As a campaign of drama and chaos draws to a close, and supporters gradually filter back into Premiership grounds, The XV selects its team of the season and boy, have we been entertained…
15. Stuart Hogg
Hogg is in the form of his life, and front of the queue to don the British and Irish Lions number 15 jersey this summer. His tactical nous has grown under the watch of Rob Baxter, his attacking instincts sharpened yet further. The Scotland captain has gobbled up metres, bewitched defenders and unleashed great, booming spiral punts to help Exeter surge onwards in defence of their title. Freddie Steward, still just 20 and 6ft 5ins, is an immense prospect for Leicester Tigers and England.
14. Paolo Odogwu
We’re cheating a little here, since many of Odogwu’s most dazzling moments came when deployed at outside centre, rather than on the wing, where he had predominantly played up to this season. But the Wasp with the giant quadriceps and exhilarating rugby wit cannot be omitted. Odogwu weaved some magical stuff in the first half of the campaign, before being entrenched in England’s Six Nations bubble, and in a slice of desperate luck, tearing his ACL in late May. His first cap will not be long in coming.
13. Semi Radradra
What more can be said about the Fijian phenomenon? Arguably the most influential player in the Premiership, Radradra has scored and created mind-bending tries, delivered jaw-dropping offloads and splintered defences whenever he has played. If Bristol go on to win the title, the Fiji captain will be at the very heart of their glory. Piers O’Conor, another Bear, has also been a strong performer.
12. Andre Esterhuizen
The human rhinoceros that is Esterhuizen edges out Mark Atkinson of Gloucester despite being sent off twice on Premiership duty. ‘Andre the Giant’ is a positively terrifying weapon to wield in a backline, and central to the way DoR-less Harlequins have fought their way to the semi-finals. Few backs can gobble up yards and scuttle defenders as the hulking centre. Currently suspended, indiscipline will cost Esterhuizen a place in the play-offs, and may well have been a factor in his omission from the Springboks squad. Quins will miss him dearly when the chips are down.
11. Tom O’Flaherty
Enjoying the best season of his career. O’Flaherty tops the charts for metres made and defenders beaten, conjuring some majestic pieces of flair in attack, and near the summit of the clean break figures too. He has run in seven tries and been what Baxter refers to as a “spearhead player”, the blade thrusting Exeter forth. His influence has been immense.
10. Marcus Smith
England’s coming man. For Harlequins, of course, Smith has already arrived. He is their mesmeric play-maker and match-winner, claiming the Golden Boot with miles to spare and snatching decisive late scores in several games while lacing his headline moments with lovely flashes of subtlety. Everyone at Quins lauds his attitude and leadership; he was even hotly tipped to make the Lions tour before being hoisted up to the England squad by Jones. The coach is fiercely, and understandably, loyal to George Ford and Owen Farrell, but the two will not be around forever and cannot play every Test match. The summer fixtures are a platform for Smith to prove he belongs. A tip of the hat too for Sale’s AJ MacGinty, who has been a terrific pivot, Joe Simmonds of Exeter, Dan Biggar at Northampton Saints and Bristol’s play-maker Callum Sheedy.
9. Faf de Klerk
A tight call between two of the feistiest customers in the division. Faf de Klerk pips Danny Care after another season of visceral aggression, shrewd tactical play, ruthless attack and fearless – arguably kamikaze – defence. De Klerk is the perfect nine for the way Sale operate, capable of shunting teams back 60m with his left boot, or wounding them with his staggering speed around the fringes. He is as abrasive as any scrum-half in world rugby. A word of praise also for Bath’s Ben Spencer.
1. Joe Marler
Harlequins have benefitted immeasurably from Marler’s decision not to enter England’s Six Nations bubble. The 30-year-old has been a brutally effective scrummager, carried well and put in some mighty shots in defence. More importantly than anything Marler delivered on the field has been his continued emergence as a powerful advocate for mental health support. Elsewhere, Ellis Genge finished the campaign in rip-roaring form and Sale’s Bevan Rodd performed brilliantly too.
2. Akker van der Merwe
Desperately unlucky to miss out on Springboks selection for the Lions tour. Akker ‘The Angry Warthog’ van der Merwe does as he says on the tin, carrying with a ferocious dynamism. He pounces from the back of mauls, off-loads deftly and makes a nuisance of himself over ball. A key member of a Sale side ravenous for silverware. Luke Cowan-Dickie, whose throwing is superior, and George McGuigan deserve a mention.
3. John Afoa
How does he do it? Nearing his 38th birthday, Afoa is an ageing warhorse in years, but continues to play like a stallion in his prime. To compete at the top for so long, as rugby grows increasingly fast and perilous, in one of its most specialised and demanding positions, is freakish. To do so for Bristol Bears, a team that play with such elan, borders on the superhuman. Afoa is a pillar of strength at scrum time, and a mobile footballer about the paddock. He remains integral to Pat Lam’s team and their quest for higher honours and best of all, he gambols about with the enthusiasm of a rookie pup.
4. David Ribbans
His last-round red card is an obvious caveat, but it ought not to erase such a compelling season – one so compelling, in fact, that Eddie Jones has selected him in his England squad, even if Ribbans’ will likely be suspended for the summer fixtures. The Northampton Saint is adept in the air, but his best work is done around the paddock, with rampaging carries and thunderous defence. He could yet be a serious asset to Jones and England. The tireless Harry Wells of Leicester merits recognition, as does Dave Attwood, completely rejuvenated at Bristol and fabulous again this term.
5. Chris Vui
Described recently by Lam as a “silent assassin”, Vui has all the tools required of a modern-day second-row and puts them to use nearly every time he steps on a field. Athletic in the air, a beast in contact, and possessed of lovely, soft handling skills, as witnessed with his buccaneering 60m gallop up the left-hand touchline against Gloucester before putting Charles Piutau away.
6. Dave Ewers
Simply put, a colossus. Ewers is the size of a Clydesdale horse and about as difficult to tackle. The Zimbabwe-born behemoth is hugely effective in the red zone, as Exeter Chiefs grind and pulverise their way to the whitewash. He has been consistently excellent – yet oddly unheralded beyond Devon – this term. How Exeter will miss him for the season’s run-in. Honourable mention for the similarly proportioned Shark Jean-Luc du Preez, and young Worcester captain Ted Hill, who has done his best Sergio-Parisse-carrying-mid-Noughties-Italy impression for the beleaguered Warriors.
7. Will Evans
Fondly nicknamed ‘The Clamp’ at Harlequins, Evans tops the turnover charts despite a suffering a season-ending injury in April, a blow all the crueller given his sumptuous form and Quins’ first play-off appearance since 2014. Evans’ jackal technique is intelligent and effective, yielding 29 steals – just better than two per game – and he has added open-field puggy to his breakdown graft. Elsewhere, 35-year-old Blair Cowan has been unrelenting in his industry for London Irish, and Lewis Ludlow of Gloucester is the league’s undisputed tackle machine.
8. Sam Simmonds
Exeter have scored 93 Premiership tries this season. Sam Simmonds has scored 20 of them. His record-smashing haul is astonishing, but only one element of his ever-growing influence. Simmonds, as is well-documented, is not a great brute of a number eight, but boy, does he carry like one. He boasts scintillating pace and ball skills, nigh-irrepressible leg drive in contact, and such sharp game intelligence. It is remarkable that having been named European player of the year last term, the Chief has raised his game again. Eddie Jones may not see a place for Simmonds in his England squad, but tantalisingly, Warren Gatland has found one for him in his. It is richly deserved.
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