By David de Winter – Sports Editor
@davidjdewinter [email protected]_Sport
Let’s be honest, it has been a far from vintage Six Nations. There have been sporadic moments of skill but, on the whole, it has been a forgettable tournament for most concerned, save England obviously. However, even England didn’t necessarily win the Grand Slam by playing ground-breaking rugby. They were the most streetwise and most consistent, no more than that. Nevertheless, here are the 15 chaps who have caught this discerning journalist’s eye.
- Full Back – Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
It was a straight fight between Hogg and Mike Brown for the 15 jersey and whilst Brown is supreme in defence and a slippery customer, the Scotsman’s explosive running wins it for me. His try on the final weekend against Ireland was exceptional and he has added another string to his bow with his long-range kicking. A shoe-in for the Lions.
- Right Wing – Anthony Watson (England)
What an exceptional start to his international career the Bath back is having. Under the high ball he leaps like a salmon and in attack he has tricky footwork and is surprisingly difficult to bring down. He also has a canny knack of being in the right place at the right time to score tries – rather like Chris Ashton, but is infinitely better in defence.
- Outside Centre – Duncan Taylor (Scotland)
No obvious candidate here but the Saracens man scored two good tries in his three appearances and was particularly effective against the French. Part of an emerging Scottish backline that has the potential to excite for years to come. Italy’s Michele Campagnaro also impressed.
- Inside Centre – Jamie Roberts (Wales)
Who else? Ever since his debut in 2008 the Harlequins man has been consistently excellent. Roberts rarely does anything flash but does the basics extremely well. He is a ferocious tackler and an intimidating ball-carrier. A real steadying influence for Wales’ midfield.
- Left Wing – George North (Wales)
After a disappointing 2015, North is back to his bullocking best, slicing through defences with his powerful surges. He seems to be leaner than in recent seasons, which seems to have improved his speed and agility, demonstrated by his jinking try against Scotland. Tommy Seymour ran him close but North is a cut above. Class.
- Fly-Half – Dan Biggar (Wales)
This was a quiet Six Nations for the outside halves. George Ford was subdued and Jonny Sexton was not as commanding as he usually is. Of an average bunch, Biggar was probably the best: his distribution was good, his work-rate impressive (as shown by his charge-down try against England) and his kicking dead-eye.
- Scrum-Half – Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)
An easy choice. Laidlaw was the standout 9 in the tournament, dictating the tempo of Scotland’s attacks and leading by example. He was immense in that important victory in Rome and followed it up with an equally commanding performance against France. Laidlaw’s distribution was far better than England’s Ben Youngs’ and his kicking was nigh-on faultless. Should be a Lion.
- Loosehead Prop – Jack McGrath (Ireland)
I have absolutely no idea if any of the loose-head props were any good. There seemed to be a lot of collapsed scrums and none of them did anything of note in the loose. I chose McGrath simply because, to me at least, he was the least shit.
- Hooker – Dylan Hartley (England)
What a turnaround for the Northampton hooker. From being deemed unselectable by Stuart Lancaster for the World Cup not 6 months ago, Hartley is now captain of a Grand Slam-winning side. He led from the front admirably and his throwing was a big reason why England’s lineout was so impressive. His tackling was sometimes a bit suspect but overall he was a key cog in a dominant England pack.
- Tighthead Prop – Dan Cole (England)
In years gone by, Cole’s selection used to baffle me. He seemed to be overweight, a disciplinary liability and he offered precious little in either the scrum or the loose. I’m now digesting my words as the Leicester Tiger has finally come of age. His scrummaging was excellent (apparently), marmalising the usually dominant Wales front row and he scored a (dubious) try against France and had one chalked off against the Welsh. Much improved.
- Lock – Maro Itoje (England)
Now, I am loathe to buy in to all the hype about the Saracens youngster, but I can’t deny that he was impressive. He is an athletic player and intelligent footballer with dextrous hands and impressive pace, rather like Courtney Lawes. He is also extremely difficult to force off the ball at the breakdown where he made several key turnovers. Itoje is by no means the finished article (against Ireland he was caught out of position a few times) but the biggest compliment I can give him is that he reminded me of the totemic South African second row Eben Etzebeth with his incessant tackling. An exciting prospect.
- Lock – George Kruis (England)
Itoje’s partner in crime and club teammate was England’s mainstay at lineout time. As well as being part of an almost faultless Red Rose lineout he disrupted the opposition’s time and again. Generally put in a good shift all over the park. Solid and dependable.
- Blindside Flanker – CJ Stander (Ireland)
A standout debut tournament for the South African born flanker. Stander was a ferocious ball-carrier, always gaining yards, was a nuisance at the breakdown and tackled to a standstill. Combine him with a fit-again Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip and you have a fearsome Ireland back row for years to come.
- Openisde Flanker – Jon Hardie (Scotland)
Rather like at loosehead prop, none of the Sevens impressed me. Hardie gets in by virtue of doing the least wrong. James Haskell continuously walked a disciplinary tightrope (again) and Sam Warburton didn’t quite have the spring in his step of recent seasons. Ireland’s van der Flier didn’t have a bad tournament, but Hardie just edges it for me for his performances against Italy and France.
- Number 8 – Sergio Parisse (Italy)
Ok, I know it’s a controversial selection and I have an unhealthy man crush on Parisse and Billy Vunipola was the player of the tournament, blah blah blah, but just hear me out. Billy Vunipola is an excellent player and has improved immeasurably in the last 12 months. But he is not in Parisse’s class (neither Taulupe Faletau’s) because he does not have a good enough all-round game. Yes, as a ball carrier, he was the most dangerous and effective in the tournament, often beating two or three defenders and consistently making yards. Nevertheless I implore you to watch Parisse in action – he is everywhere: he makes yards just as Vunipola does but he is often his side’s top tackler and you can bet he will be hunting for the ball at the breakdown. Vunipola’s tackling stats aren’t all that and there is simply no comparison to Parisse’s skills with the ball in hand. Vunipola must add more facets to his game (e.g to offload more) to become the world-class rugby player that Parisse is and has been for the past 10 years.