Jared Payne (Ulster Rugby)
Pointing out a player who ‘has time on his hands’ is a bit of a weird cliché, but at times it just fits – this is never more true than with Jared Payne. The Kiwi fullback (or perhaps soon-to-be Irish outside centre, but that’s for another time) is one of the classiest operators in the tournament. He is a silky runner who seems to have a hand in almost every try the Ulster backs score, be it finishing or putting those around him in space. He carried for 347 metres in the group stages – not an astronomical figure, but an important one nonetheless.
Steffon Armitage (Toulon)
Armitage is a man that always seems to leap back into English fans’ consciousness when Heineken Cup weekends come around, because it is generally the only time they get to see Toulon play. Keen observers of the Top 14 know, however, that he consistently tears it up for his adopted home club in the South of France, and he will again be key to their cause against the travelling tradition of Leinster. He made the second most turnovers (13) in the pool stages, but combines breakdown prowess with a menacing carrying ability – built like a bowling ball, he literally skittle players out of the way at times. Indeed, of all Leinster and Toulon players, only Luke Fitzgerald beat more defenders in the pool stages – not bad for a back row forward.
Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont Auvergne)
Naipolioni Nalaga may top Clermont’s try-scoring charts from the group stages, but Sitiveni Sivivatu was hands down their most potent attacking threat. He made the most clean breaks (14) and joint most offloads (18) of any player, and was one of only two players to carry the ball for more than 500 metres (Mike Brown was the other). Truth be told, the Clermont outside backs are invariably talented in attack, and Sivivatu is a man who possesses not only an outrageous step and excellent pace, but also daunting strength. There was a hope for Tigers fans that he might miss this one, but French press are reporting that he is back in training and will be fit for the weekend.
Julien Salvi (Leicester Tigers)
Clermont will look to play with quick ball at the weekend in order to unleash their array of superstars in the backs, so Leicester need Salvi, one of the best spoilers of breakdown ball around, to be at his best. The Australian won twice the number of turnovers of anyone else in either of these teams during the group stages, and was a key part of Leicester’s mightily impressive win over the Saints at the weekend. The Tigers sometimes like to get him carrying the ball; against Clermont they should leave that responsibility to others and let him do what he does best, namely tackle like a madman and stick his head in areas that nobody should have to to win turnovers and slow down ball. If he can’t do that, it’s tough to see the Tigers standing a chance.
Louis Picamoles (Toulouse)
It wasn’t the best tournament for Picamoles in the Six Nations, but away from the disaster-prone French set-up and back in the rouge et noir of Toulouse, Picamoles always steps it up a notch. His stats in the group stages speak for themselves – he carried more ball (an astonishing 84 carries at an average of 14 per game) and beat more defenders (27) than any other player in the entire tournament. They call him ‘the Iceberg’ in France, and for good reason – he carries an immense amount of strength in his legs, which explains why he seldom goes backward with ball in hand. Toulouse do not travel well, or so goes the legend, but if they can get Picamoles into the game and crashing over the gainline then they will at least have a platform from which to attack. Munster must find a way to stop the man mountain.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images