As the ‘business end’ of the rugby season approaches, naturally it’s time to reflect back on the year and take note of exceptional moments and, of course, players that have graced the field.
The 2015/16 season has been a unusual compared to others; the later start to the season due to the World Cup meant English clubs had a long eight months of fixtures on back-to-back weekends. The Aviva Premiership and both strands of the European Rugby leagues (Challenge and Champions Cup) have spoilt fans with high-octane action, picking up from the level set by the World Cup through September and October. Teamed with a spell of Six Nations games at the start of 2016, supporters have seen more and more players come through and excel in England’s top flight rugby.
Forwards have more noticeably stepped up this season and sent tremors across the land with big tackles, crashing tries and thundering breaks. In honour of their efforts, the annual Green Flag Forward of the Season will be awarded to the player recognised as most impressive, and the shortlist itself is just that.
Whittled down to six by a panel of experts, the shortlist consists of players from four of the Aviva Premiership’s twelve clubs:
- Maro Itoje (Saracens)
- George Kruis (Saracens)
- Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
- Teimana Harrison (Northampton Saints)
- Nili Latu (Newcastle Falcons)
- George Smith (Wasps)
A tough category to stand out in, the significance of what each player has brought to their teams’ is worthy of recognition in itself, so lets take a closer look.
This young lock has a huge future ahead of him. At 21 years old, London-born Maro has achieved more than most aspiring professional rugby players could at his age. Gaining priceless experience as England U20 captain, he scored a try in every one of England’s game in the 2014 U20 Six Nations Championships. He was also awarded Man of the Tournament for this feat, a great accolade that was soon followed by a debut in the Premiership for Saracens away at Leicester Tigers. Since then the 6’5” Harrow student has flourished for the current Champions and featured in the World Cup training squad. When Eddie Jones stepped into the role of England Head Coach, it was a given that Maro was on his radar and it wasn’t long until this naturally skilful player earned his first international cap when he came on as a replacement against Italy during the 2016 RBS Six Nations. His international career continued as he started a further three times during the tournament and triumphed to a Man of the Match performance against Wales. Hailed as one of the sport’s most promising stars, whispers circling around could see him captain the England team as soon as next year – and how deserving it would be.
After joining Saracens in 2009, George has appeared more than 80 times for the Premiership side since his debut again Northampton seven years ago. A towering titan, the 6’6” lock was named Saracens A League Player of the Season for the 2009-10 whilst he also played in the U20 Six Nations Championship that year. Alongside his successful club career, Kruis has earned 15 caps for England after being thrown in at the deep end for his debut – a clash with New Zealand at Twickenham during the Autumn internationals of 2014. Since then he has dominated the second row and is a regular on the England team sheet, with his first international try coming in the 2016 Six Nations Calcutta Cup tie. Kruis and teammate Itoje have been hailed as the new-age ‘Johnson and Kay’ for their partnership synchronicity and effectiveness. At 26 years old, Kruis is a stalwart of Saracens and his presence on the pitch is always known.
In his first season at Saracens, this Vunipola brother was awarded Premiership Land Rover Discovery of the Season, proving how immediate and significant his role as number eight was and still is. At international level it is evident how powerful and dynamic Billy is, competing at 23 years old against the sports’ best teams in the 2015 World Cup and at various Six Nations campaigns. Going back to 2012, he excelled in the U20 Six Nations Championship and barely a year later he was packing his bags for the England Saxons 2013 summer tour of Argentina. In an uncapped game versus Consur XV, the 6’2” powerhouse had scored a hat trick within the opening six minutes, and then made his international debut weeks later against Argentina. On earning his first cap he also scored his first try for England, and has scored a further three more since then. Throughout his developing career, he has tallied up most carries in the 2015 Six Nations (64), more than 75 points for Saracens and, in this year’s Six Nations alone, was named Man of the Match three times – against Scotland, Ireland and France. Another young player with a huge career ahead of him, there is still plenty to come from this dependable and defiant star.
As the only non-international on the list, Harrison’s bolstering in the Saints forwards pack and his influence on the pitch is tangible. This season has been his breakthrough year after being at Northampton since 2012, when it is suggested captain Dylan Hartley recommended him to the club. The 23 year old was announced this week as Aviva Premiership Player of the Month for April and has been included in Eddie Jones’ 26 man England training squad ahead of the summer tour of Australia. Topping the statistics week on week, round 21 proved to be a highlight for the back row forward: he beat eight defenders (more than any other player), made 19 carries (more than any other player) and made 125 metres (more than any other player in this round and the most metres by a forward this season). He is bound to top more statistics as his career thrives in the next few years and, without a doubt, will be in the forefront of Jones’ mind for a place in the England squad.
As captain of the Tongan rugby team, Nili has more than 40 international caps to his name and has played in some of the biggest rugby occasions over his 12 year career. He was named in The Independent’s ’50 best rugby players in the world 2008′ list and has continued to put his mark on the Premiership as well as Super Rugby, Japan’s Top League and ITM Cup. Able to play across the back row, his versatility, energy and vast experience has elevated Newcastle Falcons’ style of play since his move there last summer. The 6’0” spartan has just signed a contract extension to see him stay at the club, grace the Premiership and share his wisdom with his fellow Falcons for longer than the initially predicted year. At 34 years old, Latu could stay at Newcastle until he calls time on a superb career, and if he does it will be praise to the club and the league that a player of this standard wishes to go out at the top level.
The former Wallaby was an elite signing for Wasps and has appeared 17 times this season. The 35 year old has injected fear into opposition Premiership teams and has mentored and inspired other forwards at Wasps, most notably James Haskell, during his stint there. A wealth of knowledge has been acquired over a 17 year long career, 13 of which he enjoyed a spectacular international career with Australia. Since his international debut in 2000 versus France he scored nine tries in 111 caps before his final international game against the British and Irish Lions in 2013. The number eight, who can also play as flanker, topped the charts most recently after round 21 of the Premiership with 16 tackles made against Exeter Chiefs – more than any other player in the league that round. Smith’s wisdom is priceless and he is tipped to soon be a coach for England squad by Eddie Jones, who ironically gave George his first start in professional rugby when he signed him to Brumbies in 1999.
The winner will be announced on 18th May at the Aviva Premiership Rugby Awards along with the winners of the following awards:
- Aviva Premiership Rugby Player of the Season
- Aviva Community Player of the Season
- BT Sport Dream Team
- Citizen Try of the Season
- Gilbert Golden Boot
- Women’s Premiership Players’ Player of the Year
- Guinness Director of Rugby of the Season
- Land Rover Discovery of the Season
- Singha Premiership Rugby 7s Player of the Series
- Trivento Top Try Scorer of the Season