Seven Irish in our team of the Six Nations
Choosing Brian O’Driscoll is a tad sentimental but you can’t ignore all his campaign highlights
There’ll never be even broad agreement across a Team of the Championship given its subjective nature – much less universal agreement – and national biases are compounded by watching matches involving one’s country more intently than others. Accordingly picking seven Irish players might seem a bit excessive but then again they were the champions, and with five Englishmen, two Welsh and one French, with no Scots or Italians, this also broadly reflects the final standings.
It was a stronger competition in some positions (notably fullback) than others (outhalf for example) and it is perhaps even stretching things to include seven Lions’ tourists in the team, albeit some of them had limited involvement through injury, which illustrates the toll those Lions tours have.
15Mike Brown (England): He was the tournament’s joint highest try scorer (four), made the most metres (543), beat the most defenders (25) by some distance and was the second highest carrier (64). Yet more than the impressive stats, Brown invariably contributed match-changing plays at key moments. Tellingly, in metres and carries, Rob Kearney (back to his best) was just behind him, and Brice Dulin gave France their spark on many occasions, while Leigh Halfpenny’s goal-kicking remained phenomenal.
14 Yoann Huget (France): Always willing to have a go, the Toulouse winger was brilliant, especially off counter-attacks and turnovers, which was just as well as with Jules Plisson at outhalf and an array of non-passing French centres he was never going to be living off much else. Opportunist brace against England and intercept against Scotland arguably won French two matches as well. Andrew Trimble, overall, had a superb campaign and typified the high work-rate demanded of wingers in the Joe Schmidt system.
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland): Perhaps a slightly sentimental call but then his last campaign and his last tango in Paris provided many of the tournament’s highlights, and having been Ireland’s best attacker in Twickenham there was no more creative performance in the tournament than his against Italy, when he was the inventor in chief of Ireland’s first three tries. Luther Burrell, with three tries, was a real find for England, but the heir to O’Driscoll’s throne could be Michele Campagnaro.
12 Jamie Roberts (Wales): One of the few Welsh Lions who maintained his form consistently through the tournament and who grew stronger throughout it, perhaps helped by missing the first half of the season with Racing through injury. His ability to put Wales on the front foot was particularly evident against France. Wesley Fofana’s initially brilliant tournament was curtailed prematurely while Gorodn D’Arcy had a consistently good campaign, after missing out on the opener.
11 George North (Wales): One of the other Welsh players to find his mojo as the tournament progressed, ultimately finishing with three tries after a sluggish start and the 21-year-old remains the key, potent gamebreaker in the Welsh mix. Dave Kearney, Jonny May and Leonardo Sarto all had strong tournaments as well.
10 Jonathan Sexton (Ireland): Underlined his status as the best outhalf in Europe by bringing his running game, kicking game and tackling game, save for a few kicking blemishes in Twickenham, and finished the tournament as the joint top try scorer and leading points scorer. Admittedly his defensive work, akin to a ‘12’ and physical/emotional commitment may not be ideal for goal-kicking duties although to hold his nerve and nail his last penalty in the Stade de France was impressive, and it doesn’t stop the feisty Owen Farrell, who is even more petulant, and who was masterful in England’s win over Wales.
9 Danny Care (England): Finally seems to have tempered his occasional loss of composure, with even the tap penalties yielding a dividend, as Stuart Lancaster’s liberation of, and investment in, the feisty Quin reaps its rewards. Lightening quick too. It has to be said there wasn’t much between him and Conor Murray, whose defensive work, box-kicking and running game in Paris was outstanding. Given Mike Phillips petulantly played himself off the Welsh team in Dublin, these two were some way ahead of the rest.
1 Cian Healy (Ireland): Unquestionably the stand-out loosehead of the tournament. Not alone were there those rampaging, leg-pumping, fearless carries into contact but his scrummaging has flourished under the new scrum directives which have allowed him to wrestle bigger men without the hit, and Jack McGrath’s emergence has lightened his load while adding competition. Joe Marler had a fine campaign for England too.
(England): A somewhat reluctant choice in a strong category, even if the abrasive Northampton hooker has tempered some of his previous excesses, although not entirely. But his darts, carrying and physicality were all strong. Rory Best arguably had the better all-round game, with his defensive and breakdown work, while after his Lions’ horror he deserves huge praise for his darts.
3 Mike Ross (Ireland): Still worth their weight in gold, which is the case of Ross is thus considerable. Needed to up his effectiveness at the breakdown in Twickenham, although his tackle count was good there, and thereafter did so, probably carrying a little more and more effectively than ever before. But it was his meat and drink job of anchoring the scrum throughout which gave Ireland the platform for their title tilt and their win in Paris, seeing off Thomas Domingo by half-time.
4 Courtney Lawes (England): Another of the abrasive, angry young men who appears to have found a new maturity and focus to his game under Lancaster.
He has always been a superb athlete, and in addition to his physicality in tackles and work around the pitch there were six line-out steals and one wondrous offload. He has a bit of the warrior in him and looks to be on the verge of becoming a world-class lock.
5 Paul O’Connell (Ireland): Ireland’s maul was the most potent in the tournament and O’Connell was central to it. The carries may not have the power of yore but his remarkable energy levels and leadership skills defy time and it’s hard to believe Ireland could have won this title without their other totem, while who could have believed Devin Toner’s outstanding campaign, which even came close to eclipsing Superman, even a season ago?
6 Peter O’Mahony (Ireland): A strong showing from the blindsides. O’Mahony ought reasonably have won the Man of the Match awards in both of Ireland’s opening wins at home to Scotland and Wales, and while he never quite scaled those heights again after straining a hamstring early on in Twickenham, those performances were inspiring, with his poaches a stand-out feature of the tournament.
7 Chris Robshaw (England): Does exactly what it says on the tin. No one epitomises what England are about than their relentlessly honest, hard-working captain, whose tackle, carrying and clear-out stats are always off the charts, and it was fitting that he should score England’s last try of the campaign.
8 Jamie Heaslip (Ireland): Another indefatigable, indestructible, unflappable and selfless effort from another ultimate team man, Heaslip played all 400 minutes of his second title-winning campaign to add to a roll list of honours that is becoming quite extraordinary – as well as being no coincidence. No other number eight had anything like the same all-round influence as Heaslip.