Richie McCaw, Marland Yarde and World Rugby's Team of the Weekend
As Europe's domestic campaigns reach their climax, players from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres will now be included in our regular team of the week line-up.
The Top 14 regular season rounded to a close this weekend, with Toulon and Montpellier advancing straight to the play-off semi-finals, while Clermont, Castres, Racing Metro and Toulouse make up the French quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, the Aviva Premiership and Pro12 played out the penultimate week of their seasons, but rugby fans have cause for comfort as the Super Rugby year continues to engine forward with plenty of fixtures still left to play.
With such a wide pool of players now accounted for, expectations are increased and quality that much more potent in our XV, with only star-quality performances enough to secure a spot in the reckoning.
1. James Cronin, Munster
Munster were unrelenting in their 55-12 thrashing of Edinburgh on Scottish soil this weekend, coming to life in a second half that saw the visiting pack chug forth in powerful fashion on their way to victory.
James Cronin was a powerful force in that particular pursuit and, along with making 40 metres with ball in hand and contributing seven tackles, set substitute Duncan Williams up for a 66th-minute score under the posts thanks to some finely weighted offloading in the tackle.
2. Dave Ward, Harlequins
One of several games decided by the slightest of margins this weekend was Harlequins' 30-29 victory over Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, a fixture in which the battle of the packs was pivotal.
Quins failed to lose a scrum on their own feed this weekend, and two of the four tries scored by Conor O'Shea's side benefited from a substantial Dave Ward contribution, evidenced by a superb four offloads.
3. Frans Malherbe, Stormers
Props scoring one try is often an occasion to celebrate, but Frans Malherbe took the feat one step further in the Stormers 29-28 victory over the Highlanders on Saturday thanks to his vital brace of scores.
Schalk Burger gave a beautiful assist in creating one of the tighthead's two tries, which included a helpful 26-metre carrying total. It would almost be disrespectful to neglect such an eager display of attacking nuance from Malherbe.
The Blues rode to a Friday night thumping over the Queensland Reds, trouncing their Australian opponents 44-14 in Auckland with a display that thrived on solid teamwork all over the park rather than spiking in certain areas.
However, Patrick Tuipulotu's work at the line-out and in missing none of his 13 attempted tackles is deserving of special credit, helping the hosts' pack lay a firm base for the more dazzling stars of the back line to do the damage.
5. Aliki Fakate, Bordeaux
With both of Bordeaux's locks getting on the scoreboard in this week's 54-20 victory over Biarritz, it was a day for the forwards to be proud of as Aliki Fakate grabbed one of his side's eight tries.
The 28-year-old barged his way through a mound of opposition defenders to cross over close to the touchline and was very active in providing support for several other of Bordeaux's other scoring endeavours.
6. Richie McCaw, Crusaders
Returning from the thumb injury that had prevented him from having any genuine impact on the Crusaders' season thus far, Richie McCaw took little time in reminding all just what a missed figure he was at Eden Park.
The Crusaders kept the Brumbies down to scoring just 20 points, and defence was the name of McCaw's game—he registered an astronomical 20 tackles to mark his return in the 40-20 triumph.
7. Jackson Wray, Saracens
Hat-tricks were in some abundance this weekend, and Saracens' Jackson Wray egged his team to victory with an impressive triple of his own at Allianz Park on Saturday.
From nine carries, the flanker managed to carry for 38 metres, making three clean breaks and beating six defenders on his way to a magnificent scoring haul.
8. Nathan Hughes, London Wasps
Potential England international Nathan Hughes starred for London Wasps once again this weekend despite coming off with injury at half-time, scoring a brace of tries, carrying for more than 80 metres, beating six defenders and managing five offloads in the 44-38 win over Newcastle.
Fiji and Samoa will still be striving to lure the 22-year-old into their national team folds, but Stuart Lancaster would be wise to to secure Hughes' talents as another back-row option begins to flourish in the capital.
9. Nick Phipps, Waratahs
The Waratahs' insistence on promoting free-flowing, attacking rugby is a method that suits Nick Phipps well, and the half-back showed good initiative in constructing two of his side's five tries in Saturday's 39-30 triumph over the Hurricanes.
Phipps made an above-average 87 passes as he moved to work the ball quickly at every opportunity, but it was his 15 tackles that perhaps impressed most against one of Super Rugby's strongest attacking suits.
10. Francois Trinh-Duc, Montpellier
Montpellier secured a home semi-final in the Top 14 play-offs this weekend with their 44-10 drubbing of Racing Metro, largely thanks to the 24-point haul of Francois Trinh-Duc.
Scoring under the posts 10 minutes into the second half, the French playmaker kicked three penalties and converted all five of his team's tries, pushing Montpellier past Clermont in the standings at this crucial juncture.
12. Shane Monahan, Gloucester
Up until this weekend, Shane Monahan's season was yet to produce any luck in front of the whitewash, but a ninth-minute injury to Billy Twelvetrees provided the opening for him to score his first three tries of the campaign.
Showing clinical finishing skills from both short range and further out, Monahan showcased a wide range of skills in his 70-minute outing alongside Mike Tindall, making two clean breaks, forcing three turnovers and carrying for 73 metres.
13. Johann Sadie, Cheetahs
The Cheetahs may have ground to a 26-21 defeat in Auckland, but Johann Sadie is one of those in the South African outfit who can hold his head high after an emphatic offensive display.
The outside centre took the initiative in scoring an intercept try that initially put the Cheetahs into a lead, finishing with 116 metres made with ball in hand, and also rounding his day off with nine tackles, none missed.
11. Ugo Monye, Harlequins
Toulouse's Hosea Gear pushed the Englishman hard for his place this week thanks to a 69-minute hat-trick against Grenoble, but Ugo Monye's injection of pace in Harlequins' slight win at Exeter was of more vital significance.
The England winger responded to Dave Lewis' opening try of the match within two minutes, dotting down as part of the man of the match-worthy performance that saw him beat seven defenders from 11 carries.
14. Marland Yarde, London Irish
His performance wasn't enough to prevent London Irish's 38-30 loss at Kingsholm, but Marland Yarde was in particularly stunning form against Gloucester, leading the back-line momentum with his mixture of staggering power and more agile evasive tactics.
Scoring a hat-trick himself, not to mention putting his feet right when under touchline pressure to set up a fourth for Gerard Ellis, Yarde carried for 146 metres, including four clean breaks and beating 12 defenders, making him our world player of the week.
15. Ben Smith, Highlanders
Full-back was an incredibly hard slot to fill this week, and although Simon Zebo and Alex Goode did fine jobs in the No. 15 jerseys of Munster and Saracens, respectively, Ben Smith was a shining light for the Highlanders in a damaging loss to the Stormers.
The New Zealand superstar was one of only two visiting players who managed to carry for more than 50 metres in Cape Town, clocking up 116 from 12 carries himself, scoring a crucial second-half try and setting up another from deep.
Although a losing bonus point was the only fruit of the Highlanders' labours, Smith was again the standout performer in a below-par team performance.
All statistics come courtesy of ESPN Scrum.
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