A breathless summer of rugby is almost at an end and the new domestic season is dawning, with the 2023 Guinness Six Nations not too far away.
Another scintillating season is in store, the Autumn Nations Series the next international stopping point amidst club rugby in every corner of the continent.
In our series looking at the continent’s current top performers by position, it’s the turn of the flankers, with five back row specialists making our list, a combination of blindsides and opensides, arguably the most competitive spot of all.
1. Josh van der Flier (Ireland)
A truly world class openside, Josh van der Flier has had a fairytale summer, marrying his long-time girlfriend just a month after playing an instrumental role in Ireland’s first-ever series victory in New Zealand.
The Leinster flanker charged over from a rolling maul in the third minute of the all-important decider to get Ireland off the mark, and his importance to Ireland’s Triple Crown cannot be understated either.
He played every minute of their campaign and his 58 tackles over the five rounds of action was the highest total of any Irishman, and the fifth highest overall.
The 29-year-old also scored two tries, against France and Scotland, while he seemed to defy the laws of space and time, popping up everywhere in a Player of the Match performance against Italy.
2. Hamish Watson (Scotland)
Hamish Watson won his 50th Scotland cap in the second Test against Argentina.
The Edinburgh openside marked the milestone with a try in an impressive 29-6 win, and while the Scots ultimately went on to lose the series, no one could fault Watson, who has been a standout performer for his country for many years.
Only Italy’s Michele Lamaro made more tackles than the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship in this year’s edition.
And with eight broken tackles, it’s not surprising the 30-year-old has earned the nickname ‘The Pinball’.
3. Courtney Lawes (England)
Courtney Lawes’ importance to England was underlined on his 100th international appearance in the second summer Test against Australia.
With the Northampton Saints back rower retaining the captaincy through the summer despite Owen Farrell’s return, the 33-year-old led by example as England levelled the series.
Lawes was the standout performer that day and after the visitors clinched the decider in Sydney, there is little doubt he will stay at blindside for his fourth World Cup next year.
Not since England’s defeat in the 2019 final in Japan has Lawes started in the second row, and the move has continued to pay dividends. Between his performances for the Lions and his emergence as a true leader with England, Lawes is cementing his position as one of England’s all-time greats in any position.
4. Michele Lamaro (Italy)
Italy’s captain was gushing after his team ended a run of 36 straight Six Nations losses with a last-gasp 22-21 victory over Wales this spring.
The Italians followed the long overdue win with triumphs in Romania and Portugal this summer.
But it was Lamaro’s gutsy performances in the face of adversity in this year’s Championship that earns him a spot on our list.
He made 86 tackles – the true currency of a top flanker – more than any other player and 16 more than the next highest, the aforementioned Watson.
Lamaro has taken over the leadership role that Sergio Parisse carried out for many years, and has thrived in the role despite still being only 24.
5. Tommy Reffell (Wales)
Fresh from winning the Gallagher Premiership with Leicester Tigers, the man known as Tommy Turnover made his debut for Wales on the summer tour to South Africa.
The 23-year-old Tommy Reffell was captain of his country at age-grade level and certainly did not look out of place when Wales beat South Africa in their own backyard for the very first time.
The Bridgend-born openside won a heap of plaudits and the player-of-the-match award that day.
And on his debut the week before he carried with purpose, flew into tackles (15 across the 80 minutes) and sensed danger like a shark smells blood.
It is at the breakdown where he is in a league of his own, and while he is the least experienced player on this list, his performances in South Africa hinted at a big future.
A name sure to be on past and future lists is Tom Curry, but the Englishman has had a disrupted summer through injury and is likely to miss the start of the domestic campaign. Taine Basham is another who just misses out on the top five, overshadowed by fellow countryman Reffell, while Scotland’s Rory Darge is another promising player coming through. Charles Ollivon will be determined to make the cut as he makes his comeback from an unfortunate knee injury. In his absence, Anthony Jelonch and François Cros formed a formidable partnership in France’s Grand Slam triumph and the Toulouse teammates will provide stiff competition in Les Bleus’ back row. And last but not least, Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony enjoyed a stellar summer in New Zealand and could easily have made the cut as well.