15. Nick Abendanon (Bath)
I have to admit I was fairly close to typing ‘Mike Brown’ here out of habit, but with the Quins man taking a well-earned break it allowed the blonde Bath fullback the chance to take centre stage this weekend. He was in scintillating form against Irish, setting up 2 scores with lightening breaks and reminding the Bath faithful what they’ll be missing next year. He’ll thrive in the Top 14.
14. Niki Goneva (Leicester)
Anthony Watson looked very sharp for Bath, whilst Chris Ashton also put in a decent shift at Wembley (with obligatory dives), but in truth Goneva was head and shoulders above the rest. He was a one-man wrecking ball for the Tigers, gliding through the Chiefs line as if it wasn’t there and beating defenders with both agility and power. A phenomenal display that saw him end with one try and two assists had coach Richard Cockerill considering re-mortgaging his home in an effort to keep the clutches of Castres away next season.
13. Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)
Henry Trinder was in marvellous form in attack for Gloucester, showing some lovely hands, but for the sheer all round effect he’s had on a team I’ve had to pick Manu. Leicester just look like a completely different team with him in the midfield – one with attacking menace and tempo. When he wasn’t scoring tries himself, he was creating them with decoy lines that drew in between 2 and 3 defenders. It might seem a little excessive, but he is one man who may just turn the Tigers’ entire season around. No pressure.
12. Mike Tindall (Gloucester)
Yes, Kyle Eastmond was zippy and nimble, but I couldn’t ignore a man of the match display by the grizzled veteran in the Gloucester midfield. He may have a nose that makes it seem he is looking directly at you when in fact he is looking sideways, but this was vintage Tindall, galloping into contact and taking no prisoners in defence. His work-rate was absolutely top notch and it was great to see the old man plough over for a try in the second half, as well. He won’t be happy with his side’s last quarter capitulation, though…
11. Mark Cueto (Sale)
I must be getting sentimental, picking all the old men this week, but Cueto was a rock-solid presence for the Sharks during their magnificent win at home against the Saints. He may not be as quick as he once was – and he was never that quick – but he still knows his way to the tryline, finishing well under pressure for a crucial try for his team, and was a solid as ever under the high ball. His leadership in that Sale backline was a key stabilising influence, too, when the Saints eventually decided to string some phases together.
10. Owen Farrell (Saracens)
It was a good weekend for English 10s, as Danny Cipriani impressed against Northampton and George Ford put in a top shift against Irish (not to mention Andy ‘The Bear’ Goode’s big cajones for slotting a last-minute winner at Sixways), but Farrell continued his upward trajectory at Wembley on Saturday. Superb off the tee once again, his decision making in attack is now improving week on week, and his reads in defence were key, not only for his try, but for shutting down a dangerous Quins backline all game.
9. Dwayne Peel (Sale)
Ben Youngs was fizzing again for the Tigers, which was great to see, but Peel was exceptional for the Sharks on Saturday. It was like a throwback to the Welsh 2005 Grand Slam, with Peel directing the pack with absolute authority and dictating the tempo of the game. His kicking game was sublime, but even that paled into insignificance next to his mesmerising break in the build-up for Cueto’s score. It showed all the customary awareness, yes, but it also showed that the veteran Welshman still has a bit of spring left in the legs. Bristol have grabbed themselves a gem for next year.
1. Paul James (Bath)
Eifion Lewis-Roberts was a powerful presence for Sale and Marcos Ayerza was, as usual, dominant in the scrum for the Tigers, but I thought Paul James was a standout player for Bath. He quietly goes about his work but, for me, he improves year on year and very rarely has a bad game, despite looking like Weatherspoons doorman. Against Irish he was impressively mobile, too, carrying for 14 metres and making 8 tackles in another eye-catching display.
2. Schalk Brits (Saracens)
Tom Youngs delivered a consummate display to answer his critics – barrelling in the loose and flawless in the lineout – but Brits was on another planet at Wembley. This was a throwback to the Brits of 3 years ago, when there seemed to be about 5 of him on the park, popping up here, there and everywhere and beating defenders with outrageous footwork. His stats on Saturday of 9 carries, 44 metres made, 2 defenders beaten, 3 offloads and 14 tackles were phenomenal, and by the far the best out of his entire pack.
3. Logovi’I Mulipola (Leicester)
I really thought it would be going to Davey Wilson after another impressive outing, Mulipola turned in a barnstorming display to steal it on Sunday afternoon. Dominant in the scrum, the giant, ludicrously-haired Samoan was in rampaging form elsewhere, scoring a magnificent try from 30 metres where he crashed through England wing Jack Nowell as if he wasn’t there. A tackle count of 7 completed a very impressive day at the coalface for ‘Fluffy’.
4. George Kruis (Saracens)
The young second row was the very definition of ‘irritant’ for Harlequins at the weekend, expertly winding up the Quins pack with, I assume, some witty limericks. But aside from the usual mindgames, Kruis was an immense presence in a dominant physical display, providing a good source of lineout ball and carrying with real aggression and earning himself a try in the process, when he skipped past Nick Kennedy to touch down under the posts.
5. Ed Slater (Leicester)
Niki Goneva may have earned all the glory for Leicester’s thrashing of the Chiefs but there were many who felt that Slater could have been man of the match. Revelling in his new role as captain, the big lock never took a backward step and was ferocious in both attack and in defence, beating 3 players with his 15 carries and weighing in with 8 tackles. Not only are these impressive figures indicative of a huge workrate, he has surprisingly soft hands too, offloading into space on more than one occasion.
6. Dan Braid (Sale)
The Sharks skipper was absolutely immense in victory over the Saints, getting his hands on the ball at the breakdown at every available opportunity and frustrating the life out of the Northampton attack. After conceding one early penalty, he got the measure of referee Luke Pearce and played his role of disruptor to perfection, slowing down or stealing the visitors’ ball in an all action display during his team’s best performance of the season. His leadership value to the Sharks cannot be underestimated, either, and he pips the impressive Matt Garvey to the blindside spot this week.
7. Julian Salvi (Leicester)
The Leicester man may be missing most of his real front teeth but he’s missing none of that jackal-like ability over the ball at the moment. He pinched the Chief’s pill no fewer than 3 times at the weekend (including penalties given for holding on) and was a key reason why the visitors were unable to build any real momentum throughout the game. Those steals put daylight between him and the chasing pack in turnover-charts, where he now leads the way with 18 this season.
8. James Gaskell (Sale)
I have to admit that I’ve never been that taken with the Sharks back-rower, who looks like he should be spending his time listening to Papa Roach whilst skateboarding on a suburban street. But his workrate and industry was one of the main reasons that the Sale backrow achieved dominance over their Northampton counterparts – something few, if any, sides have managed yet this season. His speed over the park to the breakdown along with Braid and Seymour meant that the visitors were constantly second to the contact area and struggling to produce quick ball.
By Michael Cooper – @RuckedOver