Chris Hewett’s Aviva Premiership team of the season
The Independent’s Rugby Union Correspondent picks his XV of the best – the men whose talent, physique, attitude and application have really made them stand out in 2012-13
1. Marcos Ayerza, Leicester
Some players are so central to a team's performance you notice them most when they're not there. The Argentine, the best-performing loose head around, was marmalised in murky circumstances by Bakkies Botha in the Heineken Cup quarter-final in Toulon. Since when, the Tigers have struggled for close-quarter authority.
2. Neil Briggs, London Welsh
One of the campaign's heroic figures: a man who routinely spent an hour in the molten heat of the front row before rounding off his afternoon with a 20-minute stint on the open-side flank. Is he crazy? Probably. But not so mad as to make himself unemployable. Leicester have snapped him up and will surely get their money's worth.
3. James Johnston, Harlequins
My, how Quins will miss their Saracens-bound, 21-stone prop, an anchor heavy enough to hold an ocean-going liner firmly in place, whatever the weather. It is possible that of all the players who helped transform the Londoners from vague wannabes to serious achievers, the Samoan was - and remains, for another 80 minutes at least - the most transformative of the lot.
4. Samu Manoa, Northampton
The hard-hitting back-five athlete Courtney Lawes could have been? Lawes may yet make the most of himself as an England forward, but when Saints' opponents worry about someone these days, it's the Californian. If the Yanks could find a dozen others to play alongside Manoa, Chris Wyles and Taku Ngwenya, they'd be world champs.
5. Steve Borthwick, Saracens
So the former England captain does not carry the ball like Martin Johnson or maul like Simon Shaw. So what? If he did those things on top of everything else, he'd be John Eales incarnate. As a line-out operator he is still miles ahead of the game; as a setter of standards and keeper of the Saracens flame, he is indispensable.
6. Dan Braid, Sale
A left-field candidate for the "smart signing of the season" award? Heaven knows, Sale made errors of judgement over the course of a traumatic campaign, but flying the All Black halfway round the world was not one of them. Before Braid's arrival, the northerners had won four of their 18 matches. After it, they won eight from 16 and drew another.
7. Will Fraser, Saracens
If the outstanding Julian Salvi of Leicester considers this an insult, fair enough: the Australian has been quite something this term. But a player who suddenly appears from the back end of Nowheresville to propel himself into England contention, as Fraser did before succumbing to injury last month, is equally worthy of note.
8. Nick Easter, Harlequins
Something of a Marmite figure, our Nick: no one ever says "Easter? I can take him or leave him." But if he polarises opinion with that old-style, Harlequins sense-of- entitlement manner of his, he can sure play a bit. The last No 8 on earth to do things by numbers, his unique brand of heads-up rugby was a joy to behold.
9. Richard Wigglesworth, Saracens
The Saracens way made flesh: clever and clear-headed, with a ruthless streak as wide as his relentless one. There are more explosive half-backs in and around the Shires, Ben Youngs and Danny Care being the obvious examples, but when it comes to mastering a tactical brief and pushing the right buttons at the right times, Wigglesworth has the advantage.
10. Freddie Burns, Gloucester
If there were moments when Gareth Steenson of Exeter played like an international stand-off, Burns thought like an international stand-off even when he was playing badly. Technique can be taught; imagination is unteachable. If England are seeking a No 10 blessed with ideas - and, what is more, the skills to bring them to fruition - they need look no further.
11. Marland Yarde, London Irish
Jonny May of Gloucester was the thrill-a-minute merchant, Adam Thompstone of Leicester the functional finisher, but Yarde's combination of pace and power is irresistible. Brian Smith, the Exiles coach, predicted months ago that the England age-grouper would earn himself a full cap PDQ. Argentina now beckons.
12. Anthony Allen, Leicester
The reason Leicester were less than grief-stricken when they lost Billy Twelvetrees to Gloucester a year ago. Allen's understated mix of physicality and reliability, allied to an acute footballing intelligence, is one of the base ingredients of the Tigers' game. Flakiness is held the deadliest of sins at Welford Road. Allen is the last man to fall apart.
13. Joel Tomkins, Saracens
Slowly but surely, the rugby league imports are fathoming out ways of playing the union game in decision-making positions. Tomkins has a neat line in offloading, cuts some interesting angles in attack and knows what to do defensively in the most exposed position on the field. Saracens conceded a miserly 25 tries in 22 league matches, which tells its own story.
14. Christian Wade, Wasps
Stuart Lancaster is not prone to hyperbole, so when the England coach says there might be something concrete behind all the "new Jason Robinson" flimflam, it is incumbent on the rest of us to sit up and take notice. Not that you need to be Carwyn James to detect special qualities in Wade, whose footwork is a gift from the gods.
15. Luke Arscott, Exeter
An old-school buccaneer at the heart of the new force in Premiership rugby, Arscott added panache to the Sandy Park mix and did as much as anyone to ensure a top-half finish. As bold under the high ball as he was on the counter, he might have made the England squad for Argentina had he been a couple of years younger.
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