SO that was the Six Nations — a tournament that started with fireworks, tries and surprises a-plenty in the first weekend, declined into the type of turgid dross we have become worryingly used to, and finished in spectacular fashion as the Welsh tore into the English for a record win and a second successive championship.
The general fare was poor — with 37 tries (with 20 of those in just four games), the tournament had a full nine less than the previous low — not the kind of attack to worry the Wallabies, that’s for sure. Ireland had their worst Six Nations to date — it was brilliant for 47 minutes, but sank lower and lower until the abject trouncing they got in Rome.
Our team of the tournament reflects that — just one Irishman, and Brian O’Driscoll is there by default — no one came up to his level. And let’s hope his last Ireland international isn’t one where he stamps on a prone opponent — he deserves better.
1. Thomas Domingo (France): Scarily good for one so young — incredibly destructive, and not useless in the loose. Gethin Jenkins improved as time went on, and Joe Marler went the other direction.
2. Richard Hibbard (Wales): Not a position rife with contenders – Rory Best was occasionally brilliant in the loose but generally appalling out of touch. Hibbert gets the nod for the solid Welsh lineout and scrum and those flowing golden locks.
3. Adam Jones (Wales): Speaking of flowing locks... Jones seemed to be supporting the Welsh scrum alone at times while Gethin Jenkins shed the spare tyre in February. A scrimmaging black-belt.
4. Joe Launchbury (England): Quite the find, Launchbury has built on a notable November Series and put himself in pole Lions positions — English locks are rarely shrinking violets, and Launchbury adds an excellent game in the loose.
5. Big Jim Hamilton (Scotland): All the talk was of Richie Gray, but it was Hamilton who made mincemeat of opponents’ lineout, particularly that of Ireland and France. Donnacha Ryan played himself out of contention with a brain-dead finale in Rome.
6. Alessandro Zanni (Italy): Peerless in Italy’s two final matches, arguably out-shining even the ubiquitous Sergio Parisse. Very good ball carrier, and doesn’t let anyone last him — a model blindside.
7. Justin Tipuric (Wales): Oh how Rob Howley must regret not selecting him against Ireland – transformed Wales, and hugely influential in the filleting of England. Chris Robshaw had a good start, but faded with his team.
8. Louis Picamoles (France): Picamoles and Parisse were the best of a competitive sector by a million miles — Parisse could be accommodated at any position really, but Picamoles gets the nod for his ridiculously powerful carrying and offloading game — where would France be without him?
9. Mike Phillips (Wales): Still the best around — great break, good kicker and marshalls the Welsh backs well, particularly in the final weekend — stepped up with a greenhorn outside him and likely to be a key player this summer.
10. Owen Farrell (England): Varied his game better this year, especially against Scotland, when Billy Twelvetrees helped him launch the English backs. Consistency from the boot and solid defence, it’s worth noting how much more unsure England were with Toby Flood at No. 10.
11. George North (Wales): Class is permanent, and retreating Scarlets scrums are temporary. North showed how much damage he can do given the right platform — the giant Welsh backs were increasingly influential as time went on, with North the most prominent.
12. Brad Barritt (England): Stop sniggering. Ordinary going forward, but Barritt is England’s defensive lynchpin — the first man on Stuart Lancaster’s teamsheet. You need to be special to get in behind this backline (see: Fofana, Wesley) and that’s down to Barritt
13. Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland): In what might be his last Six Nations campaign, BOD’s excellence and consistency earns him the No. 13 shirt. He continues to be the benchmark by which all outside centres are judged, and we surely aren’t alone in thinking he has more to offer.
14. Luke McLean (Italy): as Italy’s gameplan has expanded under Jacques Brunel, so has the influence of their backs — a confident attacker with great hands and a big boot, he got his reward with that try against England.
15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland): toss-up between himself and Leigh Halfpenny, and we went with the player whose rugger philosophy we like better. Hogg is a brilliant and elusive counterattacker, while Halfpenny a rock-solid defensive fullback with a good boot. Both will be Lions.
Best game: the highest quality was England-France in Twickers — Les Bleus gave a powerful and controlling performance, until Philippe Saint-Andre threw in Machenaud, Michalak and the towel on the hour mark.
The most extraordinary was Italy’s opening weekend win over a vaunted France side. They unveiled an off-loading game to the wider world that got the best out of their outstanding forwards and gave the backs a means of keeping their hands warm.
The Wales-Ireland game in round one was the most exciting — a see-sawing game of inventive attack and heroic defence — five more minutes and Wales might have won from 27 points down.
The most memorable was undoubtedly the Wales-England finale in the Millennium — a feverish atmosphere and high-class performance won’t be forgotten quickly.
Worst game: Scotland-Wales in Murrayfield set two unwanted records — number of penalty goals scored and attempted in an international. A horrible game, shockingly refereed by Craig Joubert, this was hard to watch.
Best try: Wesley Fofana (France v England) — starting in their own 22, the French slalomed right along the touchline, with Fofana handing off tacklers and breaching the white fortress with aplomb. An excellent player, given a rare chance to showcase his skills in a difficult tournament personally.
Karma: Chris Ashton — given a reprieve against Italy by Lancaster despite some rank form and tantrums, Ashton endured his most difficult day of the year against Luke McLean — you’d almost think someone up there had been watching his four swan dives against the same opponent two years ago. Ten tackles missed, zero defenders beaten over the series tells its own story.
Ode to 2009: After four weeks of the championship, Sergio Parisse had made more passes in just three games than the entire Irish pack (including replacements) — if any statistic was indicative of Ireland’s failure to move on since the Grand Slam, this was it.
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