The 24th and final round of the Premiership will take place at the weekend and before the play-offs take centre stage, it is time to take stock and pick out the players to have made a considerable impression on me since last September.
McGuigan has had an incredible season. He’s scored 15 out of Falcons’ 48 tries and kept an England hooker in Jamie Blamire on the bench. Whether he suits being a bigger fish in a smaller pond is a moot point. The feeling at Leicester was that he had all the tools, but they were in a bit of a rough spot, so he went up to Falcons and thrived under Dean Richards. I know hookers are scoring more than they used to because of driving mauls but if you look at his tries, some are line-breaks and he hoovers up the metres carried. Sometimes, when players get that inner-confidence, everything has falls into place. He’s the only player included in this list not playing in a team that is regularly winning games, which is some achievement.
Leicester are going to really struggle to replace Gengey. We all know what he can do as a player but giving him the captaincy has been a masterstroke. He’s an unconventional leader because he’ll say what he wants to the media, and it will be very interesting to see if Pat Lam makes him captain at Bristol, because he is a local lad.
Freddie is not someone who would ordinarily be picked out by a casual rugby fan. He’s not your classic ‘big name’ but when we got together as BT Sport pundits to pick our team of the season, I was surprised how many mentions he got. Every time I’ve watched him, I’ve been really impressed. He’s plays in the second-row but has the traits of a back-row and does a lot of the unseen work. He caught the public’s attention with that fantastic try against Harlequins at Twickenham, showing his raw athleticism. A classy player with a huge workrate.
Silver:Hugh Tizard (Harlequins)
Tizard was particularly good at the start of the season and may well have got the top spot here if he’d carried on that rich vein of form. It’s a seriously good bit of business by Saracens picking him up. He’s only 22 but I think him and Maro Itoje could dominate much like Maro and George Kruis did. You don’t find him out in the wide-open expanses as much as some No 5s so in a way, he does a lot of similar work to Kruis. I will be interested to see if he calls the lineouts at the Stone X.
Bronze:Dan du Preez (Sale Sharks)
Sale haven’t really fired this season but Du Preez never gives less than 100 per cent and is always a bit of threat if defences switch off. I don’t think Sharks have used his skills of being able to bust lines and offload that well, they’ve just made him run into brick walls. He never takes a backward step.
Backrow is one of the hardest areas to pick from but I just love the way Ben Earl plays. He does a lot of the flash stuff that no one else can do because he’s exceptionally quick and has a real eye for a line but unlike some backrows who are primary carriers and go missing in other areas, like defence, Earl seems to able to do it all. Backrows will usually be one of two things; a primary ball carrier or a brilliant link and support player who runs similar lines to a No 9 but he does both. It’s a rare combination.
Silver: Hanro Liebenburg (Leicester Tigers)
He’s been the standout backrow for Leicester. A proper leader. Hanro is a Richard Hill-type, an unsung hero who always seems to make the right decision. He carries hard but he also does a lot of the grunt work and allows Wiese to do keep on punching holes. He embodies so much that is good about Leicester.
Ackermann has carried consistently for Gloucester with Jake Polledri and Ben Morgan’s long-term injuries and really helped Gloucester get front-foot ball. He’s integral to what they do and George Skivington will be desperate to hang on to him for as long as he can. They have flattered to deceive in the pack in recent years but Skivington has really improved their set-piece. Ruan’s uncompromising and Gloucester fans will be thrilled he didn’t follow his dad out of the door at Kingsholm.
George Ford (Leicester Tigers)
Handre Pollard has such a tough act to follow. He has to replicate Ford’s standard of play but also be the on-field coach George Ford is. During training and off-the-pitch, Ford will come up with their plays and have conversations with the coaching staff so he’s on the same page. He’s absolutely integral to Leicester Tigers’ rhythm. It was good business from Leicester Tigers to bring Jimmy Gopperth in because he can be so helpful to the new man. He’ll be a 12 who can talk him through those first few months. What I like about Ford is his decision making. He puts Leicester in the right areas at the right time. Steve Borthwick is a ‘data dictates the best way to win games’ type of coach and he will stick with that even to the point he’s pig-headed about it, but Ford has been the perfect 10 to deploy that. There’s not many people better at putting people through holes, either. A class act.
Danny Care (Harlequins)
Who can honestly say they saw Danny playing at this level 10 years ago? He’s 35 but honestly playing some of the best rugby of his life. The rise of Alex Dombrandt and Marcus Smith has been incredible but it’s down to him holding the thoughts of the defenders, not just with his broken-field running, but his brilliant short kicking game. He suits the style of play Harlequins play perfectly and he plays with a smile on his face. Although Marcus gets a lot of the credit for the comeback kings, DC plays into that as well. He is the perfect foil for Smith.
Alex Mitchell (Northampton Saints)
He’s been simply fantastic for Saints. When you’re as good at making breaks as him, often players do it too often, and as a result, defences are always watching you, but he chooses the right moment to go when defences have switched off a bit. Raffi Quirke has been injured for most of this season, but who will take over from Ben Youngs, who has had a firm grasp on the shirt? Now you have Mitchell, Van Poortvliet, Raffi Quirke and Harry Randall. It will be like the old Austin Healey, Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken battle and will take them to a new level.
Esterhuizen has already won the RPA player of the season but I expect him to win more awards, because he has been phenomenal. It’s a phrase I’ve used often but he takes up a lot of his opposition’s mental ram – they are so worried about his carrying and his ability to create space for other people. At an attacking scrum, you’ll often see the midfield telling the backrow to get off the scrum quickly so that they can come and help him but that, in turn, helps Dombrandt find space. As an attacking figurehead for the most expansive team in the Premiership, he is a triple threat. It’s not just his carrying, he can offload, boasts a decent kicking game and he’s even chipped in with a few conversions this season and has a huge boot on him to clear the lines. His defensive work is also top-drawer. For a tall man, to be able to win the battle of the shoulders and get down quicker than anyone else over the ball, it’s like having an extra backrow. He makes such big turnover plays and it’s often the start of Quins starting an attack in broken-field.
He was superb at the beginning of the season. He’s still just 21 and could easily figure for England in the future. He’s had to fight his way up the ladder and for his size, punches well above his weight. He’s a low-slung ball-carrier, with neat footwork and strength to carry over the gainline.
Murley has electric feet, brilliant acceleration but what marks him out is his high workrate for a back three player and he has a knack of scoring tries, which is his bread and butter. He’s not the biggest guy but he’s very powerful and difficult to put down, which means he fights for those extra few yards, which means the opposition are on the back foot and not coming forward at you. He also has great positional sense and is happy to come off his wing and get game involvements. In a way, he’s similar to Jack Nowell, but not quite as abrasive.
He was such a rock under the high ball. He set the tone for Leicester’s performances in the middle of the season and has been outstanding for England. A huge breakthrough year for a 21-year-old.
Bronze: Max Malins
Joint-top with 15 tries this season, Malins seems to be able to creates more time for himself on the ball than most. He has that mixt of brilliant physical attributes in terms of pace and footwork but married to a brain that can puts him in the right position at the right time. People were worried that Saracens didn’t have the same quality of squad in the glory days, but he’s come back from Bristol and absolutely delivered. Saracens aren’t a big backline, but they are faster than everyone else in thought and deed.
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