1: Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
It’s been a big week for the young prop, and he rounded it off with 80 minutes at one of the toughest places to win in the Premiership. Vunipola came through with flying colours, pulverising Paul Doran-Jones in the scrum as well as making his usual ball carrying and tackling contributions in the loose. The fact that he played a full 80 is an encouraging sign for a man who has struggled with fitness issues in the past.
2: Schalk Brits (Saracens)
Brits has been called up to the South Africa squad for the Autumn Internationals and it no less than he deserves. He was instrumental in the only try on show at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, ghosting in between two Saints defenders before releasing Tomkins with a pass of pinpoint accuracy. How many other hookers in world rugby could have made that look so easy?
3: Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers)
With every game that Cole plays, he edges nearer to world class status. He couldn’t inspire the Tigers to the win but he certainly stood out in their losing effort. He led the powerful scrummaging effort that, for the most part, destroyed the Gloucester equivalent, and his work at the breakdown has become priceless for Leicester as they continue to play without anything resembling a genuine openside.
4: Dave Atwood (Bath Rugby)
Injuries have meant Atwood’s progress has stalled after he burst onto the scene a couple of years ago. Against Exeter in a crucial West Country derby he reminded us what he was capable of, all muscle and power in the engine room of a Bath pack that has fronted up well so far this season.
5: Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers)
Some may think this an odd inclusion after Leicester’s lineout woes in the first half against Gloucester, but Parling is in for the way he turned it around. Clearly, Tom Youngs was struggling, but his improvement in the second half was so much down to Parling’s nurturing – almost every single second half lineout went to him. One suspects he took young Youngs aside at half time and quietly pointed him in the right direction. He was also dynamic as always in the loose, one scrag tackle on the elusive Freddie Burns particularly catching the eye.
6: Tom Johnson (Exeter Chiefs)
Johnson has possibly the best work rate in the Premiership. Sadly it wasn’t enough to drag Exeter to victory on Saturday, but he got an assist and would have set up another were it not for some last-ditch Bath tackling. Aside from that he was as industrious as always in defence, and continues to show no reason why he shouldn’t hang on to the England no.6 jersey.
7: Akapusi Qera (Gloucester)
Gloucester’s defensive effort in beating Leicester was nothing short of epic. The Tigers threw everything they had at them, but the Cherry and Whites held out. Qera led the charge, bushy beard and bright scrum cap scything down wave after wave of Leicester attackers. And in the end, despite his lung-busting defensive effort, he had enough in the tank to support Simpson Daniel and cross for a try.
8: Francois Louw (Bath)
According to the stats, with 5 minutes to go Exeter had had 86% of the second half possession, and yet Bath still clung on for the win, even after Hipkiss’ stupidity reduced them to 14 men. This was in no small amount down to the efforts of Louw, who tackled his heart out as well as never taking a step back with ball in hand and crossing the line for a score of his own. He played so well he is in the team at 8, where he is equally comfortable, despite playing 7 at the weekend.
9: Paul Hodgson (Worcester Warriors)
Perhaps no longer on the England radar, Paul Hodgson is going about his business in a quietly efficient manner at Sixways. The conditions weren’t great on Friday night and he had to deal with some difficult ball at the base of the contact area at times, but his service was, for the most part, excellent. His try saving tackle in the last minute was all guts and heart, no doubt endearing himself to the fans of his new club. Along with Goode Worcester have an experienced half back partnership who should comfortably steer them to safety.
10: Freddie Burns (Gloucester)
Mavericks don’t have a happy history when it comes to international recognition in this country. If Freddie Burns continues to improve though, it will surely be impossible to ignore him much longer. After watching Farrell grind out another win for Sarries, Burns’ bewitching creativity was a breath of fresh air, and left many people wondering what exactly he has to do to make the England squad. It was far from a perfect performance, of that there is no doubt, but would Gloucester have won without his extravagance? It was their epic defence that held out in the end but were it not for Burns’ brilliance in the first half they wouldn’t have had a lead to defend in the first place. It’s controversial, but for me he should be in the England squad instead of Farrell. Mention must also go to Andy Goode who orchestrated another efficient win for Worcester, and Ian Humphreys who kicked faultlessly for London Irish.
11: Christian Wade (London Wasps)
The diminutive winger is a genuinely quality finisher. Questions will always remain over his defence due to his size compared to most wingers in the modern game (how would he fair against North or Cuthbert for Wales?), but there’s no doubting his ability with ball in hand. This weekend he bagged a brace, as did his similarly excellent wing partner Varndell. Special mention to David Lemi also for his wonder-try.
12: Ben Williams (Bath)
A bulldozing run from the big Bath centre set them up from the word go on Saturday. Taking the ball after a fine half break from Nick Abendanon, Williams still had a lot of work to do but managed to skip away from one defender before powering straight over another and crossing the line. Williams was also central to Bath’s defensive efforts in the second half, denying Exeter even a bonus point. Mention also to Billy Twelvetrees who is showing increasing presence in the Gloucester midfield.
13: Matt Hopper (Harlequins)
A man who often goes under the radar, Matt Hopper is one of those centres who never lets his side down. He’s got no shortage of skill either; a beautiful offload in the build-up to Tom Williams’ try was particularly sublime.
14: James Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester)
It’s been said before and it’ll be said again: the fact that this man hasn’t won more England caps is a travesty. Described over the weekend as the ‘closest thing this side of the Severn Bridge to Shane Williams’, Simpson-Daniel was in fine form against the Tigers. His jinking run to set up Qera for a vital try was nothing short of genius.
15: Alex Goode (Saracens)
Goode has one thing that marks out all top-class players: time on the ball. It is very rare to see him miscue a kick, or be rushed into a poor pass. Towards the end of the game at Frankin’s Gardens he needed all that time to evade the increasingly desperate and frantic Northampton defenders, but evade them he did as Sarries hung on for the victory. He also has a handy knack of scoring tries, and added to his tally at the weekend.