After putting together our rather negative 'Top 5: Disappointments of the Season' list, I think it's only fair that we hop over to bright side of life. This season, despite it being blighted by injuries, suspensions and Covid enforced forfeits, has seen a thoroughly fascinating group of youngsters make their mark in the northern hemisphere's top league. Although we haven't quite seen the competitive relegation scrap or the battle for top spot really play it's part in the end of season festivities, it has been easy to reflect on what has been a great year for the youth. Let's count down some of the top performers under 23... Yes, just 23...
5. Charlie Atkinson (Wasps)
It's been a bloody tough year for Wasps to say the least. Injury ravaged their squad of their top talent fairly early on into the season and killed off their top four ambitions before they really found their momentum. Out of form starlets have also contributed towards an underwhelming back-end of a pretty lacklustre season; it hasn't helped hearing of the absolute brigade of top talent leaving the club at the end of the season. However, Atkinson has been an absolute delight to watch this season and looks to be a real class talent coming through the mix. Although a lot of focus has been on young Umaga to produce the goods, Atkinson has showcased on nearly a dozen occasions this season that he could really be the guy to lead the line for years to come. Capable of playing both 15 and at 10, Atkinson is as cool as it gets under pressure, with an excellent tactical kicking game to boot; he's also not afraid of taking heavy contact. RugbyPass unfairly dubbed him as the 'man that Farrell nearly decapitated' but he surely doesn't deserve such an outlandish tagline any longer; he's a top player with an incredibly high ceiling... No wonder Eddie Jones has his eye on him.
4. Raffi Quirke (Sale Sharks)
The reason Raffi is on this list so high, is largely down to the boots he has to fill and the context of when he has to fill them. Raffi was born in 2001, let that sink in for a moment. He is currently the understudy to one of the all time great South African Scrum Halves in Faf De Klerk, he's played against top half opposition five times this season and in Europe twice and he's influenced the side to win nine of his eleven appearances. That's a cracking hit rate. He's an absolute terrier of a player, agile and deceptive around the fringes, surprisingly rigid and tough when hitting it into contact, and he has a decent box kick for someone of just 18 years of age. He was involved in huge wins such as the ones against Exeter, Wasps away, Scarlets away, Leicester and Bristol Bears. Although he's only been a starter 9% of the time, his impact off the bench is genuinely frightening; if Sale can keep this squad together, they could have two international quality Scrum Halves on their books by 2023.
3. Miles Reid (Bath)
In a similar fashion to Raffi Quirke, Reid has had massive boots to fill during Underhill's absence; arguably, he's been the better of the two from game to game when it comes to form, and that's a huge accolade to have under your belt at 22. He's played over 1000 minutes this season, racking up 17 matches and 11 starts, not to mention scoring two tries along the way. Even though his win rate at Bath sits below 50%, you could argue that it was his influence that steered them away from this downturn in form; he has become one of Hoopers most trusted squad players. He's tough, relentless and he has a tendency to smother the opposition with pressure, he's third in the league for tackle completed for goodness sake. He's also a great jackaler, a real nuisance in the tight and often crops up with the ball on the deck; not necessarily legally, but still, he manages to get away with it! Reid is definitely another example of England's embarrassment of riches in the back row; ten years ago, you'd be penning him for an England debut on their summer tour. Alas, such is the youth of Curry, Willis, Evans, Earl and co, he still has a lot to deliver on next season to breakthrough that barrier.
@Bath Rugby 2021
2. Louis Rees Zammit (Gloucester)
Yeah this guy is just a freak. Gloucester player of the year? Yeah, probably. Wales player of the year? Most likely, I would say so anyway. Lions player of the tour? I don't know, could be! Twenty starts this season despite the international break, fifteen tries scored for a bottom three club, most metres made at the club by a country mile, he is invaluable to this Gloucester setup. Despite having another international calibre wing on the opposite side in Jonny May, LRZ has dominated the plaudits for Gloucester's attacking play this season. Although the sides form has began to improve over the last few games; he's comfortably been the bright spot in what has been a pretty woeful campaign by the Cherry and Whites. Do we need to say anything more?
1. Marcus Smith (Harlequins)
Probably the easiest pick we've had to make all season, Marcus Smith has been sensational this season. It's honestly bewildering that fans are so quick to write him off after the last two sub-par games, but for much of the season, he has been THE in-form Fly Half, and at just 22 years old too; genuinely terrifying. Most points scored this season with 260, 87 more than the nearest player, fourth most tries scored this season with eight, joint twelfth most clean breaks this season with 20, and all of that achieved with a side that looked dead buried after the first few rounds. He has almost singlehandedly guided Harlequins back into tournament contention this season. Much like LRZ, Smith is invaluable to this club and it's scary to think that a move overseas was on the card for the youngster; he urgently needs an England call up. On a couple of occasions he has taken apart some top ten's in the league with Umaga, Priestland and Biggar all on his hit list. Not only is he the top young player of the season, but he's potentially up there at senior player of season level; he's that good.