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Humbled Valetini wins Wallabies' John Eales Medal

Humbled Brumbies back-rower Rob Valetini says "it's crazy" that he's joined Wallabies legends like former teammate Michael Hooper as a John Eales Medallist after being crowned as Australian rugby's men's player of the year.

The 25-year-old was one of the Wallabies' most consistent performers in an otherwise disappointing 12 months that culminated in Australia's first-ever pool-stage elimination at a Rugby World Cup.

The Melbourne-born-and-raised bruiser played in all nine Tests in 2023, including four through the France-hosted World Cup, and was integral in getting the Wallabies on the front foot.

Valetini has played 39 Test matches since making his debut in 2019 and last year made the No.8 jersey his own.

In the poll from Australia's players after each Test, Valetini drew 141 votes to finish ahead of NSW Waratahs prop Angus Bell (132) and wing sensation and dual John Eales Medallist Marika Koroibete (116).

Koroibete, who won the award in 2019 and 2022, was attempting to join Wallabies greats Israel Folau (2014, 2015, 2017) and record four-time recipient Hooper (2013, 2015, 2020, 2021) as only the third man to win the award at least three times.

"It means a lot," Valetini said after accepting his award at a glitzy ceremony at Sydney's Darling Harbour on Wednesday night.

"It's crazy because I used to watch all those players when I was growing up.

"To play alongside the likes of 'Poey' (David Pocock) and 'Hoops' (Hooper), it's surreal.

"I am truly honoured to join them. It is a bit strange, but I am proud of the boys for considering me for this award. I am truly grateful."

The other two finalists were NRL-bound winger Mark Nawaqanitawase and 2023 World Cup captain, lock Will Skelton.

Tight-head prop Eva Karpani was named Wallaroos player of the year following a breakout year in 2023, starting all eight Tests.

Born in Queensland, raised in Adelaide and playing for NSW, Karpani was instrumental in the strong finish to the season that saw the Wallaroos finish third in World Rugby's inaugural WXV tournament.

The 27-year-old scored a hat-trick in Australia's boilover win against France and a crucial try in their victory over Wales to poll 146 points to pip Melbourne flanker Ashley Marsters (140) and 2022 winner, NSW centre Georgina Friedrichs (118).

Maddison Levy was runaway winner of the Shawn Mackay Award for the women's sevens player of the year while Henry Paterson picked up the men's trophy.

Other awards presented at the Sydney function on Wednesday night included Queensland's Fraser McReight and Cecilia Smith, who won the player-of-the-year gongs in Super Rugby Pacific and Super W respectively.

Reds clubmate Carys Dallinger also picked up the rookie-of-the-year prize for her first season with the Wallaroos.

The junior players of the year for U20s were Teddy Wilson from the NSW Waratahs and Wallaroos rookie Faitala Moleka (ACT Brumbies).

Angus Gardner was recognised as Australia's best referee following his appointment to the Rugby World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and Argentina.

Try of the year went to Jake Upfield, who scored Queensland's length-of-the-field effort against the Highlanders in Super Rugby Pacific.

Darren Walton and Melissa Woods - AAP

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