Ahead of this weekend’s Premiership Final between Harlequins and Leicester Tigers, it’s time to look back at the improving – and fading – talents of English rugby (Image | leicestertigers.com)

As the Aviva Premiership draws to its climax this weekend, it’s time to look back at the 9 months and 23 rounds of rugby that have led us there. But which players have had a season to remember, which have had one to forget and which new names have pushed their way towards stardom this year?

TAP’s resident rugby expert Peter Emuss sits down to guide you through the Premiership’s notables – and not-so-notables – ahead of today’s Premiership final…

Full-back:

HOT – Mike Brown

The unluckiest player in the England squad, Brown has the misfortune to be a specialist full-back trapped behind another in-form specialist full-back in Ben Foden. His form this year has been international quality all the way through and his leadership in a young Quins side has been part of their rise to the top. He’s developed his attacking game immeasurably over the past year and has scored some crucial tries when his team have needed him most.

NOT – Delon Armitage

Not content with three suspensions last year, London Irish’s Armitage started the season with another five-week ban for foul play. This was followed by an off the pitch incident that saw him cautioned by police after an assault in a Torquay nightclub. When he’s got on the pitch, he’s shown flashes of quality, but they’ve been too few and too far between. He will be looking at a summer move to Toulon as a chance to restart his career.

BREAKTHROUGH – Rob Miller

The Sale Sharks full-back is so new to the position that he’s still listed on the club website as a fly-half. However, he’s taken to his new role with such ease that it now looks to be where he’ll stay. A talented runner who finished top of the Premiership try-scoring charts, the 22-year-old is unlucky not to be travelling to South Africa with England.

Right Wing:

HOT – Horatio Agulla

Out of contract at the end of the season, Agulla will be leaving Leicester despite fervently declaring that he wanted to stay. Argentina’s new international schedule has meant that he will be absent for too much of next season for the Tigers’ liking, but the decision to release him is not popular with the fans. The stocky winger has a talent for bouncing out of tackles and has forced his way from being a squadman at Leicester to a guaranteed starter. He will leave big boots to fill.

NOT – Rikki Sheriffe

The cross-code recruit scored 33 tries in 94 Super League appearances, but has not been able to cross the whitewash in Premiership rugby union. Playing for lowly Newcastle has not given him the greatest range of attacking ball to play with, but he hasn’t made the impact on the 15-man game that the Falcons would’ve hoped and has struggled with the lesser space available in union.

BREAKTHROUGH – Christian Wade

Deservedly pulling on an England shirt for the first time this weekend, Christian Wade is an incredible talent. Footwork that could see him beat three defenders in a phone box, electric pace and a nose for the try line has seen the diminutive winger gaining favourable comparisons with Shane Williams and Jason Robinson. A superstar of the future and one that may come of age over the next month or so.

Outside Centre:

 HOT – George Pisi

The Samoan was not picked as Northampton’s big signing of the summer, but has quickly proven to be the most effective. A constant threat with ball in hand, Pisi has made a habit of breaking the first tackle and slipping the ball away in the tackle, usually for Ben Foden to walk through the gap. Bargain of the year without a doubt.

Matt Banahan’s versatility has seen him shunted around the Bath back line plugging gaps this season – to his own detriment (Image | Action Images)

NOT – Matt Banahan

A tough year for the man mountain from Jersey. An unsatisfactory RWC and an unsettled and injury-hit Bath side have left him shuffled around the back line to wherever there was a gap. As a result, he’s looked uncertain, hesitant and a shadow of the player that terrorised the Premiership last year. With luck, new Bath coach Gary Gold will pick a position for him and keep him there so that he can develop in one role.

BREAKTHROUGH – Jonathan Joseph

A little unfair to call this a breakthrough season, as he did make a fair number of appearances at wing last year. However, this season is the first year Joseph been regularly considered in his preferred position at outside centre. Fast, powerful and with a devastating step, the youngster’s talent was encapsulated in a superb individual try against Gloucester in their last game of the season.

Inside Centre:

HOT – Anthony Allen

Despite managing to put himself out of the game for six weeks with a freak laminate flooring injury, Allen has had a superb season that has rightfully seen him recalled to the England squad. A creative, fast-stepping inside centre, he has been equally comfortable opening holes for his teammates or punching them himself.

NOT – Mike Tindall

Dropped from the EPS after being blamed for the World Cup misbehaviour in New Zealand, Tindall has never looked like forcing his way back into international recognition. Never the most creative player, his pace and ability to bosh holes in a defence has started to fade and he has been under pressure from young Gloucester tyros Trinder, Mills and May. Without a contract at the end of this season, it will likely be off to top up the pension fund in France after a final Twickenham hurrah playing for the Barbarians against England.

BREAKTHROUGH – James Fitzpatrick

Born and bred in South Shields, the 24-year-old has been the bright spot of Newcastle’s season. A physique of 6ft and 17 stone gives him the ability to barge across the gainline and surprisingly subtle hands have offered offloads to make the most of his gains. Exactly the type of talent that Newcastle will need to develop to improve.

Left Wing:

HOT – Tom Biggs

Eight tries in 28 games doesn’t tell the whole story of Biggs’ season. A rapier in an often dull Bath back line, he has always looked dangerous with clever footwork and the ability to power through tackles. Unlucky not to have more of a look-in for England.

NOT – Ryan Shortland

Another former rugby league player from Newcastle Falcons, Shortland arrived from Otago to a fanfare. However, one try in the Premiership have left the Kingston Park faithful underwhelmed and wondering why he is preferred to less expensive, local talent.

BREAKTHROUGH – Jonny May

A poor finish to the season, coinciding with Gloucester’s slump, have meant that May will not be travelling to South Africa with England. However, his dazzling form for the Cherry and Whites in January and February saw him win England A recognition and it is hoped that he will progress further next year. Lightning quick and elusive with it, he scored one of the tries of the season against Harlequins.

Fly-Half:

HOT – Nick Evans

The starring light in the Quins back line, the Kiwi has been a major cog in the Londoner’s rise to the top of the table. Metronomic with the boot, he has amassed 246 points in 26 games and, while only scoring one try himself, has created countless others for his teammates.

NOT – Rory Clegg

An ignominious dichotomy sees Evans’ understudy seated in the Not XV. Rory Clegg does suffer a little from not being Nick Evans, but he hasn’t kicked on since signing for Harlequins. Undoubtedly talented, but prone to high-profile errors and wayward goal-kicking that means every Quins fan breathes a sigh of relief when Evans is passed fit.

BREAKTHROUGH – George Ford

One of four players from the England Junior World Cup finalists of 2011 to have made this list, 19-year-old Ford has forced his way into contention for the Leicester first team and will start the Premiership final in the absence of Toby Flood. Preternaturally composed, gifted with ball in hand and on the boot, the only two worries for his future development are his size and his goalkicking. A summer off to train will hopefully see him solve those for next season.

Scrum-Half:

HOT – Lee Dickson

The heartbeat of the Northampton team, it was notable that their slump last season occurred when he was injured. Not as flashy as some scrum-halves, Dickson excels at getting quick ball, going from ruck to ruck at high speed and keeping the tempo going. Rewarded with the England starting slot and looks unlikely to give it up any time soon.

NOT – Ben Youngs

A harsh Not selection here, but Youngs is suffering from having set such a high standard last year. Rushed back from injury for England’s World Cup bid, he has looked uncertain and unfit for most of Leicester’s season, culminating in him losing his England place. At his worst, his passing had regressed to the wild arcs of his salad days and his sniping runs led up blind alleys more often than they led to breaks. Looks to be over the worst of it now and coming back to form, but this is still a season to forget for the talented youngster.

BREAKTHROUGH – Sam Harrison

Not many young scrum-halves have put their hand up this season, so the Breakthrough goes to Leicester’s Sam Harrison. At the start of the season, he was undoubted fourth choice and expected to leave the club after the signing of England A player Mickey Young. He has fought for his place, taken his opportunities and earned the right to be Ben Youngs’s deputy.

Loosehead Prop:

HOT – Joe Marler

Coming off his breakthrough season last year, people questioned whether the eye-catching and flamboyant Marler had the substance to make it in the front row. The orange mohicans have faded away this year, but the high-quality handling and carrying are still very much present. To that, the young loosehead has added a much improved scrum technique and a longer fuse for his temper, the two problems that held him back last year. Deserves his England chance this summer.

NOT – Soane Tonga’uiha

Again, a harsh Not selection, but Tonga’uiha, like Youngs, has fallen short of his own high standards. He has been a shadow of his usual bustling self this season, with fewer tries, carries, metres made and tackles broken than usual. Suffered the indignity of being schooled by a young Harlequins front row last week and will be looking forward to a break to prepare himself for next season.

BREAKTHROUGH – Max Lahiff

The young London Irish academy product made the most of his opportunities while Alex Corbisiero was away on international duty with England. The 21-year-old was a fearless carrier, giving a focal point for attacks and always making the gainline. He has fallen away with the return of Corbisiero to club duty and he has a lot to learn about tight work, but he is definitely a hot prospect for the future.

Hooker:

HOT – Joe Gray

Gray has established himself as top hooker at Quins after a drawn out battle with Chris Brooker. A “fourth backrow,” he is a definite presence at the breakdown, helping secure his own ball and turnover opposition. Going on tour with England in the summer and will be looking to make the next step forward in his development.

NOT – Rob Vickers

On the fringes of international selection two seasons ago, Vickers has struggled to cope with a weak Falcons pack this year and has not produced anything like his best. Add to this a spectacular act of ill discipline against Harlequins that left him banned, and could conceivably have cost them a vital win, and he’s the obvious choice for the Not hooker slot.

Chris Whitehead’s move to the Chiefs has given him a chance to shine (Image | Pinnacle)

BREAKTHROUGH – Chris Whitehead

A former Wasps player, Whitehead moved to Exeter in 2010 after failing to break into the London side. This season has seen the 26-year-old cement his place in an Exeter team that finished at a new high mark of 5th in the Premiership. Solid at the lineout, good around the pitch and great things are expected of him next season.

Tighthead Prop:

HOT – Dan Cole

The opposite to Joe Marler in a way – critics were always convinced he could scrum, but did he offer enough around the pitch? This year, Cole has stepped up his work rate, hitting far more rucks and leading the defence. His reward has been ousting Martin Castrogiovanni in Leicester’s big games. Last year, the rotation always saw the Italian in for the crunch matches. This season, it’s Cole getting the nod.

NOT – David Wilson

A regular presence around the England squad, Wilson has yet to deliver on his promise. Solid in most respects, but spectacular in none, he risks being left behind by the new breed of front row.

BREAKTHROUGH – Shaun Knight

A promising England U20 international, Knight spent a spell in 2010/11 in New Zealand playing with Counties Manakau to broaden his rugby horizons. The 22-year-old played 13 times for Gloucester this year and also spent a time on loan at Edinburgh during the RWC, where he impressed coach Michael Bradley. Hard working around the pitch and dedicated to improving himself, Knight will be Gloucester’s starting 3 before too long.

Lock:

HOT – Ollie Kohn

Nineteen and a half stone in weight and with the ability to use it. Quins are noticeably less powerful when Kohn is not available to them and his ability in the scrum and rucks allows them to play lighter, more mobile players in other positions. Has had an excellent season and a major contributor to Harlequins’s success.

NOT – Dave Attwood

The young England star’s move from Gloucester to Bath was meant to be the next stage in his development and the platform from which he would challenge for a regular England place. However wavering form has left him uncertain of his place in the Bath team and he has not looked the player that we hoped for. With luck, a more settled Bath next year will allow him to progress.

The loaded Saracens lock roster has had to make space for George Kruis as his rugby continues to blossom (Image | Getty)

BREAKTHROUGH – George Kruis

Despite a South African sounding surname, Kruis is one of the young crop of Englishmen coming through from the Saracens academy. A big man with a striking turn of pace, Kruis is still learning how best to throw his weight around the pitch. However this season he has moved from being an academy prospect to being in the Saracens first team rotation with internationals Borthwick, Botha and Smith.

Lock:

HOT – Steve Mafi

Equally at home at blindside or lock, Sitiveni “Steve” Mafi has been a game-changer for Leicester this season. Six tries, all of them important, have left him one of the club’s top try scorers this year. Has always made an impact in the loose and tight and his lineout work has helped alleviate the disruption from Croft’s injury.

NOT – Simon Shaw

While it’s understandable that an older player might want to take advantage of the money thrown around in the French Top 14, I don’t think there are too many Wasps fans who don’t feel a little bit bitter about the way Shaw ended his 13 years there. Walking out on his contract, during one of the worst injury crises in Wasps’ history, to chase the money in Toulon, was not Shaw’s finest moment.

BREAKTHROUGH – Joe Launchbury

Quick, strong, mobile and busy around the park, Launchbury wouldn’t’ve been expecting to start 17 games for Wasps this year. Injuries, retirements and defections left them with gaps to fill and the 21-year-old has got on with it with very little fuss. A surprise selection for the England tour, but it’s obvious that the England management see him as one to develop for the future.

Blindside Flanker:

HOT – Jamie Gibson

Unlucky to miss out on an England tour spot, the versatile Gibson has played all across the London Irish back row after breaking through from the academy. An asset in the lineout, the mobile Gibson has shown great ability at the breakdown as well as being solid in the tackle.

NOT – Ally Hogg

In a Newcastle side lacking in quality, the 48-cap Hogg was expected to be a leader. However, the Scotsman has struggled for his own form, not providing the nuisance at the breakdown that we expect nor helping his side keep their own possession. Overshadowed by youngster Will Welch on occasions, Newcastle would’ve hoped for better from their big name.

BREAKTHROUGH – Sam Jones

Wasps have been forced to blood a lot of academy products this year with their injury woes, but few have taken to the Premiership with such ease as Sam Jones. Comfortable at 6, 7 or 8, he was a real bright spot for Wasps towards the end of the season and his work rate suggests that he will only continue to improve.

Openside Flanker:

HOT – Chris Robshaw

The heartbeat of the Harlequins team and his importance was shown when he went away on England duty for the Six Nations. Quins suddenly looked vulnerable and lost tight matches that they had been winning. Robshaw returned and they sprang back to winning ways. Hard work personified and a leader of men.

NOT – Callum Clark

Unexpectedly called up to England’s Six Nations squad, Clark’s season was going rather well until the LV Cup final against Leicester, where some madness led him to break Rob Hawkins’s elbow while the hooker lay helpless at the bottom of a ruck. He was suspended for 32 weeks, ending his season and ending any chance of going on tour to South Africa. Considering his disgusting actions could have ended Hawkins’s career, it could be argued that he got off lightly.

BREAKTHROUGH – Jake Abbott

Local boy Abbott made his debut for Worcester in 2008, but it wasn’t until this season that he really broke through to the first team. A combative, strong-rucking traditional openside flanker, Abbott has kept the much vaunted Matt Kvesic out of the starting 7 berth.

Number 8:

HOT – Nick Easter

Despite being dropped by England, Easter has had a fine season. The hod carrier for Harlequins, he’s also got excellent handling skills and always looks for the offload in contact. A worrying rash of yellow cards towards the end of the season aside, he’s still one of the best players in the Premiership.

NOT – Taiasina Tui’fua

Tui’fua didn’t win many friends with several borderline tackles in Newcastle’s match against Harlequins, which nearly devolved into a boxing match on several occasions. He then followed it up by attempting to decapitate Nicky Robinson with a flying headbutt. Big hits are one thing, but recklessness is another and if Tui’fua can’t control himself, then he shouldn’t be on the pitch.

BREAKTHROUGH – Matt Cox

A slick-handling utility back row, Cox has taken this season as his opportunity to flourish and secure a regular place in the Gloucester side. He will need to keep improving with Ben Morgan on his way from Scarlets, but the 24-year-old has all the skills he needs to succeed.

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