Some unfamiliar faces and a number of rising young stars get the nod
It’s play-off time in the Guinness PRO14 with the Scarlets hosting South African newbies the Cheetahs and Munster welcoming Edinburgh to Limerick in this weekend’s two ‘semi-final qualifiers’.
After 21 rounds of the regular season, which was split into two conferences for the first time, rugby writer Rob Lloyd has selected his team of the tournament.
Like the official PRO14 ‘Dream Team’, players must have played at least 10 matches, which rules out the likes of Leinster fly-half Johnny Sexton, who has featured in just four championship matches this term, his Ireland half-back partner Conor Murray, Glasgow full-back Stuart Hogg and Scarlets’ international No. 15 Leigh Halfpenny.
Six Welsh-based players make the cut.
15: Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh)
This could have gone either way with Leinster starlet Jordan Larmour dazzling in the opening half of the season.
Kinghorn, who was once on books of Scottish football side Hearts, has been a potent counter-attacking threat for a team transformed under the stewardship of Richard Cockerill this season.
He has made more metres than any player in the competition and was rewarded with a first Scotland cap in the Calcutta Cup victory over England at Murrayfield.
Scarlets-bound Cheetah Clayton Blommetjies and the ever-reliable Dan Evans are others worthy of mention.
14: Charles Piutau (Ulster)
Ulster’s Charles Piutau occupies the highest paid position in the Guinness PRO14 this season (Image: PA Wire)
Piutau will become one of the highest paid players in world rugby when he joins the new Bristol Bears family this summer and has enjoyed another standout campaign in Belfast.
Whether at wing or full-back, he has the ability to beat the first defender and off-load at the right time and finished the regular season joint top for most carries and defenders beaten.
A class act who leaves a gaping void at the Kingspan.
The unheralded Barry Daly of Leinster made a strong case after topping the league’ try-scoring chart.
13: Thomas Farrell (Connacht)
Statistics only tell some of the story, but Farrell must be doing something right to top the table for most carries and most off-loads this season. He is also third in the amount of defenders beaten.
In a season to forget at the Sportsground, the 24-year-old has been one to catch the eye.
Cheetahs skipper Francois Venter has been an integral player in the South African side’s play-off challenge, while Ray Lee-Lo (Cardiff Blues) and Sam Arnold (Munster) have had their moments.
12: Rory Scannell (Munster)
Scannell may not get much recognition at international level, but he is a key cog in the Munster machine with an eye for a gap and smart off-loading game.
Hadleigh Parkes has again been Mr Consistent for the defending champions, while Aussie-born Sam Johnson has impressed in the Glasgow midfield.
11: Makazole Mapimpi (Cheetahs)
Makazole Mapimpi scores for the Cheetahs against the Ospreys (Image: Huw Evans Agency)
The speedster has lit up the competition for the South African new boys, blazing a trail on the Highveld with 10 tries in 13 games before joining the Sharks ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season.
A nod to Edinburgh flyer Duhan van der Merwe, Benetton’s Monty Ioane, Leinster’s marquee Kiwi signing James Lowe and Scarlets’ Wales international Steff Evans, who was on fire at the start of the campaign.
10: Jarrod Evans (Cardiff Blues)
It’s been a breakthrough season for 22-year-old Evans, who has delivered a string of headline-grabbing displays at the Arms Park and came agonisingly close to taking home the league’s golden boot award.
He gets the vote ahead of Wales No. 10 Dan Biggar, who has won four man-of-the-match awards in his farewell season at the Liberty.
Rhys Patchell has continued to make the Scarlets three-quarter line tick, while Benetton’s Kiwi play-maker Marty Banks has played a major part in the resurgence at Treviso.
9: George Horne (Glasgow)
Glasgow’s player of the year just edges out Ulster’s John Cooney, who has proven an outstanding replacement for fans favourite Ruan Pienaar in Belfast.
Horne has showcased his sevens skills with some dazzling displays and for last weekend’s derby finale against Edinburgh he earned the nod ahead of internationals Ali Price and Henry Pyrgos. Nine tries from eight starts is some return for the 22-year-old.
1: Rob Evans (Scarlets)
Rob Evans of Scarlets finds space against the Dragons on Judgement Day (Image: Huw Evans Picture Agency)
The Wales loose-head’s scrummaging performances have been as impressive as his renowned ball-handling displays of late, helping give the Scarlets’ set-piece dominance in the wins over Glasgow and the Dragons.
The powerful Ox Nche has been one of a number of Cheetahs players to have made their mark on the tournament.
2: Torsten van Jaarsveld (Cheetahs)
The Namibian international has played in all bar one match of the South Africans’ debut season.
A lively operator in the loose, he has also played a big part in a slick Cheetahs set-piece. Crossed for five tries before the end of September.
A shout out to Wales international Elliot Dee, who has been head and shoulders above the rest at Rodney Parade, while Sean Cronin (Leinster), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh) and Ken Owens (Scarlets) have been top-notch performers.
3: Dmitri Arhip (Ospreys)
Ospreys prop Dmitri Arhip
The bearded Moldovan tight-head has helped transform the Ospreys scrum in recent seasons and he will be sorely missed when he heads to France in the summer.
Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong is the best No. 3 in world rugby at the moment, but he has only featured in six PRO14 matches this term.
4: Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets)
Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets beats Thomas Davies to score against the Dragons
The first name on the team-sheet.
Beirne has pilfered a competition record 37 turnovers, 15 more than his nearest rival in his final season at Parc y Scarlets.
Whether selected at lock or in the back row, Beirne and his trademark blue headgear has been standing out throughout a campaign that sees the Munster-bound forward also lead the region’s PRO14 try tally.
A leading contender for player of the season.
5: Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys)
Alun Wyn Jones of Ospreys
A tight call, but the Wales and Ospreys skipper just keeps on delivering at every level.
Munster’s new South African import Jean Kleyn has added steel, while Iain Henderson has been a driving force in Belfast, but Jones, along with Biggar, has played a major role in helping keep the Ospreys’ Champions Cup hopes alive.
6: Scott Fardy (Leinster)
Leinster have a history of striking gold with their overseas signings and the tough-as-teak Wallaby has been another nugget.
Aaron Shingler has been a model of consistency for the Scarlets, while the Kings’ Andisa Ntsila has shone in a losing cause.The Latest Welsh Rugby News
7: Callum Gibbins (Glasgow)
Gibbins arrived from the Hurricanes with a big reputation and the no-nonsense back-rower made an instant impact at Scotstoun, wining the Warriors fans’ player of the month award for September and October and being a major cog in Glasgow securing an early play-off spot.
Ellis Jenkins has been in fine poaching form since returning from his hamstring injury, as has Scarlets openside James Davies after his early-season shoulder surgery.
8: Nick Williams (Cardiff Blues)
Nick Williams made an impact for Cardiff Blues
After a sluggish start, it is no coincidence that when Williams started hitting his stride, so did the Blues. Now 34, the former PRO12 player of the year remains a formidable influence, with and without the ball, where only Beirne has burgled more turnovers than him.
Leinster’s Max Deegan is one to keep an eye on, while at the other end of the age scale, Connacht’s departing talisman John Muldoon has had more memorable seasons, but 19 appearances from 21 is testament to his longevity.