Alex Shaw takes a look at the best of the Premiership and Pro12, coming up with his own all-star side from the head-to-heads between the leagues
The Guinness Pro12 takes an inordinate amount of flak from fans and media alike and is generally regarded as the poorer cousin of the Aviva Premiership.The teams at the bottom of the competition are considered inferior to the teams at the bottom of the Premiership, whilst there is no team in the cross-border tournament that can compare to Saracens in terms of ability.
Bigger budgets mean greater depth, smaller travelling distances between clubs bring greater attendances and a healthy TV deal all add up to put the Premiership clubs in prime position to be successful.
In terms of individuals, however, the disparity between the two leagues is less clean cut. At the pinnacle of each position, the two competitions shape up a little more evenly.
Having compiled composite XVs, based on ability over recent seasons and current form, from the two competitions – All-star teams if you will – we compare the two leagues.
- Charles Piutau vs Alex Goode
Mike Brown may be England’s full-back but in terms of performances at Premiership level, Goode just pips him. Regardless, both players come up just short against former All Black Piutau and even the most ardent Premiership fans will be forced to agree, having seen the Kiwi light up the competition last season.
- Tommy Seymour vs Semesa Rokoduguni
Two players currently in the form of their lives. The tries give it to Seymour but in terms of overall impact, not to mention quality of opposition faced and performances put in against them, Rokoduguni just nips ahead of the Scotsman. There is very little in it but the Fijian-born flier is quite possibly the form winger in the northern hemisphere at time of writing.
- Mark Bennett vs Elliot Daly
Mirroring the Goode decision, Daly’s Premiership form is second to none at his position, even though Jonathan Joseph is the man preferred/better-suited to Test rugby. As great as Daly’s impact is for Wasps, Bennett’s is just as significant for Glasgow and his defensive work just shades this match-up in his favour.
- Francis Saili vs Brad Barritt
Saili provides the Munster back line with some much-needed creativity and contributes in a very different fashion to the way Barritt does at Saracens. That said, the defensive work, hard yards and leadership that Barritt provides Saracens with is unmatched in both competitions and he is an integral part of their recent successes. Both Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale could be in this conversation soon.
- Craig Gilroy vs Christian Wade
Two players who haven’t quite been able to crack international rugby and secure a regular Test jersey but who light up their respective competitions on a weekly basis. Wade has his detractors but when you see the tries he scores, often created from nothing, it tips this contest in his favour. Gilroy is a fine winger but would not be able to finish a significant amount of the chances that Wade does.
- Jonathan Sexton vs Owen Farrell
A couple of years ago this would have been a landslide in favour of Sexton but over the last two seasons Farrell has developed into one of the leading fly-halves in world rugby. Sexton probably creates more tries with the Leinster back line, partly due to the style of Saracens’ play, but in terms of overall ability, the apprentice has become the master in this match-up of 2013 British and Irish Lions.
- Ruan Pienaar vs Ben Youngs
The Pro12 will be a lesser place when Pienaar departs at the end of this season. He has been a fantastic servant to Ulster and controls a game better than anyone else in the competition. Youngs is probably the Premiership’s equivalent of Pienaar, controlling the game particularly well, but his domestic form doesn’t compare to Pienaar’s, even if he does tend to have more impact at Test level.
- Jack McGrath vs Mako Vunipola
A really tough one to call. Do you give more weight to the work in the loose Vunipola does for Saracens or for the set-piece foundation McGrath gives Leinster? A prop’s first and most important duty should always be the set-piece and that’s enough to just give McGrath the edge.
- Sean Cronin vs Jamie George
George is unlucky to play in the same position as the England captain and were it not for that, he would be front and centre of England’s revolution under Eddie Jones. His ability with ball in hand is comparable to the mobile Cronin’s, whilst his defence and set-piece work exceed that of the Irishman.
- WP Nel vs Dan Cole
Possibly the two most adept scrummaging tightheads in world rugby right now, it’s hard to separate Nel and Cole. Cole offers a little more at the breakdown, whilst Nel has looked to be the more durable of the pair over the last few seasons. The Lions are in the luxurious position of being able to pick between the two but for the purposes of this comparison, Nel’s importance to Edinburgh just gives him the nod over Cole.
- Iain Henderson vs Maro Itoje
Two young second-rows whose dynamism and physical skills are redefining the position. In addition to remarkable physical ability, Itoje has the technical skills and leadership traits to be one of the very best in the world. Both players can also play at blindside flanker but only one can excel in that more mobile, energy-demanding role.
- Alun Wyn Jones vs George Kruis
Another really hard contest to call. Based on form over the last 12 months, Kruis would probably get the nod but the abilities of Jones are hard to deny. If Kruis continues to dominate for both Saracens and England this spot could be his in a month or two, but for now it remains with Jones, who will need a big year with the Ospreys and Wales not to be left behind by the English lock pairing.
- Sam Warburton vs Chris Robshaw
The emergence of Ellis Jenkins seems to have pushed Warburton over into the six jersey for the Cardiff Blues. He has impressed just as much there as he did in the seven jersey and the Blues are riding high on the performances of their impressive back row. Robshaw is an underrated and underappreciated player but often performs at his best on the Test stage, rather than the domestic one.
- Justin Tipuric vs Francois Louw
Two skilful, dynamic fetchers and there is very little between them at club level. Louw is comfortably the superior Test flanker but the disparity between the two domestically is very small. Tipuric offers slightly more in the loose but as a force at the contact area, Louw has the edge and that’s enough to give him the overall nod. A fit Marcell Coetzee could change the outlook at this position next year.
- CJ Stander vs Billy Vunipola
These two would have been good candidates for their respective Player of the Season awards last season and both are integral to their sides. Stander put Munster on his shoulders at times last season, whilst Vunipola was a driving force behind Saracens’ historic double. The freedoms of club rugby, as opposed to Test rugby, allow Vunipola to be at his very best and that leans this contest in his favour.
Pro12 – 7
Premiership – 8