Now that the dust has settled on the 6 Nations for another year it is time to start looking at the top performers and pick my Team of the Tournament, much as I did last year. I found it much harder to pick a line-up this year due to a combination of injuries and drops in form so I am sure some people will disagree with some of my selections. If you think I’ve missed someone feel free to let me know in the comments.
Loose-head prop – Rob Evans: This was probably one of the hardest positions to pick as there was nobody that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Mako Vunipola understandably looked tired and was not at his best this year and while I nearly picked Cian Healy I have instead gone for Rob Evans of Wales. Evans gives that extra dimension in open play and even over a month later I still remember him playing a key part of what would have been a stunning try for Steff Evans had Alun Wyn Jones’ offload gone to hand. Wales appear to be lacking depth at prop currently but I can see Evans having a long run in the squad.
Hooker – Guilhem Guirado: Honourable mentions to Rory Best for captaining Ireland to the Grand Slam and Leonardo Ghiraldini who carried well and put in solid performances for Italy, but my selection at hooker has to be Guirado. The French captain may have missed the last round and struggled at times in the lineout, but he was relentless defensively. He was a tackling machine, second only to Jonny Gray in the tackle count over the first 4 rounds (69 tackles, 31 against Ireland) and also chipping in with a couple of turnovers. If he had been there in Round 5, I can’t help but wonder if the French would have ended the tournament with a victory.
Tight-head prop – Tadhg Furlong: Much like on the other side of the front row, I found it difficult to pick a standout performer at 3. In the end, a moment from Ireland’s victory over England cemented Furlong’s place in the team despite coming off injured a couple of minutes into one game and missing the next due to injury. An absolute wrecking ball, it was his deft hands to put Bundee Aki through the gap for CJ Stander’s try while making it look like the ball was going to the looping Johnny Sexton that impressed me so much. If a guy can bulldoze right over you or slip a silky pass like that, you don’t want to be the one defending against him!
Second rows – Jonny Gray & Cory Hill: If Guirado is a tackling machine, then Jonny Gray is a master. The Scottish lock finished top of the tackle charts with a whopping 100 tackles (20 per game on average!) and played a big part in keeping the Scottish pack on track despite all the players missing from the front row due to injuries. His partner was much harder for me to pick. Had Iain Henderson stayed fit he could have got the nod, as could France’s Sébastien Vahaamahina who was a nuisance at the breakdowns and in the line outs but gave away too many penalties. Instead I went for Cory Hill. I could have picked either Hill or Alun Wyn Jones as they both had solid tournaments, but Hill’s performances stood out more in my memory, perhaps due to his try against Italy.
Blindside flanker – Aaron Shingler: I am not just picking him to prove a point about Warren Gatland’s selections, I genuinely think Shingler had a great tournament and has probably been one of Wales’ best players this season. Despite being rested against Italy and dropped to the bench for the final game, the Scarlet finished the tournament with the most line out steals. He also showed his ability in the loose that makes him such a key player for the Scarlets. Seb Negri was one of Italy’s stars in this tournament, John Barclay had a strong tournament at 6 other than his match against Wales and Peter O’Mahony was his usual disruptive self at the breakdown, but Shingler gets my vote. I can’t help but wonder though how things might have been had he not put boot to ball following his break against England.
Openside flanker – Dan Leavy: With Sean O’Brien missing the tournament and Josh van der Flier going off injured in the first half of Ireland’s tournament opener against France, some people likely thought that the Irish could be in trouble. However Dan Leavy came on and the men in green never looked back. Along with O’Mahony and Stander, he caused a nuisance at the breakdown and also seemed to give the back row more balance after his introduction against France. Even with Jamie Heaslip having retired, the strength in depth of the Irish back row is incredible and I don’t envy Joe Schmidt having to pick from Stander, Leavy, O’Mahony, O’Brien, van der Flier and Jack Conan – and they’re just the names that come to mind immediately!
Number 8 – CJ Stander: Sam Simmonds was wonderful against Italy, but injury and England’s drop in form limited him for the rest of the tournament, Moriarty’s lack of game time this season showed before Taulupe Faletau’s return and most of the number 8s who started frequently could be described as solid but not spectacular. CJ Stander eventually got my vote here when I saw his 96 carries put him second on the all time list (only his tally from last year has been higher). The Munster back row may not have set the world alight in the same way as last year, but his tireless work rate helped the Grand Slam Champions set the platform to their success.
Scrum half – Conor Murray: Is there a scrum half in international rugby who does what Conor Murray does better? He may not be as much of a threat in open play as Gareth Davies or Rhys Webb, but his tactical kicking is a big part of Ireland controlling the game and it is rare you see him throw a poor pass. Murray topped the charts for passes (542) and kicks from hand (43) and was level with Greig Laidlaw at the top of the assist charts (4) as well as scoring 2 tries and finding success with a couple of kicks at goal. Honourable mention to Maxime Machenaud who was top points scorer this season with 50 points).
Fly half – Johnny Sexton: Let me just start by saying, I am not a fan of Sexton so he may not always get the credit he is due on here. That said, I think this was a really good tournament from him whereas none of his rivals really stood out. Finn Russell, George Ford and Tommy Allan had their moments but were also incredibly inconsistent, while Wales couldn’t decide who they wanted at 10. Sexton however managed to keep himself largely free of injury and play consistently well despite the changing personnel outside him. He needs to work on his kicking off the tee to be considered one of the very best in the world, but he controls his back line so well and his tactical kicking is usually so effective. If I needed any other reason to pick him, I just needed to watch his 45-metre drop goal to win the game against France. It takes balls to attempt it and talent to make it. Also as an aside: if you haven’t yet a video of it set to the Titanic music, you’re missing out!
Inside centre – Bundee Aki: If I was picking on just 1 game, Owen Farrell would have got the nod for his display against Wales, however his performances dipped along with England’s results. Hadleigh Parkes was my initial pick, however when I thought a bit more I decided to pick yet another of the Champions. He may not have stood out in the way some players selected have, but for a man who only made his international debut in the Autumn Tests and had to start with 3 different 13s (Henshaw, Farrell and Ringrose) and have a further 2 players (Earls and Larmour) spend time in the position throughout the tournament, he was incredibly consistent and still managed to chip in with 2 tries and a couple of assists. The more time he spends in the Irish team, the better this guy is going to get!
Outside centre – Mathieu Bastareaud: Huw Jones so nearly got the vote here but he did have a couple of quiet performances, so instead I have gone for Toulon captain Mathieu Bastareaud. He may have missed the first 2 matches through suspension, but I would argue his performances in the final 3 games made him France’s player of the tournament! He was a nightmare for the opposition at the breakdown and his physicality in attack opened up space for the men around him. With a number of players already injured and then more being exiled from the squad after Round 2, getting Basta back for the remaining games was vital. I can’t help but wonder how the Ireland and Scotland matches may have finished had he been there…
Wings – Jacob Stockdale & Keith Earls: It looked like Teddy Thomas would be getting selected after 3 tries in the first 2 weeks before being dropped from the squad. Jonny May and Sean Maitland can maybe consider themselves unlucky after scoring 4 and 3 tries respectively, but in the end I couldn’t not pick the Irish pair. Stockdale is an obvious pick here having made the most clean breaks this year (11) and more importantly broken the record for the number of tries in the tournament in one season (7) on the way to picking up the award for Player of the Championship. His record of 11 tries in 9 Test matches is just incredible and Ireland will be hoping he can continue this try-scoring for right through to the World Cup. Earls may not have been able to match his teammate’s scoring exploits, but he put in an incredible shift in each match both in attack and defence and even moved into the outside centre position following Robbie Henshaw’s injury against Italy. It was defensively that Earls’ impact was really felt as he was often the man working hardest to get back when a team broke against the Irish, while his tap tackle on Elliot Daly saved what looked a certain try. There’s clearly some talent coming through out wide for Ireland but I fully expect Earls to remain a key part of the Irish squad through to the World Cup.
Fullback – Matteo Minozzi: Stuart Hogg finished with the most metres made (479) and Rob Kearney looked back to his best on the way to beating 18 defenders, but Minozzi was one of my easiest selections any position. Despite Italy missing a couple of key players in the backs, Minozzi still became the first Italian to score 4 tries in a 6 Nations campaign. He was fully deserving of his spot on the shortlist for Player of the Championship despite Italy failing to win a game. He looked such a danger throughout the tournament and will surely be one of the players Conor O’Shea builds his team around over the coming seasons.
Find my thoughts on each round of the tournament here: