Saturday 22 July 2017

BRENDAN FANNING'S TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT

15 Isa Nacewa

(Leinster, 9 appearances)

From his first night in the RDS, against Edinburgh in September 2008, Nacewa looked like he had been greedy when the basic skills were being handed out. He has been brilliant this season, with a somewhat darker side that you don't always see in one so talented.

14 Chris Ashton

(Northampton, 7)

His on-field behaviour doesn't make him an easy man to like (remember his ludicrous rant at Jonny Sexton in the Six Nations?) but he has been a shining example that wing play is about much more than hugging the touchline.

13 Brian O'Driscoll

(Leinster, 7)

He has never been more important to Leinster, or indeed Ireland, than in this campaign, simply because he can always be relied on to make the big play when it's most needed. What a weapon to have.

12 James Downey

(Northampton, 9)

It was fitting that Downey should play so well in the knock-out stages of Europe after Saints were written off early in the second half of their Premiership campaign, on the basis that everyone had worked him out. He never claimed to be complex -- just very effective.

11 Maxime Medard

(Toulouse, 8)

When Toulouse were mounting their comeback against Leinster in Aviva last month, the prospect of Medard (pictured) getting on the ball in space was even more unsettling than Vincent Clerc in the same situation. Always dangerous, always worth watching.

10 Jonny Sexton

(Leinster, 9)

Unlike two years ago when he was parachuted into Croke Park in the semi-final, this time Sexton was at the controls from the start. The measure of his progress has been his consistency, regardless of how big the occasion.

9 Ruan Pienaar (pictured)

(Ulster, 7)

As smooth an operator as there is in Europe, Pienaar's game management was at its best against Biarritz in Ravenhill when he overshadowed Dimitri Yachvili in a match UIster had to win if they were ever going to tick the qualifying box.

1 Soane Tonga'uiha

(Northampton, 9)

It's rare nowadays to come across a prop who backs up an all-action loose game with top quality scrummaging -- but Tonga'uiha manages it. The hard work he has done on his tight game has paid off handsomely.

2 Richardt Strauss

(Leinster, 9)

The first big test for Strauss this season was the day he came up against his celebrated countryman Schalk Brits in Wembley. Then there was Ti'i Paolo for Clermont, relieved in the second half by Super Mario. And in the semis, Monsieur Servat. All tests passed. Strauss is an awesome rugby player.

3 Mike Ross

(Leinster, 9)

Hot competition here from Nicolas Mas and Davit Kubriashvili but both (and indeed BJ Botha) had painful experiences in the knock-outs, when Ross came into his own. There was baggage to be unloaded from Leinster's scrum in Toulouse last season when Ross had been left largely idle. He made up for lost time.

4 Courtney Lawes

(Northampton, 7)

You'd throw a few bob down now on himself and Scotland's Richie Gray being the starting combo for the Lions in the First Test against Australia in 2013. As for this campaign he has been tremendous, never more so than against Ulster in the quarter-final.

5 Nathan Hines

(Leinster, 9)

He'll be a huge loss next season, for second row cover is not one of Leinster's strong suits. Hines did exactly what he was bought to do: play hard, consistent rugby with a skill level beyond most of his fellow travellers in the row.

6 Seán O'Brien

(Leinster, 9)

A bit like James Downey, everybody knows O'Brien's strength is his ability to biff people aside and retain the ball, but it's another thing stopping him. From a standing start he generates tremendous power. He gave real impetus to the forward effort in this campaign.

8 Jamie Heaslip

(Leinster, 7)

Having got over his ankle issues in midstream he was back to his best form when it was most needed. More than any other player Heaslip typifies the self-assurance that underpins this Leinster team.

7 Tom Wood

(Northampton, 7)

A huge loss to them from yesterday's starting line-up, Wood has thrived in the hard-edged environment at Franklin's Gardens. With a strong all-round game, he has the perfect mentality for playing in the back row: the harder the better.

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