Round 11 marked the final weekend of Gallagher Premiership action of 2018 and it’s fair to say that the competition signed off in style for the calendar year.
Northampton Saints got the ball rolling by beating table-topping Exeter Chiefs, 31-28, at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night, before 82,000 packed out Twickenham to see Harlequins down former local boys Wasps, 20-13. Sale Sharks picked up an invaluable bonus point win on the road, too, beating Gloucester, 30-15, at Kingsholm.
We have rounded up the top performers from the weekend’s action below.
(* denotes RugbyPass Index score)
- Mike Brown, Harlequins (66)
Another robust performance from Brown, who is clearly channelling his inner-Samson, as the full-back owned the skies and diffused the bombs that Wasps put up to test him. He challenged the defence with his own counter-attacks and regularly showed the awareness and handling skills to bring teammates into play, something which seems to remain an outdated criticism of the England international.
Bristol Bears’ Charles Piutau was another full-back to shine this weekend.
- Luke Morahan, Bristol Bears (52)
Worcester’s Bryce Heem really pushed Morahan here, but the Australian just shades it based on what was a pivotal impact in Bristol’s invaluable win over Newcastle Falcons. He consistently made hay on the right wing and was duly rewarded with a try in the second half. The wing keeps stepping up to the plate in big home games at Ashton Gate and his tries are going a long way to securing Bristol’s Premiership status.
- Fraser Dingwall, Northampton Saints (62)
Dingwall was an early replacement for the injured Piers Francis and maintained the recent form which has seen him become a semi-regular starter for Saints this season. His defensive work was as impressive as usual, including an important try-saving tackle in the first half, as he shut down any width that Exeter tried to get. He got a deserved try for his efforts just before half time and showed up with his running lines and solid passing game.
- James O’Connor, Sale Sharks (70)
The Australian mixed it up nicely outside of Rob du Preez and was frequently Sale’s attacking spark plug at Kingsholm. His support-running and incisive passing was summed up well by his work in the build-up to Faf de Klerk’s try late in the first half. His chemistry with Sam James had Sale looking like a potent offensive force, despite Gloucester having the lion’s share of possession.
- Jonny May, Leicester Tigers (75)
Made an immediate impact at the Rec, scoring a try after just two minutes, and though Bath controlled much of the possession during the game, May was in ominously dangerous form any time he got his hands on the ball. He hurt Bath as a counter-attacker and kept phases alive with some neat inside passes and offloads.
- Dan Biggar, Northampton Saints (75)
Despite not being given a mass of possession – or even territory – to work with, Biggar controlled the game well for Northampton and helped create the attacking opportunities that Saints thrived on, displaying a clinical edge that they will hope they can replicate over the coming weeks. The Welshman manipulated the space around him expertly and frequently put players through holes, as well as contributing 16 points with the boot.
- Cobus Reinach, Northampton Saints (69)
Two big nods to de Klerk and Francois Hougaard, in what is rapidly becoming the year of the South African scrum-half in the Premiership, but Reinach snaps up this spot for the second week in a row with an excellent all-round showing against Exeter. The nine picked up another intercept try, but it was his busy, swift service from the base and eye for a gap that really shone in Saints’ energetic showing on home soil.
Don't take a chance when Cobus Reinach is around!
— Premiership Rugby (@premrugby) December 29, 2018
- Ben Moon, Exeter Chiefs (89)
Exeter may have been on the losing side at Franklin’s Gardens but that didn’t stop their forward pack from having one of the more dominant performances in the Premiership this season. Moon ripped into Paul Hill and had Northampton backpedalling for much of the game and even popped up with a try shortly after half time.
- George McGuigan, Newcastle Falcons (62)
The hooker gave Newcastle a strong and efficient platform from the lineout, as well as stepping up as his side’s most willing carrier from rucks and as a first receiver. He flourished in both of those areas, whilst his ability to quickly hook the ball at the scrum gave Newcastle another method for attacking the Bristol defence.
- Harry Williams, Exeter Chiefs (87)
A similar story to one of Moon this weekend, with Williams enjoying a very profitable afternoon at the set-piece. Alex Waller was consistently being pinged at the scrum and struggled to live with the power that Williams was bringing to bear. Northampton’s high-tempo, keep phases alive style was too much for Exeter, but both props distinguished themselves in the one battle Exeter won emphatically.
- Will Skelton, Saracens (86)
On a day when Saracens looked slightly short of their usual power-heavy forward play, Skelton stepped up with multiple impactful carries that kept his side moving forward and allowed them to claw back the early two-score deficit they coughed up. With Maro Itoje absent through injury, Skelton picked up the attacking and ball-carrying slack, whilst George Kruis impressed on the defensive side of the ball.
- Courtney Lawes, Northampton Saints (72)
Although Northampton were struggling at the scrum on Friday night, they were excelling at the lineout and that was in no small part due to the work of Lawes. The lock was a reliable target in attack, but it was in defence where he really shone, regularly disrupting and stealing ball from the usually ultra-reliable Exeter set-piece. Unsurprisingly, his solo tackling was also in fine shape at the Gardens, making a number of momentum-shifting – and legal – hits on Exeter carriers.
- Alex Dombrandt, Harlequins (63)
A clever lineout move and good handling skills brought Dombrandt a try just a minute into the game, before the flanker exerted his power with ball in hand during the rest of the first half. As Wasps began to take control of the flow of the game in the second half, it was his ability to prevent Wasps’ carriers getting over the gain line that singled him out as one of the weekend’s top performers.
- Sam Underhill, Bath (65)
The flanker really imposed his will on Leicester at the breakdown, denying them any consistent source of ball-security at the contact area. He added to that with a textbook rip on Matt Toomua in the first half, whilst his powerful punches as a carrier helped keep Bath moving forward despite losing Nathan Catt and Matt Garvey early. He complemented Francois Louw at number eight well, but unfortunately had to leave the field in the 47th minute with an ankle injury.
- Ben Earl, Saracens (84)
Earl saw off stiff competition from Matt Kvesic and Ben Morgan, as he helped Saracens survive an uncharacteristic slow start to the game. His work at the breakdown and as a carrier was key in first denying Worcester scoring opportunities in the Saracens 22, before helping launch attacks that brought his side a key 10-point revival towards the end of the half. His efficiency at the contact area, with Saracens very rarely flooding the breakdown with numbers, was critical in their comeback against a spirited Worcester side.
Watch: Exceptional Stories – Henry Fraser.
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