With the Champions Cup now over, we’ve sat down to select our standout players from the 2017/18 European campaign.
Leinster, having won the competition, are unsurprisingly well represented with eight nominations, while Racing 92 and Scarlets have three each.
Team of the Tournament:
15 Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets): You never doubt his defence or place-kicking but it had been a while since Halfpenny was an effective force in attack, and that was much improved this season. The full-back is still not at the level he was a few years ago in that regard but it was still a fine campaign from Halfpenny, who shone in a thrilling Scarlets side that reached the semi-finals.
14 Teddy Thomas (Racing 92): The wing was anonymous in the final and made an error that led to Isa Nacewa’s second – and game-defining – penalty, but the France international was otherwise exceptional. Scored twice in the semis and could have had a hat-trick had he not passed to Maxime Machenaud, while he also impressed in the latter stages of the group phase. Had a mishap in December, dropping the ball over the line when clear, but recovered well to star for the Parisians.
13 Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets): Consistently excellent for the Welsh region. It is strange to think the centre was slightly off-form prior to his international debut in December, but that call-up seemed to inspire the New Zealand-born back. Was outstanding against Bath and followed that up with another fine performance at home to Toulon a week later. Alternated between the two centre positions throughout the competition but produced his best performances at 13.
12 Robbie Henshaw (Leinster): Often switched between 12 and 13, but has been consistently good in every game he has played. Defensively excellent and an effective ball-carrier, the Ireland representative is the glue in the Leinster backline. Sometimes his performances are understated and the final is one such example, but the 24-year-old rarely makes a mistake and is a crucial cog for the Irish province.
11 Isa Nacewa (Leinster): Nacewa was in contention to take the inside centre position but both him and Henshaw deserved selection, so we put him in his other slot. The Leinster backline is not as physically gifted as the other teams but it is a side full of decision-makers and Nacewa epitomises that. They dissected teams through their rugby intellect, with no outfit as effective in attack as Leo Cullen’s men, and the former Fijian international was at the heart of that.
10 Johnny Sexton (Leinster): No other fly-half really came close. Several had their moments but Sexton was once again the focal point of his team’s Champions Cup triumph. Was truly excellent in the quarters and semis and, despite not quite producing his best in the showpiece event, the Ireland pivot still instigated a couple of incisive attacks. A deserved fourth title for the talismanic fly-half.
9 Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92): Wasn’t necessarily missed in the final, with Teddy Iribaren producing a fine effort, but Machenaud was Racing’s best player in the competition. His kicking, both in hand and off the tee, was pinpoint and he controlled matters impressively from the base. Following a fine Six Nations, the Parisians’ scrum-half is not far away from Conor Murray’s level.
8 Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92): Tough on Racing team-mate Yannick Nyanga, who was excellent at number eight in the knockout stages, but Nakarawa was their first choice in the group phase before he shifted to lock. Having impressed in whatever position he played, the Fijian’s off-loading game added a different dimension to the Parisians and he always kept the opposition defence on their toes. Difficult to break the shackles in the final but did well in his core duties and was named European Player of the Year.
7 Dan Leavy (Leinster): Got better and better as the Champions Cup went on, culminating in one of the campaign’s best individual displays; against Saracens in the quarter-finals. Although Leavy was a vital part of the Leinster squad last season, the flanker has stepped up in 2018, after also starring for the national team in the Six Nations. Physical and intelligent, with an impressive work-rate, the back-rower was comfortably the best openside from the quarter-finals onwards.
6 Scott Fardy (Leinster): What a great signing the Australian has been. His performance levels never seem to drop and the Wallaby’s experience is crucial to a Leinster pack that, rather scarily, is still developing. Fardy initially began in the second-row but moved to blindside due to the emergence of James Ryan and has been equally as effective there.
5 James Ryan (Leinster): Impossible to leave out Ireland’s newest star, despite the 21-year-old often starting from the bench in the round-robin phase. Obviously, the second-row is physically gifted, which allows him to make ground when carrying in the close quarters and be effective at the lineout, but his understanding of the game belies his tender age. Ryan’s level was so good during the latter stages that he is probably the best lock in Europe at the moment.
4 Tadhg Beirne (Scarlets): It was surprising that the lock wasn’t among the final five nominees for European Player of the Year, given his level throughout. Even in the semi-finals, when the Welsh region were comprehensively outplayed by Leinster, Beirne was the Scarlets’ standout individual. Does all his core duties proficiently but is freakishly good at the breakdown and is also incredibly athletic in the loose. Munster supporters will no doubt be excited to see how he goes next season.
3 Tadhg Furlong (Leinster): The best tighthead in Europe, and possibly the world, at the moment following another fine campaign for the Ireland international. Furlong was particularly superb in the double-header against Exeter Chiefs in December but, to be honest, the British and Irish Lion never fell below the required standard. The 25-year-old is still improving but is already a fine scrummager and destructive in the loose.
2 Sean Cronin (Leinster): Another excellent season for Cronin, who sometimes goes under the radar despite his athleticism. Has been ever-present for the Irish province in the Champions Cup, producing a number of quality performances throughout. Is a good thrower, solid scrummager and explosive in open play and displayed all those facets during the 2017/18 European campaign.
1 Mako Vunipola (Saracens): Comfortably the 2016 and ‘17 champions’ best player in this year’s tournament. Sarries struggled at times in Europe but scraped through to the quarter-finals where they were ousted by eventual winners Leinster. Vunipola never took a step backwards, however, and shone at the Aviva Stadium in the last eight.