Game changers and game breakers from Europe’s top sides dominate following an entralling weekend of Champions and Challenge Cup action.
15. Chris Ashton (Toulon)
Both Chris Ashton and Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets) posted performances of real substance in their respective quarter-finals. Had Andrew Conway not picked Toulon’s pocket to score a 20-19 win at the death in Thomond Park, then we’d probably be reflecting on a game-winning Ashton performance of real invention and spark.
The Toulon full-back pulled the Munster defence out of position to score a brilliant try, while his kicking and positional cover thwarted Munster in attack.
For that all-round performance, the Toulon man deserves the 15 jersey over Leigh Halfpenny’s typically polished 19-point kicking performance against La Rochelle.
14. Andrew Conway (Munster)
Highlights of Munster's dramatic Champions Cup quarter-final victory over Toulon from Thomond Park
Aggressive, tenacious, determined, the Munster winger summed up his side’s attitude in their often remarkable 20-19 quarter-final win over Toulon.
Prominent throughout, his spectacular try out of nothing, when Munster looked like they’d no hand left to play, will go down as another great moment long celebrated in the Irish province.
13. Sam Arnold (Munster)
Much had been made of Munster’s weakened centre partnership ahead of their collision with Toulon. Especially, when that partnership was set to face the might of Ma’a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud in the opposition midfield.
But Arnold, and his midfield partner Rory Scannell, were stubborn and tigerish in the face of one of the most imposing combinations in world club rugby.
12. Isa Nacewa (Leinster)
The evergreen 35-year-old has only played 45 minutes of PRO14 rugby since the conclusion of the Champions Cup pool stages.
But his versatility and vision never suffered. Nacewa showed an impressive turn of foot to help create a try for Garry Ringrose in Leinster’s 30-19 win over Saracens, while chipping in with 14 tackles.
11. Marc Andreu (Racing 92)
The Racing winger finished man of the match and executed the game’s match-winning try in their all French 28-17 quarter-final win over Clermont Auvergne.
Before that he made an astonishing run for Leone Nakarawa to score, while punctuating the contest with enough dramatic plays to constitute his own highlights reel.
10. Robert du Preez (Sharks)
Watch highlights from a thriller at Eden Park with over 100 points scored between the Blues & the Sharks
The Sharks’ fly-half delivered one of the outstanding individual performances of the weekend, posting a 38-point haul in his side’s 63-40 Super Rugby win over the Blues.
Both teams scored six tries apiece but the contest was marked by Du Preez’s superb goal-kicking. He returned seven penalties, six conversions and also added a try.
9. Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92)
Racing 92 progressed to the Champions Cup semi-finals courtesy of a tense win over French rivals Clermont on Sunday afternoon
It was billed as one of the duels of the weekend. France’s premier numbers 9s, Morgan Parra and Maxime Machenaud, in the respective colours of Clermont and Racing. Both were typically influential.
Clermont, through Parra, exerted early control on the contest through the scrum-half’s kicking game, but as the contest wore on, Machenaud increasingly brought his stamp to bear on proceedings.
1. Mako Vunipola (Saracens)
The heavy end of the Saracens’ burden was always going to rest on the shoulders of England stars like the dynamic loosehead.
He served up the kind of performance we have come to expect but despite digging in, it didn’t look like it was going to be his weekend from some distance out.
2. Ken Owens (Scarlets)
Owens was the lone survivor from the squad that had last played in the knockout stages 11 years ago and he led like someone eager to make-up for lost time in Scarlets’ 29-17 win over La Rochelle.
The hooker finished as the Scarlets’ leading tackler, was assured in the set piece and prominent with ball in hand.
3. John Afoa (Gloucester)
Afoa has been a fine servant to Gloucester Rugby and the 34-year-old Kiwi had a moment to savour as he celebrated his 100th appearance with a try in his side’s 33-28 win away to Connacht.
The Kiwi made an excellent dummy run in the build-up meaning he was perfectly placed to take Mark Atkinson’s pass after the centre’s break through the Connacht defence.
4. Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92)
Both Billy Holland and Jean Kleyn demonstrated large dollops of stoicism in the face of Toulon’s much-vaunted pack, but equally abrasive and even more eye-catching was the performance of Racing 92’s Leone Nakarawa.
The Fijian-born lock helped Racing recover from a 9-0 deficit against Clermont with a stunning try of real invention and from there, the Parisians pushed on.
5. James Ryan (Leinster)
Incredibly, the young Leinster lock has yet to taste defeat at senior level for club or country and every performance reaffirms a formidable reputation that has already been cemented.
Now a totem in the Leinster pack, the odds are reducing by the day on this Leinster team crowning a staggering debut season for the lock forward.
6. Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
Man of the match Peter O'Mahony's post-match interview after Munster's 20-19 victory over Toulon
The kind of performance he posted for Munster on Saturday is something we’ve almost come to expect as a given.
When Munster were in trouble, which they frequently were, the sheer bloody-mindedness of their captain kept them in the contest. It was fingertip stuff that featured two key line-out steals, every ounce of his experience and a bottomless appetite for work.
7. Dan Leavy (Leinster)
The England back-row suffered in the absence of Billy Vunipola in the Six Nations and so it was for Saracens in the Aviva Stadium, where Leinster’s Dany Leavy was instrumental in carving out victory.
The openside – who only got the nod for Ireland following injuries to Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier – has made an immeasurable contribution for club and country this season. He finished with a try on Sunday and much of the plaudits.
8. Nick Williams (Cardiff Blues)
In many respects, it was a tough call to select Dan Leavy over Cardiff’s Josh Navidi in the openside position. Because Navidi led a back-row performance against Edinburgh of real substance.
Also central to that was the industry and abrasiveness of Nick Williams, who was strong in the carry and brought great momentum.