Former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones didn’t score an invite when Australian Rugby decorated its best and brightest in Sydney last night, with Melbourne backrower Rob Valetini named the 13th John Eales Medallist as best Wallabies player and barnstorming prop Eva Karpani awarded 2023 Wallaroos player of the year.
In a bleak year for the Wallabies, in which they won just two of nine Tests under Jones (who quit in October and is now coaching Japan) and failed to make the World Cup finals for the first time in their history, Valetini was a consistent beacon of hope.
The 25-year-old Brumbies enforcer was one of only two Wallabies to play all nine Test matches and was dynamic in attack and defence all year.
“This means a lot,” the quietly spoken Wallaby said. “It is a bit strange, but I am proud of the boys [for] considering me for this award. I am truly grateful.”
Valetini (141 points) edged prop Angus Bell (132) and veteran winger Marika Koroibete (116) for the prize with NRL-bound winger Mark Nawaqanitawase also one of the five finalists.
Born and raised in Melbourne but blooded by ACT Brumbies as a schoolboy in 2018, Valetini suffered a season-ending injury 20 minutes into his first Super Rugby game but has fought back to be one of the Wallabies’ finest since his Test debut in 2019. However, he admitted it was “bittersweet” to win such an honour in so rotten a year.
“I use it as motivation to try and do better, not only for myself but for my teammates and for Australian rugby, to try and put it in a better place.” Valetini said.
“After the hard season last year there will be a fire in a lot of players’ bellies. There is a new coach [New Zealander Joe Schmidt] so it will be a clean slate for everyone and everyone will have to perform in Super Rugby to be picked.”
Eva Karpani’s breakout year made her a popular winner of Wallaroos player of the year. Born in Queensland, raised in Adelaide, but playing for New South Wales, the tight-head prop led Australia’s women’s side to third in World Rugby’s inaugural WXV tournament and was a starter and star performer in all eight Tests.
Karpani scored a memorable hat-trick in the Wallaroos’ boilover win against France in October and won a try of the year nomination for the five-pointer that helped Australia upset Wales 25-19 despite being a player down for 38 minutes.
Beating back-rower Ash Marsters and Georgie Friedrichs for the prize, Karpani said she was “genuinely humbled and grateful” to be named by teammates as the best in 2023.
“I’d love to change the image of the tight-head prop – I want to show we can be agile and versatile, not just a powerful ball-runner,” she said. “I have so much confidence in this team but I have all the confidence in the world for us to build in a pre-World Cup year.”
Maddison Levi won the Shawn Mackay award for women’s sevens player of the year, yet another accolade for the 21-year-old whose 57 tries this season also has her in the running for World Rugby player of the year after winning rookie of the year in 2022.
Henry Paterson won the men’s sevens prize after his leadership helped his side join the women’s team in qualifying automatically for the Paris 2024 Olympics in July.
Fraser McReight and Cecilia Smith from the Queensland Reds took out the Super Rugby Pacific and Super W player of the year awards. Reds clubmate Carys Dallinger picked up the rookie of the year for her first season with the Wallaroos.