From the lows of the arduous 6-3 win for Sale Sharks over Bath, to the highs of the wonderfully dramatic playoff chase between Harlequins and Northampton Saints under their new directors of rugby, the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership season has been a rollercoaster ride.
The best relegation battle in years added drama at the bottom, whilst there was a sense of déjà vu as both Exeter Chiefs and Saracens again separated themselves from the competition at the very top. Gloucester’s surge is promising, and Bristol Bears are not around just to make up the numbers, but Leicester Tigers have fallen to a new low and last season’s surprise playoff package, Newcastle Falcons, paid the highest price, with relegation to the Greene King IPA Championship.
We have put together XVs of the week for all 22 rounds of the competition’s regular season and we have selected our XV of the season based on the number of appearances each player had in those weekly accolades. There are some surprise names, that’s for sure.
With fewer responsibilities with England, Brown has thrived this season at club level. He has provided his side with a safe pair of hands and a strong last line of defence at the back, something which will have pleased former defence coach Paul Gustard, whilst his work as a counter-attacker and as a strike runner has been excellent in Quins’ high-octane back line. The out-of-date critique that he just puts his head down and runs has, thankfully, been blown out of the water this season.
- Luke Morahan, Bristol Bears, 3 selections – (Vereniki Goneva, Charlie Sharples, Marcus Watson and Tom Collins, all 2 selections)
The accolades on the right wing have been quite spread out this season, unlike the left wing where there have been two or three clear standouts. Morahan has been a cutting edge out wide for Bristol upon their return to the Premiership, whilst also tracking the ball and looking for work in the midfield. He has been solid in defence and in the air, too, and is undoubtedly one of the more unsung heroes of a campaign that nearly saw the promoted side qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup.
- Elliot Daly, Wasps, Piers O’Conor, Bristol Bears and Rory Hutchinson, Northampton Saints, all 3 selections
There was no separating these three by the final round, with the trio having all enjoyed fine seasons for their respective clubs. Hutchinson’s performances for Northampton could well see him on the plane to Japan later this year with Scotland, O’Conor stepped up well for an injured Piutau before carving out his own spot at outside centre, and Daly’s standout games will have whetted the already voracious appetite of new club Saracens. Joe Marchant, Henry Slade and Sam James all popped up with multiple selections, too, in one of the positions English rugby seems particularly blessed with quality.
Atkinson has been the epitome of consistency outside Danny Cipriani this season, where his threat to straighten the line, spread the ball and attempt to turn the corner on the defence, or draw and give has provided the fly-half with the situations to flourish in. If you were to put together an ‘uncapped XV’ of English rugby players, Atkinson would likely be one of the first names on the teamsheet. With Cipriani inked to a new long-term contract at Kingsholm, this partnership has the potential to reach even greater heights next season.
- Santiago Cordero, Exeter Chiefs, 6 selections – (Ollie Thorley and Taqele Naiyaravoro, both 4 selections)
Three of Cordero’s six selections did come at full-back, unlike Thorley and Naiyaravoro, whose all came on the wing, but there would be very few who would dispute the Argentine’s place as the form left wing this season. Exeter fans are understandably excited about the prospect of Stuart Hogg’s arrival, but Rob Baxter will miss Cordero’s versatility across the back three, not to mention the fact he has been available through international windows over past season. His footwork and ability to evade would-be tacklers has been unmatched in the Premiership over the last nine months.
This may be an unpopular one, with Cipriani’s highs this season a lightning rod for anyone at all critical of Ford or Eddie Jones’ selection decisions. It’s been easy to overlook in the horror show that has been Leicester’s season, but Ford has been a consistently effective performer for the side from the East Midlands and has certainly been a match for Cipriani. Whilst Cipriani’s good games are championed en masse by fans, Ford’s bad ones are equally scrutinised. In reality, there’s very little between the pair.
It’s not even close at scrum-half, where Reinach has been the standout player at his position this season. The South African has thrived in the freedom that Chris Boyd has allowed his side offensively and that in turn has allowed his decision-making to come to the fore. People point to his footwork and speed for the damage he has caused to Northampton’s opponents this season, but it’s his awareness of space on the pitch that has really taken his club’s attacking game to the next level.
International retirement agrees with Marler, who has shone as part of a Quins scrum that can be legitimately talked about as one of, if not the best in the Premiership. When was the last time they could say that in south-west London? With his focus now solely on club matters, you can see the level of performances and leadership on the pitch that prompted former director of rugby Conor O’Shea to hand him the captaincy back in 2014.
Thacker has been a revelation at Ashton Gate this season and although many Leicester fans will tell you he was capable of these types of performances at Welford Road, there can’t be too many who expected to see it this consistently. His throwing at the lineout has been efficient and whilst Bristol don’t boast one of the most ferocious scrums in the competition, it has certainly held its own. Holding its own is more than adequate, too, when you consider the remarkable effect Thacker has had on Bristol in the loose, running teams ragged with his hard-to-track lines and tough-to-tackle carries throughout the season.
- Dan Cole, Leicester Tigers, Harry Williams, Exeter Chiefs, Kyle Sinckler, Harlequins, Paul Hill, Northampton Saints, Henry Thomas, Bath and WillGriff John, Sale Sharks, all 2 selections
It’s hard to work out if this is a very promising situation, with a number of effective tightheads in the competition, or whether there’s a lack of star power and top-end prospects at the position. The cases of Sinckler and Williams were not helped by the time they spent away with England, and Cole looked noticeably fresher for his lack of international rugby. Thomas started the season well with Bath and Hill finished his strongly for Northampton, whilst John was one of the more underrated performers up at Sale.
The ‘Skelton Diet’ is without doubt the next big health fad to hit the world. The Australian lock has been exemplary for Saracens this season, regularly spearheading their charge as a powerful ball-carrier and a defender who can deny opposition forwards any sort of success on the gain-line close to the ruck. His added mobility and conditioning have seen him put in effective 60- and 70-minute performances, too, with Maro Itoje and George Kruis both heavily leaned upon by England.
The Samoan captain has shone alongside Thacker in the Bristol tight five, bringing energy and industry to a side whose attacking game plan is built upon exactly those attributes. He dovetailed nicely with the hooker at the lineout, whilst he erred on the side of defensive responsibility in the loose, often freeing up Thacker to be more adventurous in terms of where he was playing his rugby. The incoming Dave Attwood may well add enough work rate and physical edge that Vui, too, is allowed to roam a little more next season.
- Alex Dombrandt, Harlequins, 5 selections – (Dave Ewers, Jono Ross, Elliott Stooke and Ted Hill, all 2 selections)
Bringing back former academy product Dombrandt has proven a steal for Gustard and Quins, with the powerful back rower adding a physicality to their loose forwards that may have been missing in recent seasons. His ball-carrying has caught the eye, but it’s also his work in defence that has helped transform Quins, with dominant one-on-one tackles fitting perfectly into Gustard’s aggressive defensive system. If the club can get Semi Kunatani fully up to speed, too, then they will be looking at one of the most exciting back row units in the competition next season.
Curry is another of those to miss out on a few selections due to England duty, but that is not to take away from what an excellent season this has been for Ludlam. This campaign has been a breakout one for the 23-year-old who, despite strong isolated performances over the last two seasons, consistently found his opportunities limited due to the presence of senior options in the back row group at Franklin’s Gardens. Boyd has been a welcome addition for Ludlam and the openside’s breakdown work and carrying ability have repaid the faith he has been shown by the Kiwi.
Even in Bath performances over the course of the season that have felt lethargic or without direction, Mercer has provided energy and purpose. His ability to make tacklers miss or to break the first tackle is arguably unrivalled among forwards in the Premiership, especially with Sam Simmonds having missed much of the season with injury. His level of play over the last nine months should have firmly established himself as a must-start in the Bath back row, even when the trio of Francois Louw, Sam Underhill and Taulupe Faletau are all fit.
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