By David de Winter – Sports Editor
On Saturday morning, when I was formulating the idea for this article in my head, I had everything planned out. I was going to bemoan the fact that in this day and age of professional rugby, defences almost invariably come out on top. I was going to complain that very few players have the intuition (or talent) to take a potentially match-changing risk. Then I was going to get all misty-eyed with nostalgia and talk about how the glory era of free-flowing rugby (1970s to early 1990s) which was full of off-loads, outrageous passing and individual brilliance has been replaced with percentage-based, risk-free rugby and players who have become homogenous gym-bunnies.
But then Saturday afternoon happened – the most extraordinary day of rugby I have ever experienced. There were tries galore and because of the tournament situation, Wales, Ireland and England were forced to attack gung-ho. Yes, some of the defence ranged from the bad (Scotland) to the worse (England) to the dreadful (France) and to the totally non-existent (Italy). Nevertheless, what Saturday really showed was that when players are given licence to attack at will, they have the ability to carve open even the sturdiest of defences like a hot knife through butter. Modern rugby has almost become about not conceding points rather than striving to score points – playing the percentages and getting maximum reward for minimum risk. However when the shackles are broken, Saturday proved that the northern hemisphere has its fair share of attacking rugby talent at its disposal. If only it would last…
Anyway enough of my poncey, pseudo-philosophical waffle (until the next article). Here are the 15 chaps who impressed me the most during the past two months.
15. Full-back – Rob Kearney (Ireland)
I could have happily picked all 6 full-backs on show during the tournament, such is the plethora of talent in this position in northern hemisphere rugby. France’s Scott Spedding counter-attacked with thrilling verve; Luke McLean was almost Italy’s best player (for the first three games at least); Leigh Halfpenny was as dependable as ever for Wales; Mike Brown was robust in defence and as slippery as an eel in attack; and Stuart Hogg was Scotland’s most threatening attacker (and best defender). However Rob Kearney gets my vote because he was the best all-round 15: solid under the high ball and in defence whilst being a dangerous runner and kicking brilliantly from hand.
14. Right Wing – Yoann Huget (France)
Huget didn’t actually score any tries but apart from being the coolest (and manliest) player on show he was also a standout performer in a below-par French side. He regularly got his hands dirty coming off his wing and was a penetrative runner with ball in hand. He was starved of decent service as France employed that clever tactic of using Mathieu Basteraud as a wrecking ball at every possible opportunity. How well that worked.
13. Outside Centre – Jonathan Joseph (England)
One of the easier choices. Joseph was probably the outstanding player of the tournament. Blessed with quicker feet than Lionel Blair on speed, he could sidestep most defenders in a phone box. Top try scorer and England’s best outside-centre option since Will Greenwood retired.
12. Inside Centre – Jamie Roberts (Wales)
No obvious candidate here. France’s Wesley Fofana was strangely subdued and failed to have his usual impact on games whilst Luther Burrell was solid but unspectacular for England. Roberts did his usual crash-bang-wallop to great effect, always getting over the gain line. He was also gargantuan in defence.
11. Left Wing – Jack Nowell (England)
Nowell is still raw at this level but he has oodles of potential. Capable of finding a gap that only a mouse could fit through, he is especially dangerous when counter-attacking and in open play. Three tries in three matches demonstrates that he knows where the whitewash is too. Needs to improve his awareness and composure but he could be starring in an England jersey for years to come.
10. Fly-half – Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
My heart desperately wants to select George Ford because of his sublime attacking displays throughout the tournament but Sexton gets the nod because of his superior game management. He seems to know exactly when to pass, kick or run and also organises the team superbly. Impressively withstood a rampaging Basteraud on his return from a 12 week break for concussion and also gave England and opposite number Ford a tactical masterclass in Dublin.
9. Scrum-half – Connor Murray (Ireland)
Again Rhys Webb and Ben Youngs were more exciting than the Irishman but Murray’s all-round performances were better. Despite socring three tries each, Webb kicked abysmally against England and Youngs went missing against Ireland. Murray has struck up an impressive rapport with Sexton which has been the key to Ireland’s recent success. His passing and kicking are second to none.
1. Loosehead Prop – Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
Another who is improving with age, Jenkins was solid enough come scrum-time and was excellent as always defensively, at the breakdown and also with ball in hand. Must be a contender for all-time great status.
2. Hooker – Rory Best (Ireland)
Accurate at the line-out for the most part, Best does a passable impression of one of his predecessors, Keith Wood, because of his work in the loose. He is a willing ball-carrier, a tireless worker and an integral part of this successful Ireland side.
3. Tighthead Prop – Dan Cole (England)
If I’m honest, I didn’t think Cole was much to write home about but neither were any of the other tighthead props. He provided plenty of grunt in a mainly dominant England scrum and was a nuisance at the breakdown. Not much more to say really.
4. Lock – Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
The man is relentless. How he continues to produce match-winning performances week-in, week-out at the age of 35 defies logic. O’Connell still throws himself into tackles and charges at defences with the ferocious intensity of a 21 year-old. A talismanic leader and worthy captain of the Six Nations Champions.
5. Lock – Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Like O’Connell, Jones has been playing consistently high quality rugby for years. His herculean defensive effort alongside his partner in crime Luke Charteris against Ireland bordered on the absurd. Admirably relishes the physical confrontation with scant regard for his personal well-being. Unquestionably the leader of the Welsh pack and was rewarded with man-of-the-match performances against Scotland and Italy.
6. Blindside Flanker – Thierry Dusautoir (France)
Again there was no standout player at 6. Dan Lydiate tackled everything that moved as usual and Peter O’Mahony was generally a nuisance but Dusautoir is just a defensive machine. He was an integral part of a stingy French defence which, until that freak final match at Twickenham, had only conceded two tries in their previous four outings. Man-of-the-match against Italy.
7. Openside Flanker – Chris Robshaw (England)
The England captain seems to get better year on year. His tackling was unbelievable, particularly in the opening day win at the Millennium Stadium, as was his work at the breakdown. Seems to have grown into the role of captain and now exudes authority on the pitch.
8. Number 8 – Sergio Parisse (Italy)
Who else? I genuinely consider Parisse to be one of, if not the greatest number 8 to grace the game. He stands out like a shining beacon of class amongst the mediocrity of his team mates. Next time he plays just watch how much work he gets through: he never misses a tackle everyone, he always makes yards with ball in hand and his off-loading is bettered only by Sonny Bill Williams. Played superbly in defeat to England and was calmness personified in the lead-up to that last-ditch try to secure victory over Scotland. Phenomenal.
David is the Sports Editor for The London Economic. For enquiries, please email [email protected]