15. Alex Goode (Saracens)
Considering the horrific fall he had in his last Heineken Cup outing, this was a remarkable performance. Goode was a rock under the high ball and returned any stray kicks with interest, answering critics who point to an alleged lack of running threat by making 89 metres and beating three defenders (matched only by Billy Vunipola), claiming an assist in the process.
14. Chris Ashton (Saracens)
The big display on the big stage that he has been searching for. It’s all very well running in tries against Zebre, but Ashton proved that he has matured as a player during his time out of the England reckoning. Two great finishes – one a swerving sprint to the corner following a trademark tracking line, the other a great display of footballing skills on a loose ball – were not even the highlights of his game. His work to set up Wyles’ try, where he smashed through the defensive line and flung a magnificent 20 metre pass at full tilt, and a tackle where he manhandled Nalaga into touch, were signs of a man who finally has confidence in his decisions and executes them with conviction.
13. Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon)
Perhaps not the most spectacular performance of his career, but the gargantuan centre was important for Toulon in getting regular front-foot ball when they went wide, as well as creating space thanks to his knack of sucking in defenders with each carry.
12. Brad Barritt (Saracens)
Like Jacques Burger, Barritt is another man whose nose is slowly migrating across his face the more he plays rugby, but the centre was another leading light in the phenomenal defensive display from the Premiership leaders. Hitting 13 tackles – each with thunderous aggression – kept the dangerous Clermont backline on the back foot, and he also demonstrated smart hands and well-timed passes to end with two assists.
11. Simon Zebo (Munster)
In a game that was often scrappy and consistently broken up by infringements by either side, Zebo offered brief periods of relief with some exciting running and fancy footwork. It was his underrated power, though, that allowed him to finish Conor Murray’s break in the second half, and he kept the Toulon defence on their toes throughout the game. Bryan Habana was also dangerous for Toulon.
10. Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)
Harsh on Owen Farrell, who kicked expertly from hand and finished his try well, but Wilkinson gets my vote almost exclusively for his display in the 10 minutes that Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe was in the sin bin. From the restart following that penalty, Wilkinson knocked over a sublime drop-goal to negate the visitors’ advantage, and added another three from the tee shortly after. He defended with typical gutsiness, too, and his kicking from hand was key when the pressure was on. A mention too for Ian Keatley, who came through the biggest game in his career with credit to his name.
9. Neil De Kock (Saracens)
It was a game where the big men would get all the glory, but De Kock was the calm voice of control around them. Co-ordinating the defensive effort from behind, De Kock also pressurised the fringes of the breakdown whenever he got a chance.
1. Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
After some questioning his work rate and his technical ability, we were treated to a spectacular return (to form) of the Mak. He was solid at scrum time (not penalised once throughout the game) and made some customary barrelling charges with the ball in hand. A tackle count of 16 made, zero missed is jaw-dropping for a loosehead prop, and when you consider the physicality of those hits and the fact that it was his charge down that led to a penalty try, it was a very fine day at the office for the Saracens man.
2. Schalk Brits (Saracens)
The South African hooker is enjoying a spectacular return to his 2011 form of late, just when there were mumblings that he may be past his prime. This was a different sort of performance from Brits – less flashy – but it was no less effective, intelligently joining the line when required and timing his pass in the build-up to Ashton’s first to perfection. Also hit 13 tackles.
3. Carl Hayman (Toulon)
The big tighthead is quiet and understated off the pitch but he is a mountain of a man on it – and a mountain that poor Dave Kilcoyne found very hard to handle in the scrum. The ex-All Black was responsible for winning four penalties at the set piece, giving his side the chance to grab territory and points. Weighed in with eight tackles as well, the third highest count of anyone in the Toulon side.
4. Steve Borthwick (Saracens)
‘Boring’ Steve Borthwick showed once again why Saracens hold him in such high regard as he delivered a colossal performance in the heart of the wolf-pack. A calming presence whenever things were getting a bit too hectic for Sarries’ liking, Borthwick led by example and set the tone for one of the all-time great defensive displays by weighing in with a colossal 17 hits. Not bad for an old-timer.
5. Jocelino Suta (Toulon)
Suta is easy to spot because, firstly, he is a giant, and secondly, he has an abysmal haircut (but I’m sure nobody has the guts to tell him). His impact may not have been immediately obvious, but he was a key reason why Munster’s renowned physical game was unable to get any traction. He hit rucks with real venom throughout and was an unmovable object at the breakdown, meaning that even the great Paul O’Connell was unable to get his side shifting through the gears.
6. CJ Stander (Munster)
Perhaps it’s a bit strange to pick the flanker of a side that struggled to generate a lot of forward momentum, but Stander was a stand-out within the Munster pack. The blindside seemingly popped up everywhere to make a crucial tackle or grab a key turnover just when it looked as if Toulon would be turning the screw. He was the top tackler on his team and was unlucky to be on the losing side. A mention to Kelly Brown, who delivered a workman-like performance but was outshone by his backrow colleagues.
7. Jacques Burger (Saracens)
Well it couldn’t be anyone else, could it? He may have a face like an old pancake, but Burger’s performance was anything but flat. The frankly ridiculous statistic of 27 tackles made, zero missed actually only tells half the story. The sheer aggression and power behind each hit had Clermont quaking in their boots and struggling to make decisions under the huge pressure which was being exerted in defence. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that this was one of the best displays ever seen by a flanker – to be mentioned up there with Thierry Dusautoir’s display against the All Blacks in the World Cup 2007.
8. Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
At first glances, it may have seemed like a quiet day for Billy, but even then he still made more metres with the ball in hand than the rest of his pack put together, making a decent 5.2 metres on average with every charge. In a game where Sarries lived without the ball for long periods of the game, the big man’s ability to immediately turn defence into front-foot offence was key for his team.
By Mike Cooper (@RuckedOver)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images