Before the playoffs begin on Friday, here's Planet Rugby's RaboDirect Pro12 Team of the Season for 2013/2014.
Before the play-offs begin on Friday, here's Planet Rugby's RaboDirect Pro12 Team of the Season for 2013/2014.
15 Jared Payne (Ulster): A class act from New Zealand whose ability to size up and ghost through gaps and soft hands will in time benefit Ireland. Can and does play in midfield, but despite speculation over Brian O'Driscoll's successor, most believe full-back is his best position. I agree. Elsewhere, Liam Williams of the Scarlets has caught the eye with dangerous and powerful running.
14 Jeff Hassler (Ospreys): The Canadian burst onto the scene this season, emerging as one of the Pro12's most dangerous finishers, bagging eight tries for the Ospreys as they narrowly missed out on a playoff spot. Ulster's Andrew Trimble is also back to his best.
13 Robbie Henshaw (Connacht): The future incumbent of the fabled Emerald number 13 jersey? Henshaw certainly has the skillset for Test rugby, with a striking blend of power and subtlety in midfield, and the ability to slot in at full-back. With the IRFU omnipotent across Irish rugby, perhaps the more pressing question is how long will Pat Lam be able to keep him in Galway should Joe Schmidt wish to move his prodigy to one of the nation's big three? Munster powerhouse Casey Laulala's winning combination of brute strength, intelligent play and cultured handling have also come to the fore.
12 Noel Reid (Leinster): A slightly left-field selection, I'll admit, but Reid has really caught my eye in his fifteen appearances this season, scoring seven tries. He's quick, sharp in midfield and has proved to be a fine finisher too. The performances of the classy Matt Scott represented a rare positive for Edinburgh.
11 Niko Matawalu (Glasgow Warriors): Probably the most naturally gifted player in the Pro12; certainly the most unpredictable. The free-spirited Fijian can at times be a liability at scrum-half, but in the wide expanses, his incredible footwork, keen vision and offloading wizardry render him almost unplayable when on-song. Munster's talented Simon Zebo can consider himself unlucky not to have been a part of Joe Schmidt's Six Nations-winning squad.
10 Dan Biggar (Ospreys): As a Scot, it can be difficult not to gaze around the home nations with envy at the deep pools of fly-half talent boasted by our closest neighbours. Paddy Jackson has matured immeasurably from the baby-faced kid who struggled to hold his nerve at Murrayfield a year ago, handling the pressure of a supercharged Heineken Cup quarter-final with aplomb, and notching 174 domestic points. But Biggar gets my vote for an outstanding season in Swansea, kicking extremely well, and almost single-handedly keeping his side in the playoff hunt until the final rounds. Mentions for Leinster's new signing Jimmy Gopperth, and Munster's JJ Hanrahan who is another on the up.
9 Gareth Davies (Scarlets): With a young backline full of vim and vigour, the Scarlets have been a joy to watch for much of this season, even minus their talisman Jonathan Davies. With slick service, vision and dangerous pace to match, scrum-half Gareth has been at the heart of much of it, topping the Pro12 try-scoring chart with 10 five-pointers. Glasgow's Chris Cusiter and Zebre's Brendon Leonard also deserve recognition.
8 Robin Copeland (Cardiff Blues): Not a season many Blues fans will look back on with fondness, but they can at least take comfort in the inspirational displays of Munster-bound Copeland. He carries with great power, but it is his formidable defensive work – especially around the contact area – that wins him my vote at eight. The man he'll be vying with for a start next season, James Coughlan, underlined his status once again as the unsung hero of Thomond Park.
7 Jordi Murphy (Leinster): Had he featured in more than 11 Pro12 matches this season, Munster's Tommy O'Donnell would have been in with a shout. But Murphy gets the nod from me after a sterling season that showed how good an all-rounder he is; carrying well and scoring some important tries, as well as teaming up with Rhys Ruddock at the contact area to great effect. Mentions for Scottish duo Chris Fusaro and John Barclay.
6 Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors): One of these players who seems to make inexorable yardage whenever the ball is in his meaty grasp. Strauss lays the foundations and provides the platform for the Warriors' backline to sparkle, and his dynamic go-forward is crucial to getting Glasgow on the front foot. His importance to Gregor Townsend cannot be understated. Beats out Leinster's breakdown tyro, Rhys Ruddock.
5 Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors): Arguably Glasgow's player of the season, Gray jnr has got the lot at second-row – his consistent excellence and maturity is all the more impressive given the reassuring presence of Al Kellock was missing for large swathes of the campaign. A mention for retiring Ulster skipper Johann Muller, who continues to set the standard in Belfast.
4 Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) (c): Relentless in his drive to get over the gainline, make one more tackle, hit one more ruck, make one more monstrous carry. Wyn Jones' work in the loose has been of particular note this season on top of his set-piece prowess, and the leadership qualities his play embodies are the reasons he is my captain. A mention for the similarly dogged Dave Foley of Munster.
3 Willem Nel (Edinburgh): Scotland fans were right to baulk at Alan Solomons' non-selection of Geoff Cross, with his recent performances for Edinburgh's inter-city rivals justifying the disappointment at his departure from the Scottish game. However, soon-to-be-Scot Nel has impressed at scrum-time, grafted well in the loose, and scored a none-too-shabby six domestic tries. In an era where the full repertoire of substitutes invariably take the field, it's worth noting too that Nel has played 70 minutes or more in all bar three of his 22 appearances this season. Connacht's Rodney Ah You has posted similar game-time figures and continues to improve, while Samson Lee of the Scarlets is a star in the making.
2 Sean Cronin (Leinster): Faces stiff competition from the returning Richardt Strauss in Dublin, and his throwing remains a tad suspect, but Cronin's excellent work in open play and at the breakdown justify his inclusion here. Damien Varley of Munster has also showed up well and seems to revel in his leader's role in the pack.
1 Dave Kilcoyne (Munster): Formidable in the tight and busy in the loose, Kilcoyne's solid if unspectacular season deserves plaudits amid a power-laden Munster pack. Phil John has played a big part in the Scarlets' set-piece