With Saracens booking a Heineken Cup Final berth against retiring England legend, Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon, English Rugby Union’s top sides have proven themselves to be amongst Europe’s elite.
A season that many couldn’t have predicted, riddled with fan displeasure, refereeing mishaps and general jaw-dropping moments, has once again, been one for the history books. It’s hard to piece together all the bum squeaking, nail biting and heart pounding pieces that make up the puzzle of the 2013/14 Aviva Premiership.
Bypassing moments that perhaps some may want to forget, I’ve decided to focus upon the astounding athletes who seek physical prestige week-in week-out and those who facilitate their development, be it on or off the field. I’ve chosen 10 figures who, in my eyes, have had a hugely positive affect on the Premiership this year, but instead of choosing those shortlisted for an award, I’ve selected those who may have slipped under the radar.
Dave Attwood-Bath Having been compared to former England and Bath Second Row, Danny Grewcock, Attwood has caused reverberations throughout the Rec and is perhaps growing to become one of the finest Locks in the Hemisphere. On occasions this season Attwood has been privileged with the opportunity to captain the club and on such occasion, has led as all good leaders do, from the very front.
In previous years, Attwood had received criticism for his lack of ability in the loose and his manoeuvrability around the park, however he has finally shown his all round game and seems to have cemented his place in the England squad above Tiger, Geoff Parling. With athleticism in the lineout and his ability to break the gain line and consequently suck defenders in from the midfield, Attwood suits Bath and England’s style of play, allowing the likes of Ford and Farrell to really punish defence’s on the back foot. His beastly hits haven’t gone a miss either. I’m sure Mako Vunipola and Borthwick are still feeling the effects of their trip to the Rec back in Round 16.
Steve Borthwick-Saracens Steve Borthwick has received his fair share of criticism in previous years, especially during his 21 cap reign as England Captain. Mark McCall recently admitted his anger about how the Premiership’s most capped player had been apportioned a largely unfair amount of blame for England’s failings between 2008 and 2009. However, with Borthwick likely to lead his Saracens side to this year’s Premiership and Heineken Cup Final’s, you can’t deny the pure tenacity and vitality of the 34 year old.
His leadership parallel to only a few, Borthwick has been a consistent performer for both Bath and Saracens and personally, has been one of the best lineout forwards to bless the Premiership. Compared to Victor Matfield by former Saracens and Australia Coach, Eddie Jones, Borthwick will leave an irreplaceable gap in the Saracens pack when he retires at the end of the season. I’d like to wish him all the best in his retirement.
Danny Cipriani-Sale Sharks Credit has to be given to Sale Sharks Director of Rugby, Steve Diamond for doing such a wonderful job with the club this season and it seems his influence on former Wasp and Rebel, Cipriani, has done the world of good. Having not been on the England scene since 2008, Cipriani has had his fair share of bad press, and wasn’t a huge hit down in Melbourne. Yet, a season of tactical maturity and attacking creativity has helped a Sharks side, who last season, severely underperformed.
With Farrell and Flood still favourite’s to share Fly-half duties on the tour to New Zealand this June, Cipriani will find it hard to work his way into the key playmaker’s position. Although, a Danny Cipriani oozing supreme confidence is perhaps one of the most unpredictable players in world rugby. Offering crisp handling skills and his ability to vary his depth at first receiver, Cipriani can put danger players into spaces that threaten defences. Having made over 250 kicks this season, he has proven his ability to kick accurately and intelligently, which has helped Daniel Braid’s side secure a place in the Rugby Champions Cup.
Blair Cowan-London Irish A player who many at Sixways believed had cemented his place in the starting squad under Richard Hill, Cowan has proven himself to be an effective ball carrier and tenacious back rower. Some felt that at only 108kg, Cowan was perhaps too lightweight to be an aggressive, go forward player that Worcester were looking for, however, since linking up with Brian Smith at Irish, his technical and tactical ability has evidently grown.
The former Cornish Pirate, born in New Zealand received recognition for his exceptional performances earlier in the season, gaining a call up to the Scotland side for the Autumn International series. Having been a stalwart at the back of the Irish scrum throughout, Cowan has topped the statistics charts, having made 19 offloads and 193 carries so far this season and it seems Cowan has been the go-to forward to plug gaps in the oppositions defences. Should he continue in the same vain next season, he may push the likes of Dave Denton for a Scotland jersey.
Nathan Hughes-London Wasps At only 22, Hughes is creating shockwaves throughout English rugby. An unrecognisable name when joining Wasps from Auckland at the start of the season, Hughes has solidified his place at Number 8, and has already filled the sizeable boots left by big Billy Vunipola. With his feisty, rumbling carries and his deft offloading capabilities, Hughes has enabled the likes of Helu and Daly to make the most of overlaps out wide.
After making a number of influential bursts against Gloucester at the Stinger, Hughes had already racked up his fourth Man of the Match in five games. After another superb performance against the Falcons, ensuring Wasps’ slow start didn’t prove too costly, Hughes is likely to help his club fight for the last Rugby Champions Cup spot against Stade Francais.
Tom Stephenson-Northampton Saints 20 year old Tom Stephenson, who has represented his country at U16, U18 and at U20 level, has shown experience and talent beyond his years. With Mallinder’s side depleted on occasions in the backline due to injuries and call-ups, Stephenson has been forced into the midfield and has appeared 10 times this season, crossing the whitewash twice.
A pacey, skilful player, Dowson has dubbed the Saints Academy man a ‘huge prospect’ and with fitness concerns over injury prone Dominic Waldouck, Saints are lucky to have such a talented Centre at their disposal.
Dave Ward-Harlequins With Joe Gray out for the majority of the season, O’Shea favoured Dave Ward at Hooker, who has resultantly gone on to make a total of 29 appearances this year. An agile front rower, Ward has proven himself to be a hard, motivated individual with a skill to pester sides. Adept at turnover’s, he has become one of Quins stand out players and his experience can help the likes of Kyle Sinckler achieve their potential.
A fabulous performance against the Chiefs at the weekend, Ward would be a sound pick as England’s third choice two.
Jackson Wray-Saracens To have such a player as Jackson Wray playing as he currently is for the London side, it is credit to the Saracens Academy. Having gained first team experience with Bedford Blues, Wray has come on leaps and bounds, and is now preferred to Scotland captain, Kelly Brown. Partnering Burger and Vunipola for a large portion of the season, Wray has ensured the Saracens back row triple threat have been inferior to no one.
With a hat-trick condemning Worcester to the Championship, he can play a crucial part in bullying the Toulon pack to help Saracens claim their first Heineken Cup.
Paul Gustard-Saracens Defence Coach The genius behind Saracens epic defensive display against Clermont. A defensive line speed second to none in the Premiership, Gustard is a fan of the blitz defence and likes to heap the pressure on the opposing Fly-half, forcing the error. With Burger, Brits and Barritt leading the charge, Gustard has created a monstrous force that will ultimately help Saracens edge those close encounters.
Matthew Carley-Referee A season that has been stocked full with questionable refereeing decisions, in my opinion, Carley has been the exception. Carley, the first referee to gain promotion from the Referee Academy, has been in the middle of a handful of crucial games this season, many of which needed a cool head under extreme pressure. There is nothing worse than a referee who loves the sound of his own whistle and it appears Carley isn’t one of those.