As the Aviva Premiership campaign reaches a fascinating finale, here is a side of stand-out performers from a hugely exciting season.
15. Alex Goode (Saracens)
A consummate, classy operator who never seems to get the credit he deserves. Offers calm authority and precise positioning in defence and hits the line nicely in attack, chalking up unfussy assists for fun. It is no coincidence that Saracens back-three buddies David Strettle, Chris Wyles and Chris Ashton get a lot of finishing practice.
14. Alex Lewington (London Irish)
Losing Marland Yarde to Harlequins over the close season felt like a bitter blow to Exiles fans, but 23 year-old former Leicester Tigers wing Lewington has shone. Raw pace and sharp predatory instincts have brought 11 tries, some of them spectacular. The Exiles have 41 tries overall in the Aviva Premiership. It is a remarkable ratio.
13. Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby)
This can be marked as a seminal campaign in the career of a player talented enough to wow the world game. Joseph has worked hard to add toughness in the tackle-area to simply mesmerising ability with ball in hand. Aviva Premiership defences have suffered and, with Joseph finally granted a run of Test matches, England now boast a brilliant midfield threat.
12. Elliot Daly (Wasps)
In a run of seven games leading up to Wasps’ win over Exeter Chiefs three weeks ago, Daly had accumulated a crazy tally of four tries and eight assists. He has made the 15-metre channel his own, either breaking outside would-be tacklers or sucking in rivals to create space. Shifted from the 13 shirt for the purpose of this side, the 22 year-old must be included – long-range left-footed kicking option and all.
11. Sinoti Sinoti (Newcastle Falcons)
A fast-twitch Samoan hot-stepper, Sinoti has won a place in his nation’s wider squad for the Rugby World Cup. Frankly, the prospect of him teaming up with Tim Nanai-Williams and co. is terrifying. His stunning score against Bath at Kingston Park last month bypassed four opponents and crystallised his season – the most evasive, explosive runner in this team.
10. George Ford (Bath Rugby)
Henry Slade’s enhanced influence for Exeter has provided a glimpse of England’s future. However, Ford represents his country’s present. And, besides an ill-fated return to Welford Road back in January, it is hard to recall an underwhelming performance. Blending territorial awareness with sparks of incisive running and neat distribution, the diminutive general has excelled on the way to adding 175 points.
9. Will Chudley (Exeter Chiefs)
Chudley may not be one of the five number nines in a frantic scrap to feature in Stuart Lancaster’s World Cup party. That said, he is a fundamental piece of the Exeter jigsaw that has pulled together the Devon outfit’s efforts so resourcefully. A tenacious opportunist and savvy decision-maker, the underrated 27 year-old ousts Ben Youngs and Joe Simpson.
1. Nick Auterac (Bath)
This selection might raise a few eyebrows, especially given only eight of Auterac’s 20 domestic appearances this season have come from the start. But many Bath supporters who frequent The Rec are puzzled as to why such an effective scrum technician remains merely an understudy to Paul James. Certainly, a number of match-changing cameos – showcasing mobility and muscle in the loose, too – have pushed his cause.
2. Jamie George (Saracens)
When mould-breaking hooker Schalk Brits damaged knee ligaments last October, Saracens needed their Academy product to graduate from promising youngster to senior statesman. He did exactly that – and then some. Articulate and mature, George keeps things ticking for his heralded pack with accuracy at set-piece and, as a timely burst against Exeter on Sunday showed, wholehearted commitment.
3. Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs)
The former Doncaster and London Scottish tighthead endured a couple of difficult days against Wasps. Largely though, his step up from the Championship has been thoroughly impressive. A comprehensive scrummagging destruction of Alex Corbisiero at Sandy Park may just spark an international tug of war between Lancaster and Warren Gatland. The latter will surely look to shepherd him into the Wales squad rapidly.
4. Nick Easter (Harlequins)
Easter insists he prefers the back row to lock, yet Graham Rowntree is happy entrust him with an England engine-room berth. That much offers definitive evidence of this 36 year-old’s granite durability and precocious handling, both of which were in plain view for a tour-de-force as Harlequins hit their best in a 32-12 thrashing of Leicester. Shoehorned in here, and why not? Any outfit would be better for his footballing nous.
5. Samu Manoa (Northampton Saints)
Manoa will doubtlessly become a darling of Toulon and a Top 14 rockstar. Before that, he appears intent on hauling Saints to a second successive title. This American action hero is a bristling, belligerent specimen who can drag a game towards his team in one instant. As well as Hollywood hits, offloading and support play are lesser-heralded facets to his game, and a tally of eight tries is very commendable.
6. Dave Ewers (Exeter Chiefs)
The experience of James Haskell and Tom Wood cannot bar Ewers from Test debut for too much longer. Frankly, his campaign has been a freakish, bullying exhibition of excellence on the gain-line and at the breakdown. Short passes to transfer to point of contact in attack bring the best out of teammates as well. Ewers can lay claim to having laid down the best efforts of this entire bunch and Lancaster is well aware what he could add to the World Cup mission.
7. Matt Kvesic (Gloucester)
Saturday’s red card for a tip-tackle on Tomas O’Leary of London Irish was an unfortunate way for Kvesic to end a second Premiership term at Kingsholm. The reckless rush of blood was so at odds with how this young man has spent most of the season as a measured scavenger, disrupting rucks in a disciplined, technically proficient manner. Gloucester’s prime poacher can be proud of the bigger picture.
8. Thomas Waldrom (Exeter Chiefs)
Nathan Hughes of Wasps and burly Saracen Billy Vunipola made Premiership Rugby’s official shortlist for the best player in the division, while Leroy Houston is currently carving up for Bath. It is impossible to overlook the league’s most prolific No 8, though. His 16 scores may have come from a combined distance of around 100 metres, but so much of Exeter’s approach thrives on Waldrom’s intelligent angles and gain-line busting. A superb signing from Rob Baxter.