By Charlie Morgan
15: Jared Payne (Ulster)
A spluttering Friday evening at Ravenhill got easier on the eye whenever Ulster’s full-back was involved. Typical smooth running complemented some sublime handling, confusing courageous Montpellier – one flick to set up John Afoa’s try was delicious. Payne qualifies for Ireland this year. He must play Test rugby.
14. Hosea Gear (Toulouse)
Toulouse’s twin wings make a starkly contrasting pair – Yoann Huget’s demeanour akin to a laid-back cigarette smoker, Gear bristling with fast-twitch power. Both were effective on Sunday, though the rapid All Black looked more terrifying and scorched Stade Ernest-Wallon’s turf for over 100 running metres.
13. Casey Laulala (Munster)
On old school, blood-and-thunder nights like we saw at Kingsholm, cool heads are vital. While the contest around him descended into a high-octane arm wrestle, Munster’s silky skilled midfielder retained composure and made full use of the ball that came his way. Prominent in the lead-up to Keith Earls opening try, Laulala oozed class throughout.
12. Wesley Fofana (Clermont)
Fofana is probably the best attacking inside centre on the planet, so the quicksilver stepping and slick distribution he showcased against Harlequins in this crucial Heineken Cup match came as no surprise. Holding up Nick Easter to force the final whistle and rescue his pack (who had just lost a scrum against the head) was slightly out of the ordinary – and just as impressive.
11. George North (Northampton)
A total no-brainer. The autumn doubts about North’s form have now long evaporated, and the Liberty Stadium was treated to an absolute masterclass. Utilised initially as a first-phase battering ram, he began hunting the ball and beat two defenders before galloping 80 metres for Saints’ opening score just after half-time. The prolific Welshman hardly even celebrated – it comes that naturally.
10. Jimmy Gopperth (Leinster)
Rhys Priestland gave Warren Gatland a big nudge by guiding Scarlets past an abject Racing Metro and outplaying Jonny Sexton, but Gopperth’s brace of tries on the way to a 21-point haul simply cannot be ignored. Picked ahead of Ian Madigan, the Kiwi proved his worth in comprehensive style.
9. Rhys Webb (Ospreys)
Danny Care’s moment of genius to set up Matt Hopper almost snuck in the Harlequin, and Clermont might have been sunk had Harlequins’ scrum-half not picked up a foot injury. Instead, Webb is a worthy selection after a spiky, urgent effort on the back foot that included a sniping try.
1. Andrew Sheridan (Toulon)
It takes a special sort of strength to create the illusion that a rival scrum is on roller skates. When the mood takes him – as it did on Saturday – Sheridan can deliver that level of freakish brutality. Departing the scene on 57 minutes with Toulon 36-13 up, he left complete destruction in his wake, having also added some barreling runs to the cause.
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini (Treviso)
Treviso made life extremely tough for Leicester Tigers and their tenacious hooker was at his combative best. Ten tackles, 25 trundling metres and a solid lineout return evidenced his effort, while a snarling face-off with Dan Cole defined his desire.
3. Salesi Ma’afu (Northampton)
Aided by the outstanding Alex Waller, Ma’afu was the bomb that obliterated Ospreys’ scrum and put Saints in firm control. When he was replaced and Adam Jones came on for the hosts, the game turned upside down for a spell before Dylan Hartley and co. regained their grip.
4. Elliot Stooke (Gloucester)
Paul O’Connell was handed Sky Sports’ official man-of-the-match gong from Munster’s West Country visit, but opposite the iconic Irishman was a lock at the other end of his shelf-life. Barely out of his teens, Stooke possesses a massive engine and a good dose of spite. He shone despite defeat and can be a cornerstone around which to rebuild Gloucester’s pack.
5. Jocelino Suta (Toulon)
A prickly powerhouse, Suta was abrasive before the rest of Toulon’s forwards woke up in the first half and a full-blown bully after the break as Cardiff were blown away. A hat-trick of penalty tries from scrums and driving lineout mauls indicates an utterly dominant front five – this 31 year-old led the landslide.
6. Cornell du Preez (Edinburgh)
Edinburgh’s entire back row were eye-catching in their victory over Perpignan – Roddy Grant and David Denton could both have made this team easily. However, in a brilliant defensive display by Alan Solomons’s side, Du Preez’s energy, encompassing 13 tackles and a try, was essential.
7. Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)
The trendy thing to say about Robshaw these days is that he doesn’t produce any moments to change games. Because tireless tackling and consistently excellent breakdown work isn’t enough for some people. Well, in a gut-wrenching defeat, the England skipper brought his usual industry – contributing at least three choke-tackle turnovers – as well as a sublime chip for Hopper’s score. He certainly left his mark.
8. Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)
One instance summed up Picamoles’ immense influence on Toulouse’s bruising defeat of Saracens. The ball squirted free from the back of a ruck, Schalk Brits buzzed back to retrieve it, only to be flipped over by the chasing French eight. Not content with that, Picamoles then stood astride the ensuing ruck to win a penalty. He also popped up in possession everywhere to devastating effect.