How did we end up with so many Harlequins players? Shoot down our Premiership Team of the Year if you wish but it would take a darn good side to roll over this XV!
Rugby World Premiership Team of the Year
The dull rugby played by England last winter seems an eon ago. This year’s Gallagher Premiership has been exhilarating, with the top four scoring 321 tries between them.
After the dust settled on round 22, Bristol and Exeter had secured the home semi-final berths, against Harlequins and Sale respectively. Northampton, Leicester, Bath and Wasps qualified for the Champions Cup. And Worcester finished bottom after only one on-field win – three came courtesy of Covid – but will be part of a 13-team Premiership next season.
We’ve picked a Team of the Season that discounts many of the star names whose contribution has been limited because of international commitments. Here we go…
15 Freddie Steward (Leicester)
At 6ft 5in, the tallest full-back in the Premiership and also the safest catching a high ball. Steward has also chalked up big attacking numbers (856 metres and 49 defenders beaten) to make England’s training squad, but it’s his defensive solidity that impresses most. The supremely gifted Max Malins would have been a shoo-in at 15 had he played more games, while Stuart Hogg and Mike Brown have also shown their international class.
14 Tyrone Green (Harlequins)
New wing sensation Louis Rees-Zammit, with five tries in ten Gloucester games, was hard to resist. But we’ve plumped for 23-year-old South African Green, who can switch effortlessly between wing and full-back and exemplifies Quins’ dashing ball-in-hand style. Twenty clean breaks in his first 16 appearances hints at the damage he can cause.
13 Semi Radradra (Bristol)
There’s nothing semi about Radradra, a full-blooded part of the only Premiership team to exceed 10,000 metres with ball in hand this season. Arguably the world’s best offloader, his mesmeric try against Bath in January was otherworldly. Team-mate Piers O’Conor, eight-try Curtis Rona and Luke Northmore were close challengers.
12 Andre Esterhuizen (Harlequins)
A contentious selection because Esterhuizen has received two red cards this season – both for striking with his elbow. Currently nearing the end of a six-week suspension, his indiscipline probably cost him a place in the Springboks squad. When he’s not getting into scrapes, the 6ft 4in and 18st centre vies with Nemani Nadolo as the best bulldozing back in the Premiership. Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson is unlucky to miss out.
11 Tom O’Flaherty (Exeter)
The Exeter man pips London Irish’s Ollie Hassell-Collins (37 clean breaks) to the left-wing spot by virtue of his splash of X-factor. His volley-and-chase try against Bath way back in round two is a spectacular example. Although not a big man, O’Flaherty frequently busts tackles and he topped the stats for defenders beaten (75) and metres made (1,253).
10 Marcus Smith (Harlequins)
The best of a prize bunch, with Joe Simmonds, AJ MacGinty, Dan Biggar and Callum Sheedy all excelling. Smith, a runaway Golden Boot winner with 270 points, has been breathtakingly brilliant this year. His ability to put colleagues through holes via a disguised or delayed pass has been a joy to watch, and his kicking game has been on the money. His eight tries have included last-gasp winners against London Irish and Wasps.
9 Faf de Klerk (Sale)
Sale’s ‘Golden Unicorn’, in Alex Sanderson’s words, is a force of nature. Quite apart from his pinpoint kicking and furious attacking tempo, he hurtles about tackling everything in his path. His energy is astonishing – he’s even been used by Sale to contest hanging kick-offs! And he usually looks thoroughly hacked off when he’s replaced. Danny Care, the try-assist king, is hard done by, so too the Bristol boys and the much-wronged Ben Spencer.
1 Joe Marler (Harlequins)
Unencumbered by Test duties – he last played for England in December – Marler has concentrated his efforts on destroying Premiership tightheads. Quins’ scrum dominance has been instrumental to their success, but Marler offers plenty more besides with his tackle rate and uncompromising hits. Ellis Genge made a late bid for our No 1 shirt and Wasps’ Tom West looks destined for higher honours.
2 Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter)
A cheeky selection, given his modest tally of Premiership matches this season, but this is Cowan-Dickie’s time. He’s a powerful carrier and mauler, a menacing chop tackler and his tap penalties near the try-line are being copied by teams across Europe. His turnovers helped turn the tide for Chiefs in yesterday’s comeback win against Sale. Akker van der Merwe challenged strongly but his lineout wobbles cost him.
3 Wilco Louw (Harlequins)
It’s hard to separate Louw from his compatriot Coenie Oosthuizen, of Sale. The latter made the Springboks squad but we’re giving the shirt to Louw courtesy of his higher number of Premiership starts and his greater carrying power. At nearly 20st, Louw has tremendous leg power and is benefiting from the coaching of ex-Lions tighthead Adam Jones, in particular.
4 Dave Attwood (Bristol)
It’s nearly five years since Attwood won the last of his 24 England caps but Bristol’s skills-based rugby has rejuvenated him. Against Quins, the 34-year-old gathered a rebound off his post, beat Joe Marchant and drew Will Evans to spark a counter-attack that ended with Attwood galloping over at the other end. Fantastic stuff. And along with his nuts and bolts in the tight, enough to make our team ahead of Dave Ribbans.
5 Jean-Luc du Preez (Sale)
The 25-year-old Springbok can play at six or eight but we like him at five, at the heart of Sale’s famed physicality but with footwork and offloading skills to match. Another player with past discipline problems – he’s twice seen red for illegal use of the shoulder – du Preez is learning to identify which rucks to whack and when he can melt someone. “He’s on a stiff learning curve,” says DoR Alex Sanderson. Wasps’ Will Rowlands has also stood out at lock.
6 Dave Ewers (Exeter)
Like the horse Boxer in Animal Farm, Ewers goes about his work tirelessly, shouldering the burden for the benefit of others. After round 21, he’d carried 227 times for Chiefs in the Premiership this season and when he’s not doing that he’s latching on to a team-mate to drive them forward or over the try-line. Shades selection ahead of Bristol’s inspiring captain Steven Luatua, with stand-in Wasps skipper Brad Shields also in the frame.
7 Blair Cowan (London Irish)
This would probably have been Jack Willis’s shirt had injury not struck. Instead, we’re plumping for the Kiwi-born Scotland flanker. Cowan’s ferocity remains undiminished at 35 years of age and he made headlines with his 34 tackles in a match against Worcester. Is this harsh on Bristol’s Dan Thomas and Bath’s Miles Reid? Undoubtedly, but it was the best way we could see to acknowledge London Irish’s commendable season.
8 Sam Simmonds (Exeter)
From the moment he blasted through Quins’ midfield defence on opening night, Simmonds has been on a mission to prove he warrants another crack at Test rugby. Everyone rejoiced with him when he made the Lions squad on the back of a 20-try league haul that smashed the old record. He brings a whole lot more than try-scoring but that fact alone speaks volumes. Jasper Wiese, Alex Dombrandt and Zach Mercer were all excellent but Sam Simmonds it is.
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