The final weekend of the English Gallagher Premiership regular season is nigh. It has been a uniquely demanding campaign, as much a mental challenge as a physical one on occasions. Here is The Breakdown’s standout team of 2020-21, selected only from players who have appeared in 10 league games or more …
Full-back: Stuart Hogg (Exeter). Had Max Malins played more regularly he would have been hard to omit. Freddie Steward, Mike Brown, Tommy Freeman, Tom Parton and Tom Penny also deserve a mention. But in a busy season where he has had to juggle the Scotland captaincy with club duties, Hogg’s pace and footwork out wide have been a consistent menace.
Right wing: Paolo Odogwu (Wasps). His club increasingly like him at outside centre but when Odogwu was flying in midwinter it did not matter what number he was wearing. His recent serious knee injury was a desperately unlucky end to a season that should have yielded a full England cap. Luke Morahan, Louis Rees-Zammit, Ben Loader and Tyrone Green were all mustard, too.
Outside centre: Semi Radradra (Bristol). Hard to look past (when fit) arguably the best player in the world. Almost unstoppable at times and is also a deceptively smart operator. Joe Marchant and Luke Northmore at Quins have both caught the eye while Curtis Rona at London Irish has been a constant menace but Radradra it has to be.
Inside centre: Mark Atkinson (Gloucester). The best No 12s make those around them look good without hogging the glory for themselves. The unselfish Atkinson fits that job description perfectly and fully deserves his selection here, with Exeter’s Ollie Devoto and Bristol’s Piers O’Conor snapping at his heels.
Left wing: Tom O’Flaherty (Exeter). You could simply brandish the stats which show the Exeter winger as a runaway leader in both the metres gained and defenders beaten categories. Or you merely trust the evidence of your own eyes and the spectacular tries he has an uncanny knack of scoring. Ollie Hassell-Collins at London Irish and Marland Yarde at Sale also merit a collective round of applause.
Fly-half: Marcus Smith (Harlequins). One of this season’s standout features has been the platoon of in-form fly-halves whirling the baton for their respective sides. This accolade could easily have gone to the excellent Callum Sheedy, the cussed Dan Biggar, the consistent Joe Simmonds or the outstanding AJ MacGinty but Smith has been winning games single-handed and is easily the country’s leading scorer.
Scrum-half: Faf de Klerk (Sale). As the British & Irish Lions will soon discover, there is much more to Faf than his trademark blond hair and feisty competitive edge. Plenty of other nines have had good seasons, not least Danny Care at Quins, Dan Robson at Wasps and the Bristol duo of Andy Uren and Harry Randall but De Klerk has been instrumental in the Sharks’ play-off emergence.
Loosehead prop: Joe Marler (Harlequins). An encouraging number of young English-qualified props are emerging but Marler continues to hang tough among the country’s top set-piece operators. How much longer, though, can he hold off Wasps’ Tom West and Sale’s Bevan Rodd, both of whom are improving steadily. Neither Ellis Genge nor Beno Obano played sufficient minutes to be considered.
Hooker: Akker van der Merwe (Sale). His younger brother, Duhan, may be going on the Lions tour but the Sale hooker, capped three times for the Springboks, is still arguably the hardest member of the family to stop. Strong, mobile and relentless he has been as integral to Sale’s rise as any of the other South Africans currently on the club’s books.
Tighthead prop: John Afoa (Bristol). Leaving aside the furore surrounding his return to the field against Leicester on Saturday, the 37-year-old Afoa has been absolutely central to the Bears’ table-topping season. Rock solid on the field and a cheerful presence off it, the former All Black’s impromptu Superman impersonation as he ran out for the second half of the home match against Worcester in November was great fun.
Lock: David Ribbans (Northampton). Again we shall ignore the red card against Exeter on Sunday and concentrate on the energy and competitive zeal that have caught the eye of the England head coach, Eddie Jones. The 25-year-old, once of Western Province, gets the nod ahead of Bristol’s Dave Attwood and Leicester’s Harry Wells in a crowded field.
Lock: Chris Vui (Bristol). Whether it be at close quarters or lurking out wide, the Samoan international has been a key figure in the Bears’ all-court game. Will Rowlands at Wasps, Rob Simmons at London Irish, Newcastle’s Greg Peterson and Exeter’s Sam Skinner have also been important assets for their respective clubs.
Blindside flanker: Dave Ewers (Exeter). It is no coincidence Exeter are so hard to stop from five metres out when the massive Ewers is around to drive the ball carrier over. Latterly, with four tries in his past six league games, the big man has also been in prolific touch himself. Jean-Luc Du Preez of Sale and London Irish’s Matt Rogerson have also worked their socks off.
Openside flanker: Blair Cowan (London Irish, capt). Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow tops the tackle charts by a mile and Harlequins’ Will Evans is the league’s undisputed turnover king in a year when Tom Curry and Ben Earl have largely been absent on Test duty. For work-rate, enthusiasm and leadership, however, there are few to match Cowan, such an inspirational figure at London Irish.
No 8: Sam Simmonds (Exeter). Should be a highly competitive category with Jasper Wiese, Alex Dombrandt and Zach Mercer all enjoying strong seasons. No one, though, has come close to matching Sam Simmonds’s record-breaking impact for Exeter: 20 tries in 20 games, twice as many as anyone else in the league this year, have also deservedly propelled him into this summer’s British & Irish Lions squad.