Despite strong competition, Sarah Hirini’s unbeaten Black Ferns Sevens deservedly won 2018 Team of the Year honours at the recent Halberg Awards.
They are a crackerjack team who have overcome the disappointment of a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics to maintain an incredible winning streak since Kelly Brazier’s long distance try struck gold in last year’s Commonwealth Games final against Australia on the Gold Coast.
That they have maintained the Midas Touch without injured Northland superstar Portia Woodman says much for their ability and teamwork under the superb captaincy of Hirini (nee Goss), with Taranaki speedster Michaela Blyde taking over Woodman’s mantle as the world’s best player.
There are other stars like Tyla Nathan-Wong, Ruby Tui, Gayle Broughton, Niall Williams and Stacey Waaka who have shone brightly but it is mainly the team ethic that has brought them such success.
Quick and vigorous at the breakdown, they tackle like demons and spread the ball wide with accurate passing to speedsters Blyde, Woodman and Waaka.
What makes speedy veteran Woodman so remarkable when fit and healthy is she is a powerful scrummager yet still has the energy and pace to score long-range tries out wide.
Not surprisingly their mentor Alan Bunting joined men’s sevens coach Clark Laidlaw (NZ men’s sevens), Joe Schmidt (Irish rugby), Leon Birnie (Under 17 women’s football) and Gordon Walker (canoe racing) as Coach of the Year finalists.
As mentor of remarkable multiple Sportswoman of the Year winner Lisa Carrington, Walker got the nod.
Popular Timaru builder Tom Walsh successfully defended his Sportsman title and added the supreme award for Sportsperson of the Year upon winning the World Indoor Athletics Championships, Commonwealth Games and Diamond League events.
There are bigger, more muscular opponents on the world stage but none to match the competitive Walsh’s speed in the circle.
Indycar champion Scott Dixon, Olympic bronze medallist freeskier Nico Porteous and Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin were other Sportsman finalists.
Another shot putter, World Under-20 champion Maddison Wesche, appears to be following in the wake of Valerie Adams and was the Halberg Emerging Talent winner from a strong field that included football goalkeeper Anna Leat, Amelia Kerr (cricket), Josh Armit (yachting) and Lewis Clareburt (swimming).
The talented Leat won NZ’s Favourite Sporting Moment for her shootout goal which clinched her Under-17 team an historic bronze medal at the world champs.
Meanwhile the Chiefs and Blues were left to hold their heads in shame upon being thrashed by the Brumbies (54-17) and Sharks (26-7) respectively in the weekend’s Super Rugby contest.
The awful Chiefs leaked eight tries to the rampant Brumbies while the Blues resorted to old habits when they fumbled and bumbled their way to defeat against the Sharks in Durban.
Hopes that Sonny Bill Williams would spark the backline with his offloads failed to materialise with the heat and humidity contributing to a slippery ball that didn’t stop the Sharks scoring four tries to the Blues’ one.
The one bright spot for the visitors was workaholic No 8 Dalton Papalii who continues to impress.
Only the Crusaders and Highlanders managed wins among the NZ franchises with the cohesive Crusaders beating the Hurricanes 38-22 in a match in which Scott Barrett, Richie Mo’unga and Ben Lam each scored two tries. The Highlanders edged the Reds 36-31.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author