15 Alex Goode (Saracens)
The Worcester boss Dean Ryan, not one of life’s natural romantics, recently suggested rugby would be in a grim place if a player as creative as Goode failed to nail down a World Cup place with England. Spot on. Test coaches like their full-backs fast and direct, but speed of thought is surely of equal value. When Saracens do something other than kick the ball in the air or bash it up the middle, the No 15 is the man most implicated.
14 Sinoti Sinoti (Newcastle)
It has been a decent year for wings: Christian Wade’s tap-dancing exploits at Wasps, George North’s power finishing at Northampton, dear old Matt Banahan having the time of his life at Bath, Mark Cueto bowing out in style at Sale, Jonny May’s express deliveries at Gloucester… we are talking va-va-voom variety here. Yet the contest is not even close. Sinoti, so good they named him twice, has been pure box-office all season – part Wade, part North, part South Seas magic.
13 Jonathan Joseph (Bath)
It is lazy in the extreme to characterise England’s high-performing outside centre as the “new Guscott”, but sod it: all hail the “new Guscott”. It was Joseph’s mesmerising performance alongside his partner Kyle Eastmond in Toulouse that led the miscast midfielder Sam Burgess to the realisation that he should seek pastures new in the forward pack pronto. Quick and elusive, stronger than he once was and blessed with the eye of an instinctive opportunist: it sounds like the complete package.
12 Henry Slade (Exeter)
Those who study the midfield form will point out that Slade has played in two positions this term, inside centre not being one of them. There is a good reason for that and it goes by the name of Sam Hill, a gloriously rumbustious contributor to the Devonian cause. But Slade patently has the skill set – the kicking game, the mastery of the distributive arts, the physicality, the game awareness – to perform the No 12 role at Test level. High class.
11 Chris Wyles (Saracens)
A coat of many colours is all well and good, but someone has to stitch the thing together. The man from Connecticut has been wielding the needle and thread all season, sewing up holes across the back line with such quiet resourcefulness that barely anyone noticed. Latterly, he has been a first-choice wing, despite competition from such ruthless finishers as Chris Ashton and David Strettle. Every club needs a versatile go-to man. Not every club has one as valuable as the American Wyles.
10 George Ford (Bath)
England’s new outside-half may be vertically challenged, but he stands head and shoulders above the competition. Bath have played some exhilarating stuff, reviving the old-fashioned idea of making the ball do the work and making it relevant to the modern age. The man at the heart of it? Ford. He has kicked like a dream – ask Harlequins, who fell to his marksmanship last time out – and asks more unanswerable questions of muscle-bound opponents than Jeremy Paxman once asked of slippery politicians. Brilliant.
9 Ben Youngs (Leicester)
What are we to make of him? When the Lions scrum-half is even partially off his game, he sinks like a stone. When he is fully on it, he rises above his peers and rivals like a Cape Canaveral moonshot. Burdened with the Tigers captaincy over the course of a difficult and often fractious campaign, he has fought tooth and nail to keep the country’s biggest club in the competitive loop, producing performances of character at the moments of greatest need.
1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
The England forwards coach Graham Rowntree has quality loose-head candidates coming out of his cauliflower ears, the most potent of which right now is the Tongan tractor with the British passport. Everyone knew about his ball-carrying and off-loading skills; what nobody knew for sure was whether he would prosper under the current scrum protocols. The conundrum has been solved. Vunipola appears to be more comfortable in this crucial department than the renowned scrum technician Alex Corbisiero, which is saying something.
2 Jamie George (Saracens)
He is neither aerodynamic nor particularly aggressive, so what’s to like? Lots. No one with a fair eye and half a clue about hooking could deny that the uncapped youngster from the home counties has outplayed his elders and supposed betters. No tight forward in the country has made more tackles – the statistics are clear – and it is a fair bet that he has brought more brain power to the role than anyone else, although the numbers on this are harder to obtain.
3 John Afoa (Gloucester)
Remember where the Gloucester pack ended up last season? Over the edge of the nearest cliff, week after traumatising week. This time, they have stood their ground – a mighty improvement that has enabled the back-line glitterati to play some rugby on the front foot rather than their posteriors. When a scrum is transformed to this extent, a new recruit at tight-head prop is generally the man responsible. No wonder the ex-All Black is on a king’s ransom at Kingsholm.
4 Samu Manoa (Northampton)
Reigning champions and current table-toppers they may be, but it is difficult to recall more than a handful of knock-’em-dead individual performances from the Saints this season. Ken Pisi has upped his game on the wing, Calum Clark has not spared so much as a single cell of himself in the back-row department… and that’s about it, apart from the mighty Manoa, whose eye-watering physicality has again been central to the collective effort. The main man, body and soul.
5 Graham Kitchener (Leicester)
Maro Itoje of Saracens is the second-row sensation of the moment, while his clubmate George Kruis was the talk of the boilerhouse brigade before Christmas. Kitchener has spent the season in their shadow, but when things were going pear-shaped at Welford Road, it was he who stood tallest, fighting the good fight in the loose while doing his duty as the Premiership’s most effective line-out performer. If his country does not need him, his club cannot do without him.
6 Dave Ewers (Exeter)
Iain Duncan Smith once warned his party not to “underestimate the determination of a quiet man”, only to find vast multitudes of folk doing just that. If Ewers has yet to be heard voicing similar sentiments, it is because he never feels the need. The Zimbabwean-born flanker communicates through action – a punishingly relentless, self-sacrificial brand of aggressive rugby that has made him one of the top performing forwards in the league.
7 Matt Kvesic (Gloucester)
All the talk about Steffon Armitage – you’d be forgiven for wondering whether the spherical exile is the only rugby player on the face of earth – has been hard on Kvesic, who has quite enough on his plate trying to unseat the England captain Chris Robshaw as the red-rose No 7. Yet there has been no more effective scavenging groundhog in the domestic game and it would be nice to think that one day he will be properly rewarded. The fittest player around? Quite possibly.
8 Nathan Hughes (Wasps)
You want numbers? Have some numbers. The Fijian has 24 turnovers to his name (more than any player in the country); beaten 71 defenders (more than anyone except the spellbinding Sinoti Sinoti); completed 37 offloads (second only to Nick Easter of Harlequins); made 238 carries (second only to Thomas Waldrom of Exeter) and 1,099 metres (a top-seven figure, including backs); and contributed 19 open-field breaks (better than any forward in the country). Probably worth a place, all things considered.