their performances during the November internationals. Despite the scorelines against the southern hemisphere big 3, there was the occasional glimmer of hope or the odd spark of individual talent shining through occasionally. No, the performance that really showed up England as being bereft of anything remotely approaching competence was the inept display against Scotland at Murrayfield in the Six Nations. Scotland played poorly in that match, remember, and still won at a canter. Brian Ashton may subsequently have been treated badly by his employers but anyone overseeing that level of performance cannot honestly have expected to keep his job.
We now move on to the Perhaps He's Not All He's Cracked Up to Be Award. For years I would have given this one to Ickle Shane Williams as, for all his side-stepping wizardry, I felt he was better defined by his non-existent defensive skills and a tendency to panic under pressure and cough up possession. Warren Gatland and Sean Edwards, however, appear to have entirely eradicated these flaws from his game - ok, he still isn't a great tackler but the rest of his game has been pure genius (a pity that we can't reward that here) this year. Who then will this prestigious title go to? Danny Cipriani perhaps? Hardly fair - the fact that he returned so quickly to the game after such an horrific injury being worthy of praise rather than vilification. That leaves, in the humble opinion of the committee, only one man. Step forward Andrew Sheridan. Not long ago the (mainly English) press were labelling him as the best loose head in world rugby and yet now he appears to be the lynchpin of an England pack that couldn't scrummage the skin off a rice pudding.
Our penultimate award tonight is the Pinch Me, I Must be Dreaming Award, given for the most improbable action by any rugby club or organisation this year. I can't believe I'm doing this but I must say that the RFU, in its reaction to the global imposition of the ELVs (I know I said I wouldn't mention them again, but given their domination of the headlines this year, it's a little difficult to avoid them). In its wisdom the RFU, rather than just pontificating on the merits or otherwise of the new laws, did something quite radical instead - it asked me what I thought. Not just me , of course (they can't possibly be expected to get everything right first time) but everyone involved in grassroots rugby - players, coaches, referees, volunteers and supporters - across the land. They may well ignore what we have to say ultimately but at least they have made the pretence of listening to us, unlike the self-serving buffoons at the IRB.
Finally we move on to the last award of the night - the Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land Award - a special award given to a particular rugby scribe whose refusal to move on from 2003 continues to infuriate and amuse in equal measure. Yes, step forward Mr Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times, a Welshman obsessed with the England rugby team whose brilliant solution to the woes currently being endured by Martin Johnson's men is that they find bigger, older and better players. Well, duh! And the names of those players who would turn England back into a force in the game? Well here are a few he's mentioned who weren't playing in the recent New Zealand game: Josh Lewsey (who has played like a drain for Wasps this season); Dan Hipkiss (who was on the bench for the NZ game); Ollie Barkley (working his way back from injury); Mike Tindall (barely a decent performance in an England shirt since 2003); Danny Cipriani (rested against NZ but obviously mightily effective against the Aussies and the Boks); Harry Ellis (bench), Andrew Sheridan (injured, but alarmingly ineffective anyway against the Aussies); Dylan Hartley (bench, and a citing waiting to happen); Julian White (a proven underachiever at international level and about 56 years old isn't he?); Simon Shaw (bench, and even older than White); and Lewis Moody (just back from long-term injury and mad as a box of frogs). Mr Jones even suggested bringing back Danny Grewcock for the All Blacks game. Nuff said.
And so, a brief summary of the 2008 Total Flanker Awards:
Total Flanker Could You Have Cocked Things Up Any More If You'd Tried Award: - IRB
Total Flanker Can Anyone Recommend a Good Book to Read During the Second Half Award: - Munster
Total Flanker Can it Possibly Get Any Worse Award: - England
Total Flanker Perhaps He's Not All He's Cracked Up to Be Award: - Andrew Sheridan
Total Flanker Pinch Me, I Must be Dreaming Award: - RFU
Total Flanker Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land Award: - Stephen Jones