The list of players' player award-winners from this Premiership season makes for insightful reading.
For any sportsman, indeed for any professional, the endorsement of peers represents the most satisfying coup possible. With that in mind, one award at swanky end-of-season dinners is coveted more dearly than others across the Premiership.
Breaking down the players’ player winners from each club is interesting. This season, the split was seven-five in favour of forwards. Delving deeper, the positional shake-up gave us five flankers, three wings, two locks, a centre and a fly-half. Of the 12 prize-winners, there were five new signings. Three of them were from New Zealand, two coming from the Chiefs.
But, in a sense, searching for trends is futile. These men endeared themselves specifically to their squad mates, earning the majority of all-important votes. That tells us everything we need to know.
The unceremonious exit of Mike Ford this week only served to add yet another bullet point to a calamitous catalogue of woe in the West Country. However, explosive wing Rokoduguni has done his utmost to provide entertainment. Radiating self-confidence again, the Fiji-born reconnaissance tank soldier has racked up astonishing numbers. Twelve Premiership tries, 68 beaten defenders, 30 clean breaks and 1033 running metres crystallise his attacking talent. Then a total of 15 turnovers, more than any other back, attest to his fast-twitch tenacity in the tackle area.
For sheer popularity among colleagues, Steenson would be close to taking Exeter’s award every season. Rob Baxter’s skipper is a calm, conscientious leader that demands the best in a personable but passionate way. This year, his prolific boot has driven the Chiefs’ charge. A haul of 234 points is 52 clear of anyone else. Taking the ball flat in harness with Henry Slade, Steenson’s crisp passing also allows Exeter to stretch any opponent. It speaks volumes that the likes of Thomas Waldrom and Don Armand, despite fantastic years, were overlooked. Steenson has been that good.
Seventeen straight Premiership starts for Sharples were cut short by knee ligament damage at the Madejski Stadium in late March, an injury that derailed the rapid wing’s season just as pitches were hardening up to suit him. However, his spiky commitment and consistency had already done enough to land Gloucester’s top award. A superb outing in a 13-10 victory over Wasps at Kingsholm put much-vaunted rivals Christian Wade and Frank Halai in the shade. Although opportunities were scarce for Cherry and Whites widemen this year, Sharples’ pedigree is perennial.
Just as Chris Robshaw benefitted from shifting across the back-row to blindside flanker with England, Wallace revelled in Conor O’Shea’s number seven shirt. Only Matt Kvesic of Gloucester managed more than his 24 turnovers and the long-haired openside also registered 175 tackles. Strong and supple, he is a breakdown pest. Only 25 but apparently behind clubmate Jack Clifford in Eddie Jones’ pecking order, Wallace should be given the Saxons tour of South Africa to press his international credentials.
In the tiny gaps between homages to Claudio Ranieri and co, there has been talk in Leicester of how new coach Aaron Mauger has injected ambition and developed an expansive, all-court gameplan. But Tigers know the value of grunt, graft and gainline presence more than any other side. For that reason, unfussy former Chief Fitzgerald has proven to be an inspired signing, featuring in 24 matches across all competitions thus far and demonstrating remarkable consistency. His attributes complement his club perfectly.
“I’m proud to be committing myself to the future of this club, whatever that may look like” – Narraway’s words on signing a fresh one-year deal at the end of April were as honest as his graft in a struggling outfit. He made 21 league appearances since September, making 159 tackles, taking 53 lineouts and snaffling 13 turnovers. As Irish thrashed around and eventually sank, shipping 74 tries and 620 points in the process, Narraway remained aggressive and untiring. His leadership will be vital for the Exiles in the Championship.
An eventual gap of seven points between them and relegated London Irish was an entirely justifiable reflection that the Falcons deserve another season to consolidate their top-flight status. They needed Andy Goode’s accuracy from the tee and Tonga’s gnarled talisman, though. Latu, who turned 34 in February, would pass for a decade older than that. Still, a combination of durability and disregard for his own wellbeing make an effective blend. Mainly benefitting from driving mauls, the pocket battleship in the back row has dotted down nine times too.
The season-long absence of arch-scavenger Calum Clark has hindered Saints, but it has also helped them unearth a rough diamond who could go on to transform the dynamism of England’s play out in Australia. Harrison’s bristling carrying meant he could move from openside to the anchor of the scrum when selection dictated and a league tally of 43 tackle-busts from 180 runs is a striking ratio. Pace and power are packaged with brawn over the ball. When he is done with the Wallabies, Harrison will dovetail with Louis Picamoles at Saints – a tantalising prospect.
The usual column inches for Danny Cipriani and Steve Diamond’s nomination for the Director of Rugby gong seem to be token nods to Sale’s progress this season. A fine Premiership campaign, comprising a Champions Cup place and a home record that was only blemished at the final hurdle, deserves more credit. Two-cap All Blacks lock Evans underpinned his team’s efforts. He took 87 lineouts, stole 16 more, cut down 162 carriers and penned a contract extension last month to commit to the cause.
A well-drilled, domineering pack has underpinned Saracens’ surge. Many of the same forwards fortified England’s Grand Slam as well. However, neither Maro Itoje nor George Kruis took this prize. Brothers Mako and Billy Vunipola bowed to a back. Scotland centre Duncan Taylor, one of the very best performers in the Six Nations, came back on fallow weekends during the tournament to play for Saracens – he was that integral to Mark McCall’s plans. Intelligent lines of running and classy decision-making either side of the ball have held together his team’s shape.
It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that Smith has re-written the coaching manual’s chapter on breakdown play, altering the sport’s landscape entirely. Those skills remain undiminished, as another triumph at the RPA Awards reinforced. But besides trademark jackalling, Smith’s distribution – often at first-receiver, sometimes further out – has facilitated the flow of Dai Young’s exciting outfit. Heading into the semi-final at Sandy Park with 197 tackles and 162 carries to complement 20 offloads, his 35 year-old engine is still ticking along nicely.
Another ex-Chief to trade Waikato for these shores and endear himself to new employers immediately, Heem had displayed destructive form in Super Rugby prior to arriving at Sixways. This was a hugely canny bit of business from Dean Ryan. Heem’s hefty 103-kilogram frame and deceptive speed caused problems for rival defences, but relentless, intelligent support play also ensured he enjoyed plenty of touches. Working in harness with consummate Chris Pennell at full-back, he registered 1337 running metres from 171 carries, beating 54 defenders and manufacturing 26 clean breaks. Only Nathan Hughes returned more than his 24 offloads, a mark of slick, skilful link-play.
*denotes that Player of the Season was awarded in the absence of a Players’ Player prize