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Nick Cain: Brits is best of all the imports into Premiership

The Schalk Brits masterclass against Northampton that lit up the Twickenham double-header last weekend made up my mind that he is the greatest overseas import to grace Premiership rugby.

The list compiled here is limited to the professional era, and Brits is at the summit because he is not only a magnificent player and great entertainer who has defied convention, but is also incredibly consistent.

The Saracens hooker has rarely had a dip in form over his nine seasons in the Premiership, and during that time he has been an elemental force in the Saracens drive to become the best club not just in England, but in Europe.

Brits goes into his swansong season at 36 as a double European Cup champion (2016, 2017), and with three Premiership titles to his name (2011, 2015, 2016). His brilliant playmaking skills and pace have had the ideal showcase in a Saracens side brimful with ability. However, I am convinced that whichever club he joined in the Premiership his sheer talent and exuberance would have broken through.

His own trophy cabinet is groaning with the weight of his winner’s medals, and he may yet add a couple more.

Brits heads a spectacular cast which includes his Saracens team-mates Petrus du Plessis and Jacques Burger, but the player who pushes them a little further down the pecking order is the Wasps piledriver of a hooker, Trevor Leota.

The tank-like Samoan was as wide as he was tall, and was a one-man demolition crew. Leota had a soft spot for fast-food, but there was nothing soft about his carrying or tackling. He was a brutally effective try-scorer from close range, and gave Wasps unstoppable momentum during a period in which they beat Toulouse to win the European Cup for the first time in 2004, and also one three Premiership titles on the bounce (2003, 2004, 2005).

Tight-head Du Plessis was Brits’ right-hand man until he left for London Irish over the summer. He departed on a high note having played a crucial role in the Saracens success story. He offered them a rock solid dependability in every facet of the game – a scrum that never crumbled, failsafe tackling, and unbreakable spirit.

The two players tied for fourth place, Northampton’s Samu Manoa and Sale’s Sebastien Chabal, were both meteoric forces of nature. Their impact was more fleeting than those of the players above them, but they galvanise their clubs to win first Premiership titles through their sheer athleticism and commitment.

Chabal’s bearded ‘Caveman’ appearance was no front. The raw-boned French No.8 went about his business with such unbridled ferocity that Sale were transformed, building up such a head of steam that they overwhelmed Leicester 45-20 in the 2006 final.

Manoa was at the epicentre of the Northampton drive to the title in 2014. He gave the Saints a new dynamic with his power-running, and led the charge that saw them become champions before leaving to join Toulon.

Another Northampton hero comes next. Pat Lam was not the biggest back row forward, but he claims fifth place because he had one of the biggest hearts in the game. His inspirational captaincy was crucial to Northampton defying the odds to win the club’s first major title, the European Cup in 2000. The Samoan drove them to a 9-8 victory over Munster through sheer force of character, playing most of the final with a badly damaged shoulder.

Jacques Burger was a chip off the same block as Lam when it came to playing through the pain barrier. Burger’s unflinching tackling was out of the kamikaze mould, but the flanker’s fearless and selfless approach put down a template at Saracens of putting the team first. Nobody merited their Premiership title wins in 2011 and 2015 more than the shaggy-haired Namibian.

Pat Howard and Raphael Ibanez are two more imports who made landmark contributions which are hard to separate. Howard was hugely influential at Leicester as a player, and later as coach. The Wallaby play-maker’s biggest contribution on the pitch came in the Tigers epic 2001 European Cup win over Stade Francais in Paris. The Parc des Princes was meant to be Stade’s impregnable fortress, but Howard’s cool head proved invaluable in not just paving the way to that victory, but also in guiding Tigers to the first Premiership and European Cup double.

Ibanez’s leadership qualities were similarly indispensable to Wasps when the French hooker and captain was at the forefront of their second European Cup triumph in 2007, scoring a try in the final against Leicester. The following season’s Premiership title secured his place in the Wasps roll of honour.

Marcos Ayerza’s contribution to the Leicester cause over 11 years, until it was curtailed by injury last season, was immense, and it earns him tenth place. It included being a cornerstone of the Tigers pack in three Premiership title-winning campaigns, and the Argentine loose-head was so committed to the Leicester cause that he named one of his polo ponies ‘Welford Road’.

Next comes Nick Evans, the quicksilver Kiwi fly-half who spurned further New Zealand honours to relocate to the Stoop in 2008. Evans bought a fizz and flair to the Quins game that helped them to secure their first Premiership title four years later, and as injuries caught up with him before he retired at the end of last season his influence was badly missed.

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