Six Nations review: Highs and lows of the tournament

Our rugby writers deliver their verdicts after Ireland finishes second in the 2017 renewal

 

Gerry Thornley

Best Match?

Ireland v England, closely followed by Wales v England. Epic, titanic struggles, with the game in Dublin unforgettable as the home side memorably rose to the occasion.

Best Player?

CJ Stander. A remarkable, unstinting haul of 103 carries, and there was that hat-trick in Rome, the first by a forward in the history of the championship.

Best Try?

Gael Fickou’s show and go against Italy, instigated initially by Brice Dulin’s thrilling counter-attack. Classic, French length of the pitch, counter-attacking rugby and good to see again.

Highlight?

Italy’s no ruck tactics against England and how Dylan Hartley and James Haskell were so memorably befuddled in their conversations with Romain Poite.

Low Point?

Ireland’s failure to press on after taking the lead in Murrayfield, when a fourth try would have given them the bonus point victory that probably would have seen them become champions in the end.

Team of the Tournament?

Stuart Hogg; Keith Earls, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Liam Williams; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cyrille Baille, Ken Owens, Tadhg Furlong; Joe Launchbury, Alun Wyn Jones; CJ Stander, Kevin Gourdon, Louis Picamoles.

Liam Toland

Best Match?

Watching two matches at the same time; as An tUachtarán addressed the players in the Aviva I was watching the unreal end as the French ‘finally’ scored to sink Wales; what drama and what followed in the Aviva was sensational for all the obvious clichés but to hear the Fields of Athenry sung with such gusto when the Irish team needed the crowd like never before was very, very special.

Player of the Tournament?

Funny that my player of the tournament doesn’t make the team of the tournament, but he’ll definitely make my Lions team! So who had the most significant impact on the tournament? Billy Vunipola was injured and Stuart Hogg missed most of the English thrashing, so we don’t know how he’d have performed. So it comes down to Irish props, Scottish backs, French athletes but the championship winning team should have the player and that is the outrageous Maro Itoje.

Best Try?

Beauty often resides in the tiniest details, executed under extreme pressure; strength of the opposition, home or away, conditions, scoreboard, championship table, World Rugby rankings, time remaining and so on - so the best try is also the ugliest. Damien Chouly’s 100th min score for France

Highlight?

My AirBnB beside the Coliseum in Rome; wonderful. Along with several former players, gate crashing the corporate aftermatch function in Murrayfield; free bar. The incredible atmosphere under the closed roof in Cardiff; an experience you must have. The last 10 minutes of Ireland’s victory over England as the knowledgeable crowd knew their team needed ‘The Fields’ like never before. But; the RDS #PlayingforAxel was number one.

Low Point?

In what was a high quality championship, the issue of value to the ball is worth examining. If we are, and England for that matter, to consistently test New Zealand then we need to improve outcomes from those tiny windows of opportunities that open for split seconds; turnovers, loose opposition kicks, line breaks etc…

Team of the Tournament?

Good gawd this is ridiculous but in a Lions season here goes; Stuart Hogg, George North, Owen Farrell (Gael Fickou), Robbie Henshaw, Anthony Watson, Johnny Sexton (Finn Russell), Conor Murray (Rhys Webb), Jack McGrath (Maco Vunipola), Guilhem Guirado (notable Rory Best & Ken Owens), 100% Tadgh Furlong, Donnacha Ryan (just because), Alun Wyn Jones, in no particular order; Louis Picamoles, CJ Stander, Sam Warburton, Sean O’Brien (Maro Itoje in second row)

Gavin Cummiskey

Best Match?

Ireland v England was the most compelling game many of us have been to in years. England v Scotland was a memorable experience and glimpse into what Eddie Jones hopes to have constructed by 2019. But the feeling of beating England in Dublin remains the sweetest.

Best Player?

It was Maro Itoje up to half-time in Dublin but for character alone it has to be Johnny Sexton. Sexton’s influence on Ireland’s games - see the 15-3 dip in Cardiff when he was off the field - should keep Owen Farrell benched or wearing 12 this summer.

Best Try?

Probably George North’s first against Ireland. It was so smart to run down Paddy Jackson’s channel just seconds after he replaced a bloodied Sexton while the pass by Rhys Webb was like Tana Umaga’s fling for Sitiveni Sivivatu to finish against the Lions in 2005. Class.

Highlight?

The last five minutes against England - Cian Healy’s carry, downed by Itoje, Luke McGrath’s confidence on just his second cap to bounce the ball into the 22 and out of play while Dev Toner threw his body into a herculean tackle in the middle of it all.

Low Point?

The opening 20 minutes in Murrayfield. That was when the championship went up in smoke. This team should not be losing to Scotland. The great teams never switch off.

Team of the Tournament?

Stuart Hogg; George North, Robbie Henshaw, Owen Farrell, Liam Williams; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Guilhem Guirado, Tadhg Furlong; Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje; Kevin Gourdon, Sam Warburton, CJ Stander.

John O’Sullivan

Best Match?

It has to be Ireland’s 13-9 win over England, a physically unrelenting, at times primal, squabble between two teams unwilling to give an inch. The result was in doubt right to the final whistle. It made for compelling viewing and not just in terms of the result from a parochial perspective. Ireland beat the best team in the tournament on a day that mattered to both countries.

Best Player?

French scrumhalf Baptiste Serin was a pleasure to watch, his silky skills, peripheral awareness, link play in choosing when the play in close or move it wide and ability to ‘honeypot’ tacklers and release the ball a nanosecond before contact all impressive. But it has to go to Stuart Hogg. He was simply unplayable at times, an effervescent bundle of energy and class.

Best Try?

Tim Visser’s one for Scotland against Wales was all about the preamble more than the finish, but it did include a gorgeous finger-tip pass from Stuart Hogg and offered a perfect demonstration of how to work the ball in a confined channel with impeccable timing and preservation of space.

Highlight?

I don’t think it can be classified as the best spectacle but certainly the most entertaining was England’s victory over Italy at Twickenham when for 40 plus minutes the visitors outfoxed their hosts at ruck time and spawned the line that is now emblazoned on t-shirts from French referee Romain Poite: “I am the referee, I am not the coach,” to a bemused Dylan Hartley and a less bemused James Haskell.

Low Point?

England coach Eddie Jones’ post match reaction to the Italian ruck tactics was churlish and unnecessarily sour. Granted, the gambit didn’t make for a great spectacle but given the fact that his team won well in the end with a four-try bonus point, he could have shown a little more grace, as he did after the Irish game.

Team of the Tournament?

Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Gael Fickou, Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly; Jonathan Sexton, Baptiste Serin; Jack McGrath, Ken Owens, Tadhg Furlong; Joe Launchbury, Donnacha Ryan; Maro Itoje, Justin Tipuric, Louis Picamoles

Johnny Watterson

Best Match?

Ireland’s win over England in Dublin. Ireland totally negated a significant England threat. Few believed that was probable. The selfless commitment from the Irish players and the way they agreed on contesting every inch made for a match of powerful intensity.

Best Player?

Louis Picamoles. When he picks up the ball he almost always makes inroads. While his statistics stand up to scrutiny in terms of metres made, the impact he has on his own team powering forward is always immense.

Best Try?

Jonathan Joseph’s second try against Scotland. Okay, the Scottish defence may have been out of Dodge at the time but his phenomenal pace, ability to change direction in full stride and his immaculate timing to hit the line framed his talent in the perfect way.

Highlight?

Peter O’Mahony’s personal journey through the competition. Coming back from injury, he gets a bench place then a late call up against England because of a Jamie Heaslip injury. In an outstanding shift he wins man-of-the-match. Fairy tale stuff.

Low Point?

The number of head injuries in the game that are not picked up as players are sent back into the fray. The most obvious was when England’s Elliott Daly left the pitch against Scotland. He returned but had to leave again because he did have a head injury.

Team of the Tournament?

Stuart Hogg; George North, Remi Lamerat, Owen Farrell, Virimi Vakatawa; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cyril Baille, Guilhem Guirado, Tadhg Furlong; Joe Launchbury, Johnny Gray; Maro Itoje, Justin Tipuric, Louis Picamoles.

Matt Williams

Best Match?

England’s win in Wales was the pivotal match of the tournament. It was a true test match. Hard, fast, physical and packed with tension until the last minutes. The old saying that the team that makes the least mistakes wins was personified. Wales missing touch and not clearing their lines in the dying moments gave England a counterattacking opportunity for a winning try. It was as dramatic as they come.

Best Player?

With England scoring 146 points and winning back-to-back championships, the man in the number 10 jersey deserves a lot of credit. Despite a poor day in Dublin, George Ford’s performances in controlling the other matches in the champions have been outstanding.

Best Try?

The Alex Dunbar try from an old school Scottish ‘switcharoo’. Putting a scrumhalf and centre at the front of the lineout, all the Irish forwards think: “They won’t throw to a back...” The short throw to Dunbar caught the Irish defence cold, allowing him to sprint through the lineout and score. It was ultimately the winning try and broke Irish hearts.

Highlight?

The new bonus points scoring system (even though it’s 20 years old in the southern hemisphere.) This championship was the best in decades. The rugby was positive. The bonus points system gave teams motivation to attack and play right to the end of games. It must stay.

Low Point?

Ireland’s first half against Scotland and the second half against Wales. As the great American baseball coach, Peter ‘Yogi’ Berra famously said: “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” As the powerful display against England proved, in this championship, Ireland repeatedly got their mental preparation wrong.

Team of the Tournament?

Stuart Hogg; G North, G Fickou, Owen Farrell, L Williams; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; J McGrath, Guilhem Guirado, Tadhg Furlong; Joe Launchbury, AW Jones; Maro Itoje, S Warburton, Louis Picamoles.

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