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FEATURE RugbyPass Plus' URC team of the season

RugbyPass Plus' URC team of the season
10 months ago

An engrossing URC campaign reaches its climax on Saturday, as the Stormers aim to win back-to-back titles against resurgent Munster in Cape Town.

The league has delivered vibrancy, competitiveness and entertainment, underpinned by a host of star performers.

Here, RugbyPass Plus selects its team of the season.

15 Clayton Blommetjies (Stormers)

The 32-year-old arrived in Cape Town to little fanfare last year, tasked with plugging a large Warrick Gelant-shaped hole in the Stormers back-three. How he has shone for the defending champions, growing into his role, adding defensive nous to his unpredictable attacking flair. John Dobson has waxed lyrical about his work rate and desire to improve, and his faith in Blommetjies has been emphatically repaid.

Elsewhere in South Africa, Kurt-Lee Arendse continues to amaze.

14 Sebastian Cancelliere (Glasgow Warriors)

One of the finest overseas signings made by a Scottish club since Glasgow’s Pro12 triumph of 2015. Though he missed a swathe of the campaign with injury, the Argentine is a bristling, all-action presence on both sides of the ball.

Sebastian Cancelliere
Sebastian Cancelliere has been excellent for a Glasgow side thriving under Franco Smith (Photo by Craig Williamson/Getty Images)

When you measure line breaks, metres made and defenders beaten against minutes played, Cancelliere is among the league’s best. His defensive intelligence and aggression also set him apart, reading plays smartly and shooting up to smite opponents.

He pips Edinburgh’s Darcy Graham, whose early-season form was ridiculous before injury struck, and Munster’s Calvin Nash.

13 Stafford McDowall (Glasgow Warriors)

Any one of four Glasgow centres had strong cases for inclusion, particularly the triple-threat Sione Tuipulotu, whose combination of direct running, soft hands and delightful short kicking have dazzled for club and country.

McDowall, though, is a revelation. Glasgow were poised to jettison him a year ago, believing there was no place in their congested midfield for a 24-year-old who had yet to truly come of age. McDowall made his case, cash was scraped together, and how he has justified the decision. At 6ft 4ins, he is a robust physical specimen, a canny distributor and, much-prized in the modern game, a potent left-foot kicking option. He has captained his boyhood club on multiple occasions this season and emerged as a new fulcrum.

12 Daniel du Plessis (Stormers)

Having missed the title run through concussion last year, Du Plessis has played a headline part in the Stormers’ quest to defend their crown. Only David Kriel of the Bulls has made more line-breaks than the powerful centre, who has won plaudits for his performances in the Champions Cup as well as the URC.

In a grim period for the Welsh regions, the Ospreys’ squat cannonball Keiran Williams went well.

11 Simone Gesi (Zebre Parma)

What a season the 22-year-old has had. In a Zebre Parma team which continues to labour at the URC’s basement, Gesi has provided shafts of bright light. The bottom club actually have some very talented players, but not the nous or consistency to earn a long-awaited win.

Scotland v Italy - Guinness Six Nations
Simone Gesi made his Italy debut against Scotland during the Six Nations Championship. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Federugby via Getty Images)

Gesi has been their most dangerous attacking threat, one of a host of young players emerging in Northern Italy. He has ten tries in eleven URC matches – some of them predatory corner-flag finishes – and earned his full international debut in the Six Nations finale at Murrayfield.

10 Ross Byrne (Leinster)

Stepping out of the long shadow cast by Johnny Sexton, Byrne has had another excellent URC campaign, winning an Ireland recall after several years out of the picture, and taking his Leinster form to the international stage. The hub of Leinster’s multi-phase brilliance, with a goalkicking success rate of just under 87%.

Jack Carty impressed for semi-finalists Connacht, particularly in the latter half of the season, while Tom Jordan went very well for Glasgow in his first full year as a professional.

9 Grant Williams (Sharks)

Were the Springboks not so insanely resourced for scrum-half options, Williams would be roundly touted as a World Cup bolter. The Shark is a scintillating threat from the base or hunting in support of line-breaking team-mates. With Jaden Hendrikse injured, he scorched to prominence this season, running in ten tries from sixteen URC matches, and adding another belter against Toulouse in the Champions Cup.

Connacht’s Caolin Blade ended the campaign in similarly prolific form.

1 Steven Kitshoff (Stormers)

A key cog in one of the best scrums in the league, with the second-fewest penalties conceded. Hailed as a potential Springbok captain, should Siya Kolisi’s injury rule him out of the World Cup, and little wonder, given his class in the tight, heavy carrying and vast experience. Averages over five metres per run, which is very good going for a prop charging into traffic.

2 Tom Stewart (Ulster)

It is only natural to look at a hooker’s bulging try haul and write them off as easy finishes, capitalising on the work of the mauling pack in front of them. Stewart has certainly benefited from Ulster’s compelling set-piece game under Dan McFarland, but he offers so much more than close-quarter plunges.

Sharks <a href=
Ulster URC match report” width=”1200″ height=”604″ /> Tom Stewart is the URC’s top try scorer this season. (Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Sixteen tries, including two hat-tricks in three matches, is a fabulous tally for any player, and the 22-year-old has become a predator, picking his moments to burst free and splinter any lingering defence. He is a pacey and belligerent carrier around the field, capable of supporting outside backs, as he did for his hat-trick score against the Dragons, aggressive over ball and growing as a set-piece operator. Andy Farrell had the URC’s top scorer in to train during the Six Nations and he may yet win a first Ireland cap in the World Cup warm-up fixtures this summer.

Farrell’s incumbent, Dan Sheehan, remains one of the world’s best front-rows, while Johnny Matthews of Glasgow rivalled Stewart’s scoring prowess.

3 Thomas du Toit (Sharks)

Bath have landed themselves a whopper next season, in every sense. Du Toit’s skill and size render him virtually immovable at scrum time, whether packing down at tight- or loose-head, and his leadership skills are precious too.

Finlay Bealham had his best season for Connacht and Ireland.

4 Niall Murray (Connacht)

Has stolen more lineout ball than some entire teams. Remarkably dexterous and lithe in the air, and a huge part of Connacht’s terrific set-piece return this season. By his own admission, Murray is on the lighter side for a lock with Test aspirations, but he doesn’t lack for dynamism, carrying explosively and streaking away for one particularly memorable long-range try against Benetton.

5 Federico Ruzza (Benetton)

Delivers everything you want from a second-row: lineout acumen, V8 engine, big carrier and strong tackler. Ruzza is capable of sumptuous ball-in-hand moments, with his offloading prowess and impressive top-end speed.

Benetton Rugby v Glasgow Warriors - United Rugby Championship
Ruzza began the season with a man-of-the-match display against Glasgow Warriors. (Photo by Alfio Guarise/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

He is also effective in the more conventional and industrious boiler-house tasks. A totemic presence for Benetton and a starter for Italy once again.

6 Vaea Fifita (Scarlets)

Honestly, there aren’t enough superlatives for this bloke. At any moment, he is liable to send jaws clacking to the floor. Locks and flankers, even in 2023, just aren’t supposed to do what Fifita can and does with consummate ease. He is faster than many backs. His handling is more adroit than some scrum-halves’. And he is nearly 6ft 5ins tall. ‘Cheat code’ has become an overused social media term to lavish any player’s act of skill, but if anybody in this league merits the tag, it’s Fifita.

7 Conor Oliver (Connacht)

The ultimate workhorse. Nobody made more tackles or hit more defensive rucks, and only three players have stolen more breakdown ball. Oliver does not seduce casual fans with his x-factor elan, as Fifita does, nor does he make blockbusting carries like Gavin Coombes. But his unrelenting toil in and out of possession are crucial to Connacht’s success. A total pest at the breakdown, an ever-willing tackler, and it’s not like he is only there to defend, placing in the top 20 players for carries made.

Scott Penny of Leinster had another great campaign.

8 Gavin Coombes (Munster)

You’d need a couple of giant bulwarks, buttressed with titanium, to stop Coombes in full sail. What a specimen. A number eight in the Dean Richards mould, to whom you can chuck any sort of horrible possession, or ask to pick up from any sort of hopelessly disintegrating scrum, and still be assured of safe yardage and clean ball.

Coombes is the URC’s top carrier and third-top try-scorer, while only three forwards have broken more tackles. He is also one of the busiest at ruck time, and in the top ten for tackles made. The carries catch the eye, but he’s not a one-trick pony. His reputation is burnished yet further by his role in Munster’s run to the final.

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