The opening weekend of 2016 was another absorbing and gripping few days of rugby union, not always polished or perfect, however always exciting.
But who were the standout performers? Here are our selections.
Fullback: DAN EVANS (Ospreys)
Disappointed in the opening match against the Scarlets a week ago but made up for it with a man-of-the-match try-scoring display in the 12-7 victory over the Dragons this weekend. He is a player who has not quite found his mojo so far this season. However, this massive display suggests he is starting to get possibly back to his best.
Wing: ALEX CUTHBERT (Cardiff Blues)
Cuthbert’s try four minutes from time, converted by Rhys Patchell, gave Cardiff Blues a 29-27 win over Scarlets in a thrilling Guinness Pro12 derby at the Arms Park. The excellent finish showed his predatory instincts for the try-line are returning and finished off what was a fantastic game to watch between the two fierce rivals.
Centre: PAUL WILLIAMS (Stade Francais)
Stade Francais’ New Zealand-born Williams was the man of the moment after touching down in the 78th minute in what was a stunning turnaround as they edged to an 18-17 win against Toulouse. IN what was a massive score, this result could have magnificent significance as the All Pinks look to improve after a highly disappointing first half of the season.
Centre: ALEXANDRE DUMOULIN (Racing Metro)
Dan Carter was the star of the show again for Racing Metro; nevertheless Dumoulin’s interception try, which was finished superbly, was also key to the narrow 23-18 against the ever-improving Bordeaux-Begles. His defensive effort was also impressive considering it’s an area of his game that has been questioned previously.
Wing: JAMES O’CONNOR (Toulon)
Wallaby wing James O’Connor scored tries in both halves as Toulon recovered from last week’s chastening defeat at Toulouse with a nervy 21-17 victory at home to Pau in the French Top 14 on Sunday. Although overall Toulon’s team display was disappointing, O’Connor was fantastic throughout with the 25-year-old showing off his international quality with not just his try-scoring but his chase and tackling.
Fly-half: CRAIG WILLIS (Newcastle Falcons)
This weekend saw a number of fantastic kicking performances, namely from Sale’s Danny Cipriani, Racing Metro’s Dan Carter and Munster’s Ian Keatley. However, the display of Newcastle Falcons’ raw number 10 was the one that caught our attention most of all. Willis, retained by Dean Richards for his second start at outside-half despite the arrival of veteran Andy Goode, had kicked Newcastle into a 16-14 lead against Bath. The 22-year-old Teessider then made no mistake with the last-gasp penalty that rubber-stamped the Falcons first win of the season that lifted them off the foot of the table.
Scrum-half: DANNY CARE (Harlequins)
With Chris Robshaw taking the headlines in a forward battle, it was Care’s careful guile in appalling conditions which helped take Quins over the line as they edged out Worcester 24-20 at Sixfields, the 29-year-old setting up Charlie Walker’s eventually decisive second-half try.
Prop: ROB VICKERS (Newcastle Falcons)
Loosehead prop, Vickers, has been one of the Falcons only consistent performers so far this season and he burrowed over for the Falcons crucial first half try against Bath. If the North-east based side are to conquer their fears of relegation, you would presume the experienced 34-year-old will have a significant role to play.
Hooker: MIKE HAYWOOD (Northampton Saints)
In a game low on stellar quality, Saints’ Haywood stood out as Northampton overcame high-flying Exeter 8-3 at Franklin’s Gardens on New Years day. His sparky play from hooker laid the platform for a dominant pack effort from the home side and he deservedly capped his afternoon’s work with the games only try.
Prop: PETRUS DU PLESSIS (Saracens)
Du Plessis was an utter beast at tight-head as Saracens thrashed Leicester 26-6 at Allianz Park. The 34-year-old veteran, who has made over 100 appearances for the London-based club since joining in 2010, showed he clearly still has the hunger and desire to play a fundamental role for Sarries from now until the end of what will be a challenging campaign.
Lock: MARO ITOJE (Saracens)
Itoje’s outstanding form this season should make him in line to play a pivotal role for England in the upcoming Six Nations. He has won the most turnovers in the Aviva Premiership this season (24), making some crucial steals against the Tigers while he was also an all around dominant figure all over the pitch. Leicester’s commonly dominant pack just couldn’t cope with Itoje and his teammates.
Lock GEORGE KRUIS (Saracens)
The third Sarries member of our pack, Kruis was once again outstanding with his lineout play, scrummaging and marshalling of the hosts defence being outstanding from start to finish. The likes of Mako Vunipola and Jamie George also all had significant matches in front of Steve Borthwick, England’s new forwards coach.
Flanker: DAN LYDIATE (Ospreys)
Wales flanker Dan Lydiate was forced from the field early in the second half with a head injury, but he left the field following one of his best displays in recent times. The 28-year-old was much better after last week as he was much more involved, making a number of hard carries in the first half, with his break setting up Evans’ try.
Flanker: JOSH VAN DER FLIER (Leinster)
The 22-year-old flanker’s converted score on the hour mark helped Leinster to grind out a 13-0 Guinness PRO12 win over Connacht at a wet and windy RDS Arena. Van der Flier only made his Leinster debut 14 months ago but he has been a fixture of their back row all season and could be in line to make his Ireland debut if he can maintain this sort of form.
Number 8: CAMILLE GERONDEAU (Clermont)
Two tries from Clermont Auvergne’s Number.8 Gerondeau helped guide his side to a hard-fought 33-16 win at Agen on Saturday. The work of the back-rower added to Camille Lopez’s kicking from the tee saw Clermont score 23 unanswered points in the first 24 minutes of the second 40 to secure the crucial win.