European Team of the Week: Saracens Stars Shine Brightest in Sizzling Success
Christmas is a time to be cheerful, but the penultimate weekend of the 2013 European rugby calendar has helped to ensure that some clubs go into the festive fun with more cause for celebration than others.
Back in the domestic mixing pot once again, Saracens, Munster and Clermont Auvergne each strengthened their positions atop the Aviva Premiership, RaboDirect Pro12 and Top 14, respectively.
However, the championship-leading trio weren't the only stars of this weekend, with even the minnows throwing up their share of individual magic.
Regardless of what results their team may have earned, the following XV contributed enough on their own in order to warrant a place in the European team of the week.
1. Matt Mullan, London Wasps
Matt Mullan's fine outing against the Northampton Saints wasn't enough to give his side victory, but the 26-year-old held a fine account of himself up against Salesi Ma'afu and later Tom Mercey.
Wasps were a dominant force in the scrum, losing only one of their own feeds, and Mullan managed to contribute six tackles, not to mention carrying for 23 metres, making him the hosts' third-most effective runner of the ball on the day.
2. Jean Charles Orioli, Toulon
Toulon's 43-10 victory over Montpellier featured a number of blockbuster performances, but a try from Jean Charles Orioli provided the icing on the cake for the hooker, who helped keep his pack rock steady and was a number of forwards who showed great passion in the loose.
3. WP Nel, Edinburgh
Featuring in the team of the week for the second edition in a row, WP Nel was again vital in helping the Scottish giants to another essential win, this time against European titans Leinster.
This was the first game of the campaign in which Edinburgh had succeeded in preventing the opposition from scoring at Murrayfield, helped immensely by the South African's eight tackles and his stability in the scrum, the hosts not losing a single one of their own feeds.
4. Alun Wyn Jones, Ospreys
The battle of the South Wales giants swung back in Ospreys' favour this weekend after Steve Tandy's side managed to hold off a late Cardiff Blues surge in the nation's capital.
And what a surprise that Alun Wyn Jones played a key role in lighting the way to that victory, his 14 tackles being the most of any player on Friday evening and his presence at the line-out as telling as ever.
5. Dean Mumm, Exeter Chiefs
Another lock captain who shone brightly this weekend, Dean Mumm wasn't able to add to a very respectable try tally for the campaign at Sandy Park this weekend, but his influence going forward was nonetheless huge.
Making seven tackles and losing not one of his line-out takes, the Chiefs' pack leader prodded his side to a 16-3 win over Newcastle Falcons, albeit giving away one or two avoidable penalties along the way.
6. Billy Vunipola, Saracens
Billy Vunipola's rise to Saracens seniority took another turn for the better this weekend, the 49-10 routing of Leicester Tigers posing as something of a coming-of-age for the youngster.
In one of his first real titanic Premiership struggles, the 21-year-old made more than 50 metres from his 15 carries and was rewarded for his troubles with a trademark try from short range.
Another attacking masterclass.
7. Cornell du Preez, Edinburgh
Cornell du Preez's importance to Edinburgh's cause is growing by the week and the 22-year-old fits in at openside this week to accommodate the presence of Vunipola.
Another South African sensation within Alan Solomons' side, Du Preez recorded a massive tally of 16 tackles against Leinster to go hand-in-hand with his 50 carrying metres, playing a key role in the 11-6 win over the Irish visitors.
8. Antonie Claassen, Castres
No player benefited more from the yellow card shown to Perpignan scrum-half Nicolas Durand than Castres No. 8 Antonie Claassen, who claimed a crucial six-minute brace while the half-back was off the pitch, showing great awareness both around the scrum and out wide.
9. Greig Laidlaw, Edinburgh
When Edinburgh are in flying form, there's a good chance that Greig Laidlaw's at the root of it, which was exactly the case in their triumph over Leinster this weekend.
The scrum-half played a characteristically quick game, offering fluidity to his own back line and making executive decisions when they were required, not to mention forcing five turnovers, carrying for 55 metres and adding six points with the boot.
10. Owen Farrell, Saracens
If Vunipola's outing against Leicester was a coming-of-age, then Owen Farrell's outing at Allianz Park was something of a seasoned saunter as the fly-half controlled matters both from hand and boot alike.
Confidence in abundance, the youngster switched play when it was needed and looked every bit the Saracens' leader until coming off with an injury with 15 minutes left.
Farrell kicked 13 of his side's 49 points but made very few bad decisions in the demolition job, albeit allowing Graham Kitchener to charge him down for a visitors' try.
11. Hanno Dirksen, Ospreys
Ospreys' Hanno Dirksen didn't manage to get on the scoresheet during the 22-19 win in Cardiff, but his running exploits constantly put the visitors on the front foot, beating no less than eight defenders and carrying for 129 metres.
12. Matt Giteau, Toulon
Matt Giteau's versatility served him well once again this weekend as the Australian started at centre to accommodate the presence of Jonny Wilkinson before shifting to fly-half following the Englishman's early withdrawal.
The playmaker's combination of superb running ability and spacial awareness with the boot was paramount against Montpellier, not to mention his nine points from the tee helped the scoreline tick over.
13. Jared Payne, Ulster
Jared Payne has been one of the heroes in Ulster's back line for some time now and an exposed Zebre defence let the New Zealander take advantage with a first-half try.
The winger-cum-full-back filled in at outside centre this week and was reliable in the role, but his 75 carrying metres and 30th-minute try did paper over the cracks of the odd defensive lapse.
14. Chris Ashton, Saracens
Shifting Dirksen on to the left wing comes another fine contribution from Chris Ashton, who scored his first Premiership brace of the campaign in the win over Leicester.
In truth, only one of those was a difficult finish, but the speedster once again showed good positioning, often coming into the line to provide Farrell with some tighter running options and finishing chances when available.
15. Alex Goode, Saracens
Alongside Ashton, Alex Goode was arguably the centrepiece of Saracens' reliable back line, not putting a foot wrong in North London.
Averaging more than five metres per carry, Goode beat four defenders, forced one turnover and didn't miss any of his tackles against the Tigers, shutting out the visiting attack along with the rest of Mark McCall's resilient outfit.