15 Chris Pennell (Worcester)
Mike Brown’s attempt to drag English rugby union into a new heroic age with his buccaneering daredevilry, together with Alex Goode’s unfashionable argument for brain over brawn, has made this a vintage season for aficionados of full-back play. So why go for an uncapped No 15 who barely knows what it is to win? Simple. Worcester would have an embarrassment but for their best player’s extraordinary contribution in adversity. Pennell has been on the field for every unforgiving minute of every match, and as Kipling himself would have recognised, he has filled all of them with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run.
Next best thing: Mike Brown (Harlequins)
14 Chris Ashton (Saracens)
It is difficult to remember a wing performing with such a tight grip on his game at club level while playing so limply for his country, but then it is difficult to remember a wing quite like Ashton. What is it with the man? The fear from England’s perspective, 16 months shy of a home World Cup, must be that he has deteriorated into a flat-track bully; that international rugby asks too much of a man with limited powers of application. However, there can be no disputing the edge-of-the-seat quality of his rugby at Premiership level. A rare talent indeed.
Next best thing: Jamie Elliott (Northampton)
13 Vereniki Goneva (Leicester)
Every time Goneva sets sail in open field – on average, at least twice per 40-minute half of rugby – the true union believer drops to his knees and prays that Fiji might show the best of themselves at next year’s global tournament, even though this would give England a rare old hurry-up on opening night. The 30-year-old maestro from Lautoka has shifted from wing to centre and back without missing a beat, scoring a dozen tries in 17 outings and sending jaws crashing into concrete at every turn. The player of the season? Lawyers would call it an “open and shut” case.
Next best thing: George Pisi (Northampton)
12 Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester)
The more Luther Burrell plays at inside-centre for Northampton, the more he looks like an outside-centre of genuine Test potential. Burrell was the talk of the Premiership before Christmas, but since finding his true calling at No 13 in the Six Nations, his club form has deteriorated. Twelvetrees has had his challenges, largely because he has had to function behind a powder-puff pack, yet he has repeatedly shown a wider range of skills than any of his rivals. He has also captained his side, Gloucester, kicked goals for them in extremis and relocated to outside-half when necessary. Invaluable.
Next best thing: Anthony Allen (Leicester)
11 George North (Northampton)
You can generally gauge a player’s net worth to a club if he costs the board £60,000 in additional expenditure and they shell out with barely a murmur of complaint. North was released to Wales before Christmas for an “out of window” international against Premiership regulations and a fine was duly imposed, yet the Midlanders considered it money well spent, on the grounds that a successful club must speculate to accumulate. The Lions wing is no one-man team, but he is very definitely a game-breaker… and, just possibly, the difference between a full trophy cabinet and a bare cupboard.
Next best thing: David Strettle (Saracens)
10 George Ford (Bath)
As rugby’s chattering classes fall head over heels in love with Danny Cipriani all over again, it is easy to forget that those contesting the England No 10 shirt are of another, younger generation. Owen Farrell is the man in possession, and rightly so given that he tackles like Jonny Wilkinson and has the phrase “Test match animal” stamped on his forehead, but Ford’s first season in the West Country has been a striking success. He has crumbled on occasion, but anyone who resembles Stuart Barnes to this degree, in style if not in ruthlessness, has plenty going for him.
Next best thing: Owen Williams (Leicester)
9 Danny Care (Harlequins)
All too often, the highest-profile Premiership players are judged on their deeds above and beyond the Premiership – that is to say, on the international stage. Care cannot legitimately be counted among those being lionised for the wrong reasons: not because his recent performances for England have been anything other than outstanding, but because his displays at club level have been every bit as inspirational. Even those not wholly persuaded by the pace, the dynamism and the natural effrontery that distinguishes him from his rivals are struck by the joyous outpouring of energy at the heart of his rugby.
Next best thing: Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens)
1 Joe Marler (Harlequins)
For the first time in his career, the prop from the south coast has seen the quality of his rugby overtake the extravagance of his haircut as a talking point among the great unwashed. Marler was as quick as anyone to understand the new scrum-engagement protocols and make them work for him, and as a result he has slipped ahead of Marcos Ayerza, the magnificent Argentine, in the Premiership’s set-piece pecking order. Quins feared they would be taken to the cleaners up front when they lost James Johnston to Saracens. Marler has helped spare them a fate worse than death.
Next best thing: Marcos Ayerza (Leicester)
2 Dave Ward (Harlequins)
Back in the day, when he was hanging around at Bath understudying the likes of Mark Regan and Lee Mears and courting anonymity as a consequence, Ward was considered an unusually gifted ball player who could not throw straight for love nor money – something of an issue for a hooker. He still resembles Eric Idle rather than Eric Bristow when it comes to the line-out “darts”, but in every other way, the West Countryman has been a revelation. No one has turned over more ball, no one has offered so many points of difference from the middle of the front row.
Next best thing: Schalk Brits (Saracens)
3 Jake Cooper-Woolley (Wasps)
Patently, there are better tight-head scrummagers around; indeed, few would include the newcomer in the top half-dozen. But that is hardly the point. In the context of Wasps’ season – they were, and remain, poor cousins financially, unable to buy themselves set-piece stability by chucking generous contracts at forwards of proven class – the Cardiff University graduate has played a blinder. Mobile, strong on the carry and blessed with a poacher’s instinct, he has, according to Wasps’ rugby director David Young, a Test future ahead of him. And if a three-tour Lions prop says so, who are we to argue?
Next best thing: Logovi’i Mulipola (Leicester)
4 Ed Slater (Leicester)
In common with the aforementioned Cooper-Woolley, the reigning champions’ captain and enforcer-in-chief – how Martin Johnsonesque that sounds – has come to Premiership rugby in a round- about way, rather than through an increasingly dominant academy system that is not always a friend to individuality. It is no small thing for an uncapped lock to achieve market-leader status in so competitive an area; neither is it a trifle to lead a club so crammed with big personalities as Leicester. Slater may have taken the scenic route to Welford Road, via Sydney and Nottingham, but he is pretty damned direct on match day.
Next best thing: Dean Mumm (Exeter)
5 Michael Paterson (Sale)
If George North’s big-money move from Scarlets to Northampton measured a maximum 10 on the scale of Wales-to-England transfers completed this time last year, Paterson’s departure from Cardiff Blues was down among the single digits. Since when, he has disappeared off the graph entirely... in an upwards direction. The New Zealand-born forward is a statistician’s dream, leading the numbers in the tackle count as well as in the line-out stakes, and even those who would rather trust their gut instincts than “do the maths” find it hard to think of a lock who has performed more effectively in his first Premiership season.
Next best thing: Dave Attwood (Bath)
6 Matt Garvey (Bath)
It is a mark of Garvey’s impact at The Rec that news of the season-ending ankle injury he suffered 13 days ago made such a dent in morale. Not even the absence of Francois Louw, the world-class Springbok who broke down in weirdly similar circumstances a few weeks previously, was felt as keenly. Signed from London Irish, the 20-stone flanker helped Bath negotiate the winter slog – however heavy the conditions, some players are just that little bit heavier – before cleverly adapting his game to suit the faster going. But for his recent misfortune, he might have made England’s summer tour party.
Next best thing: Daniel Braid (Sale)
7 Jacques Burger (Saracens)
Everyone’s favourite Namibian by a distance. Burger has made only 49 Premiership appearances in five seasons – that uniquely aggressive “you should see the other bloke” brand of tackling inevitably takes its toll – but when Saracens find a way of getting him on the field, he puts on one hell of a show. Even had he performed poorly this season, he would have been worthy of salute: the knee condition that laid him low after the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand would have forced almost any other sportsman to call it quits. In fact, he has played his best rugby. Staggering.
Next best thing: Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)
8 Samu Manoa (Northampton)
On a good day – and there have been plenty of them – the American tackles like Burger and carries the ball like Billy Vunipola, which is no mean achievement, you will agree. Two senior players who make the Northampton pack function at its optimum, the high-profile hooker Dylan Hartley and the low-profile lock Christian Day, have had spells on the sidelines, yet Manoa has found ways to cover the cracks despite being a marked man. Heaven knows, his rugby is not always a thing of beauty, but as there is nothing more the Saints love than winning ugly, who the hell cares?
Next best thing: Nathan Hughes (Wasps)