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The 2021 Rugby World Cup Alternative Awards

By Will Owen
(Photo by Fiona Goodall - Getty Images)

The Rugby World Cup is often the highlight of a four-year cycle. If you’re into both the women’s and the men’s game, you only have to wait two years for such a highlight. Rugby World Cup 2021 did not disappoint – all twelve teams bringing something unique to the table and providing fans with new favourite players, coaches, styles, gameplans and vibes.


Picking a player of the tournament is a difficult task. Many have touted to irrepressible Stacey Fluhler – a flair player who never goes missing in big games, pulling out one of her greatest performances in a black jersey in the final. A special word too, Alex Matthews’, whose under-the-radar work up front has guided her towards a Player Of The Year nomination. Romane Menager showed up quite majestically in France’s encounters with both finalists.

However, we’re not here to pick just one player from the whole tournament – we’re here to dish out a few alternative awards. A chance to celebrate everything from the opening day to the final, from the teams who didn’t make it out of the group stage to the eventual champions. Let’s embrace this amazing tournament for everything it gave us…

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Biggest Hitter – Gabrielle Vernier (France)

Where else to start than with the tournament’s biggest “boomfa” merchant? Vernier is not only a silky runner with the ball, but made rib-tickling hits on Ellie Kildunne, Ruby Tui and many, many others throughout the tournament.

Occasionally you find players like Sebastian Chabal whose hits are brilliant for highlight reels, but sometimes get found out defensively – Vernier does not fit into this category. Vernier is a superb defensive organiser and timed her turbo-charged tackles to perfection. Vernier’s combination with Maelle Filopon rivalled New Zealand’s Fitzpatrick-Fluhler combo for the best in the competition. Two truly outstanding defensive animals.

Best all-rounder – Sophie De Goede (Canada)


It’s hard to argue with a No 8 whose USP is her handling ability, competence at the line-out and insane work rate, while also being the skipper and goal-kicker. De Goede finished the tournament as top carrier with a remarkable 101 carries in six games, 27 more than her closest competitor in Marlie Packer.

Canada’s tournament didn’t end as De Goede wanted it to, but if there’s one clip that best showcases De Goede’s world-class ability as an “all-rounder”, it’s from that Bronze Final against France.

Here, De Goede calls for the ball as a part of a regular carrying group, but instead looks up at the French backfield.


She fires a kick away – this is her first kick out of hand in the entire game, so you know it’s because she’s seen space.

The kick is perfect – it bounces over Marine Menager’s head and lands on the French 5m line.

Manger runs it out from her own line, and De Goede is one of the first Canadian players up in the chase.

Not just satisfied with the kick, De Goede clamps onto the ball in the breakdown and wins a turnover penalty for Canada. Not only is she a fantastic kicker, but she has the work rate to chase up the field and the strength to win the turnover.

Most tireless tackler – Alex Callender (Wales)

It’s probably not unfair to say Callender started 2022 as a player who had just proven herself to be Wales’ strongest option at 7. She proved during the Six Nations that she has genuine leadership pedigree and an ability to disrupt the opposition. As the year has gone on, Callender has proven herself to be one of Wales’ key players up front. If you want someone to make a selfless carry, hit one of the rucks no-one else fancies, or make a huge shot on the opposition’s biggest player – Callender’s your woman.

Not only that, but she ended this competition as the joint-top tackler with Madoussou Fall, who played two more games than her. Many have named Callender in their team of the tournament, which, in a position with competition like Marlie Packer, Sarah Hirini and Karen Paquin, is no mean feat. “Al Cal” is only 22, and for a flanker of that age to already have such an engine and the level of confidence to trash-talk Hirini on the pitch shows that Wales have a true test match animal in the making.

Best emerging player – Aseza Hele (South Africa)

Among some stiff competition, Hele’s impact on this tournament was unprecedented and unrivalled in equal parts. The insane ball carrying of Hele alone was enough to tempt Springboks supporters who had never watched women’s rugby before into waking up to bask in the power of their No 8.

There’s something quite romantic about a Springbok back-rower with a murderous carying ability – in past the men’s team have seen the likes of Duane Vermeulen, Pierre Spies and Schalk Burger. These are all the sorts of player the nation has fallen in love with, and Hele is no different. An unknown quantity before the tournament, Hele was making breaks at will against the Red Roses, and that’s while playing for the extreme underdogs. If she can break tackles like that, just imagine how good she would be in a top-tier Premier 15s set-up. DoRs across England – if there is one player from this tournament to break the bank for, it’s Hele.

Biggest surprise package – Siteri Rasolea (Fiji)

On a similar note to Hele, who doesn’t love a Fijian giant who can carry AND offload?! It’s impossible not to get caught up in Rasolea’s overpowering majesty from the moment you see her on the pitch. Watching Fiji’s first ever World Cup match against England and thinking “Sarah Bern looks small” was a true moment of this tournament.

Fiji were an unknown quantity heading into this competition, but now we’ve seen Rasolea not only carry well, but do it for a full 80 minutes. The lazy thing would be to say she’s the women’s game’s equivalent to Uini Atonio or Ben Tameifuna for the fact she is such a beast with ball in hand and a wrecking ball at scrum time. But she has backed up her physical prowess with the fitness to not only play full games, but play them for the team with the most fast-paced running game outside of the champions. Bravo, Rasolea – rugby fans globally cannot wait to see you play again.

Best impact sub – Ayesha Leti-I’iga (New Zealand)

There’s plenty of players this could have gone to: Sadia Kabeya, who made herself undroppable. Safi N’Diaye, who is the last person you want to tackle when you’re 60 minutes deep into a game. Eva Kaparni, guaranteed impact across the park.

Leti-I’iga, though, is a special player. To force yourself above the legendary Reneé Wickliffe in the pecking order is one thing, but to bang on the door of Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui is another. Woodman is probably the greatest winger in the history of the women’s game, and arguably in the top 5 of all time for either gender. Yet when she went off injured in the World Cup Final, on came Leti-I’iga, and New Zealand heads did not drop.

She scored two tries, one of which was a pretty difficult finish, but not only that – she is a powerful runner and a hugely underrated defender. Her lines of running are superb, and she has an unmatched ability to change direction and accelerate. But above all, she knows exactly when to call for the ball, which is a hugely underrated skill for a young winger. In the final, she was opposite an open wing with Lydia Thompson sent off, but Leti-I’iga was always clear on when the space was open, so the likes of Fitzpatrick and Fluhler could attack it. New Zealand never over-played their hand on Saturday, and a lot of credit for that goes to the winger for her patience.

Leti-I’iga has a World Cup winners medal at the age of 23. The Black Ferns have never struggled to produce wingers, yet you still get the impression that she would start over anyone other than Woodman or Tui. It sells her short to say she is but a remarkable up-and-coming talent, now that she has deservingly conquered rugby’s highest peak.


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