6 Nations Team of the tournament

So the dust has finally settled on the 2013 Six Nations.  A tournament which started and ended brightly was characterised by some cracking games and free-flowing rugby on the first and last weekends.  Just a shame that what was sandwiched in between was a load of turgid dross.

Ordinarily when selecting a team of the tournament, the inclination is to go with the players who have shown the most in an attacking sense.  That is where the excitement lies, and it is players who contribute a line-break, a deft pass, or a superbly accurate kick who tend to stand out.  However, this Six Nations tournament has seen comparatively little outstanding attacking play, partly due to the weather it must be said, and therefore in picking this year’s team of the tournament, it is not enough just to pick those who have shown most with ball in hand, especially amongst the backs.  Anyway, enough pseudo-intellectual bollocks, my brother and I attempt to find some of the shining lights from the relative gloom of this year’s championship.

15: FULL BACK

RDW:  Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

Probably the easiest choice to make; Halfpenny has been simply outstanding this year (that said he’s been outstanding for a number of years now).  He is practically infallible under the high ball, a master at one-on-one tackles (I heard one stat during the tournament that he hasn’t missed a tackle in the Six Nations since 2010, which, if true, is staggering), a quite beautiful striker of the ball, both out of hand and off the tee, and a dangerous runner.  Full-back is a position that doesn’t lack for high quality performers in the Northern Hemisphere, with Stuart Hogg, Andrea Masi and Alex Goode all impressing, but Halfpenny was consistently excellent all tournament.

DDW:  Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

I agree.  After waxing lyrical about Stuart Hogg earlier in the tournament, he rather unsurprisingly lost form, so the Welsh rock (if you say it like Jonathan Ross it’s sort of alliterative) gets my vote.  Flawless under the high ball and in defence, his goal-kicking ain’t half bad either (he finished the tournament as the leading points scorer).  Hogg though is a rare talent, reminiscent of a new breed of southern hemisphere attacking full backs (rather like Christian Cullen).  Definitely one to watch for the future.

14: Right Wing

RDW:  Alex Cuthbert (Wales)

Maybe Cuthbert doesn’t have the acceleration of the very best wingers in the game, but he is certainly quick enough once he gets going, and obviously extremely difficult to stop.  He finished masterfully twice against England, and was comfortably the tournament’s top try scorer.  He is occasionally a little unsure in defence, such as when he was bamboozled by Brian O’Driscoll’s pass to Simon Zebo in the opening game, but is still one of the better wingers around.

DDW:  Alex Cuthbert (Wales)

His finishing against Italy and England was clinical, and he showed a turn of pace to escape Mike Brown twice to score the tries that clinched the title.  Questions still remain about his defence, but having conceded no tries in the past four games, it can’t be that bad.

13. Outside Centre

RDW:  Wesley Fofana (France)

Yes, he started the first two games on the wing, and ended up there against England, but it’s obvious to all that centre is his natural position, and wherever he played he was always a class act.  His try against England, albeit against some pretty feeble tackling, was superb, and his finish against Scotland, brushing off Stuart Hogg like some minor irritant, was clinical.  He is just an all-round excellent rugby player.

DDW:  Jonathan Davies (Wales)

Admittedly not the most inspired selection, but it was more for the fact he was the least bad out of all the candidates than for anything spectacular he did.  Did an enormous amount of donkey work in attack and defence and showed good anticipation for his try against Italy.  Now if only he could pass or run into space…

12: Inside Centre

RDW:  Brad Barritt (England)

A controversial choice this; there are other centres who are more skilful (O’Driscoll, Mermoz, Marshall), more physically imposing (Basteraud, Roberts, Tuilagi) or more noticeable around the pitch (Lamont, O’Driscoll again, Davies), but in this tournament Barritt has combined efficient distribution with excellent defensive nous and rock-solid tackling.  He never does anything flash, but is totally dependable, and every team needs someone like him.

DDW:  Wesley Fofana (France)

Bafflingly selected on the right wing for the first two matches, once he was moved to his favoured inside-centre position he was a constant threat.  An elusive runner (as Chris Ashton will testify), he scored probably the try of the tournament at Twickenham.  Plays like Jeremy Guscott and hopefully the linchpin of the France team for years to come.

11. Left Wing

RDW:  George North (Wales)

This was one of the harder decisions to make – North or Tim Visser?  Visser has taken to international rugby like a duck on seeing the Atlantic for the first time, is big and fast, and runs some intelligent support lines (in the way Chris Ashton used to).  However, in this tournament North, despite his upright running style which can lead to him being turned after tackling a little too often, has provided some of the better attacking moments, was a Mike Brown manicure away from scoring a scorcher against England, and showed his try-sniffing ability when helping conjure a try out of nothing against France.

DDW:  George North (Wales)

Again, did nothing spectacular (save for a match-winning try against the French) but also didn’t make any major mistakes, and that consistency wins you championships.  Solid in all facets of the game, although seems to have lost the ability to find space on the pitch, often seeking contact rather than the gaps.  A certain Lion.

10. Fly-half

RDW:  Owen Farrell (England)

Let’s be honest, the Northern Hemisphere isn’t exactly awash with high-quality outside-halves at the moment.  Whereas in the past, the most talented rugby player in the team tended to play at number 10, nowadays he plays at either 7 or 15.  Had Jonny Sexton remained fit, he would probably have won the prestige of being named in this team, as it is Farrell wins almost by default.  Dan Biggar got better as the tournament progressed, but was poor against Ireland, and mediocre against Scotland;  Luciano Orquera followed a blinder against France with a stinker against Scotland; Ian Madigan looked promising, but raw; and Freddie Michalak looked like a scrum-half playing out of position.  Farrell didn’t play to his potential against France or Wales, but was excellent in the first two games of the tournament, and kicked his goals when required.

DDW:  Frederic Michalak (France)

Only joking.  As much as I really want to include Italy’s mercurial Luciano Orquera, my choice goes to Owen Farrell.  Great in defence and at kicking, he has added an attacking edge, exemplified by his pass for Geoff Parling’s try in on the opening weekend.  Has an invaluable, almost Wilkinsonesque ability to make the correct decision at the right time.  Displayed a unnecessary confrontational attitude against the French though.  Dan Biggar grew as the tournament progressed but he kicked too aimlessly against France and wasn’t at the races against Ireland.

9. Scrum-half

RDW:  Greg Laidlaw (Scotland)

Another position without any outstanding candidate.  Laidlaw kept the pace of Scotland’s attacks going, has a blinder of a pass off either hand, and can land his box kicks on a sixpence.  He just edges out Mike Phillips (physical as ever but, again as ever, too inclined to try and do it all himself) and Ben Youngs (great runner, crap passer).

DDW:  Mike Phillips (Wales)

Completely disagree.  Phillips was another who improved with every game, he was the driving force behind the final two victories against Scotland and England.  Gone are the sniping runs around the fringes of the rucks but his delivery has improved since his swich to Bayonne and he seems to have found some much needed maturity on and off the field.  Morgan Parra ran him a close second with his assured displays against England, Scotland and Ireland.  Danny Care and Ben Youngs faded badly as the tournament progressed.  Greg Laidlaw was great at goal-kicking but not so much with possession going forward (and Scotland had none), the true yardstick of an international scrum-half.

1. Loose-head Prop

RDW:  Thomas Domingo (France)

There have been suggestions that his scrummaging technique might not be legal (don’t ask me why – I know as much about the scrum as most international referees), but Domingo made life difficult for every tight-head he came up against, winning several penalties off Adam Jones, and making Dan Cole look ordinary, until he was ludicrously taken off.  He may not show in the loose as much as Gethin Jenkins or Cian Healy, but the French scrum was one of the few facets of their play that wasn’t disappointing.

DDW:  Cian Healy (Ireland)

Yes he executed a disgusting stamp on Dan Cole but from a purely playing point of view, he was awesome.  A destructive force both in the scrum and the loose, Healy reminds me a bit of Andrew Sheridan.  Needs to reign in his discipline but his aggressive approach has reaped rewards, so one indiscretion shouldn’t change his approach.  Honourable mention goes to Gethin Jenkins who started slowly but was indomitable against the English.  Showed Mako Vunipola just how far he has to improve to reach test-class status.

2. Hooker

RDW:  Richard Hibbard (Wales)

The Welsh scrum was immense during their last three games, and Hibbard must take some of the credit for that.  He was also reasonably accurate in the lineout, scored a poacher’s try against Scotland, and put in some bone-jarring tackles.  Why is it, though, that front-row forwards are tending towards the hirsute?  Does it give you extra power, like Samson?  Tom Youngs was excellent in the loose (as you’d expect from a converted centre), but too wayward with his throwing, while Ken Owens always impressed when he came on.

DDW:  Rory Best (Ireland)

The best (thank you) all-round hooker in the tournament, Best was a rare positive in a desperately disappointing Ireland.  Richard Hibbard might be better in the loose, and Ross Ford and Leonardo Ghiraldini may be stronger at line-out time, but the Irishman is an all-action player who popped up all over the place, rather reminiscent of Keith Wood.  Like his compatriots, will want to forget the Rome nightmare in a jiffy.

3. Tight-head Prop

RDW:  Adam Jones (Wales)

At the start of the tournament, there were many that said Adam Jones’ time as the Northern Hemisphere’ outstanding tight-head was at an end, with Dan Cole taking his mantle.  It turns out that’s rubbish.  Despite a tough time in Paris on a dreadful pitch in filthy conditions, Jones was the foundation on which the Welsh scrum could build their dominance, and he even found time to make a couple of passes.

DDW:  Adam Jones (Wales)

An obvious choice.  Re-asserted why he is the best tight-head in the northern hemisphere.  A tireless worker in the loose (next time you watch him, count how many times he’s at the breakdown), he schooled Castrogiovanni et al in the scrum, taught the Scots a lesson in Murrayfield, and (insert pedagogical metaphor) against Dan Cole.

4. Lock

RDW:  Geoff Parling (England)

Parling may look like he should be a whimsical stand-up, or an advertising executive, but he is a reliable lineout operator who puts in his fair share of work in the loose.  There’s not much more to say about him, he seems to be just the sort of unflashy, hard-working bloke you want in your side.

DDW:  Ian Evans (Wales)

The Welshman is finally delivering on his early promise after putting his injury problems behind him.  Has settled a traditionally jittery Welsh line-out and is a formidable ball carrier to boot.

5. Lock

RDW:  Ian Evans (Wales)

Lock is one of the positions where the Lions selectors are spoilt for choice.  Jim Hamilton was immense in defence against Ireland, Joe Launchbury, despite a chastening time against Wales, is clearly a star in the making, Alun Wyn Jones’ return helped the Welsh cause no end, and Donnacha Ryan was a lineout machine.  However, Evans was not only dominant in the lineout; he was also prominent in the loose, made tackle after tackle, and provided plenty of grunt in the scrum.

DDW:  Quentin Geldenhuys (Italy)

The Italian with the less-than-sounding Italian name has impressed me in this tournament with his work rate.  The Italians have traditionally won the odd Six Nations match through forward domination, and although this year their backs were more prominent, Geldenhuys was one of the main reasons Italy could play on the front foot.  He was instrumental in an Italian lineout that ran smoother than a German train timetable.  I must mention Alun Wyn-Jones’ stirring performances in the last two games too.

6. Blindside Flanker

RDW:  Alessandro Zanni (Italy)

Like the second row, finding outstanding performers in the back row is not a problem.  Tom Wood, Peter O’Mahony and Ryan Jones all showed their class, with Jones particularly excellent against France.  However, Italy’s back row is starting to look dangerous and Zanni, who has improved steadily over the last few seasons, showed himself to be the complete back-row forward, carrying the ball often, tackling hard, winning lineout ball and, according to Opta Stats, offloading the ball four more times than anyone else in the tournament.  That’s good enough for me.

DDW:  Alessandro Zanni (Italy)

Had Ryan Jones not been injured, he would probably have taken the blindside flanker role for his industrious displays against France, Italy and Scotland.  As it happened, Zanni was the standout 6 in the tournament providing a reliable lineout option, as well as some tough tackling to go with his try against Scotland.

7. Openside Flanker

RDW:  Justin Tipuric (Wales)

Ah, the famous number 7 jersey.  Should you pick a ‘jackal’ like the Southern Hemisphere teams, and try and steal turnovers/slow the ball down/cheat (delete as appropriate), or should you pick an all-round athlete who can carry the ball, compete at the breakdown, be useful in the lineout, and probably make a blinding cuppa too.  Sam Warburton is probably the closest thing the Northern Hemisphere possesses to a jackal, and, for one reason or another, his tournament was very up-and-down.  Sean O’Brien, as always, carried the ball manfully, but is a little too one-dimensional.  Chris Robshaw was superb until the final match, tackling hard, carrying the ball more than most and leading by example, but he was comprehensively outplayed against Wales by Tipuric who, throughout the tournament showed he is nearly a complete number 7.  He has the intelligence and hands of an inside centre, the pace of a back, is a useful lineout option (he’s comparatively small so can be effectively flung into the air), a willing ball-carrier and a warrior at the breakdown.  His lack of size is a negative on occasions (being bounced by Manoa Vosawai off a scrum against Italy), but otherwise he is yet another world-class Welsh back-rower.

DDW:  Chris Robshaw (England)

Over the whole five weekends, he was the most consistent openside flanker.  Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric may have had the odd stellar game, but Robshaw was England’s player of the tournament and gave the aforementioned Welsh flankers a run for their money in the Cardiff finale (even if the rest of his teammates didn’t).  Lead the Red Rose with a calm assurance that bodes well for the future.  Still not certain of a Lions berth.

8. Number Eight

RDW:  Louis Picamoles (France)

The man with the thickest thighs ever recorded (not actually a fact) has, at times, seemed to be carrying the French team by himself, often requiring several defenders to bring him down.  His quick-thinking led to the match-saving try against Ireland, and he was always a nightmare for the opposition.  It seems strange to be compiling a Six Nations team of the tournament without including Sergio Parisse, but excellent though he was, he missed the Wales game, and ten minutes of the Ireland game through ill-discipline.  Toby Faletau also deserves a mention for his consistency and work-rate.

DDW:  Sergio Parisse (Italy)

Probably the most hotly contested position.  The stats don’t lie, and yes Louis Piccamoles gained the most yards among the forwards and yes he was a man mountain whilst all others around him were mere boyish mounds, but Parisse was the reason Italy won their two matches, whereas despite Piccamoles best efforts, he couldn’t quite drag Les Bleus over the line.  Piccamoles is for all intents and purposes a battering ram, and a bloody good one at that, but Parisse is the complete Rugby footballer: he is a majestic runner, he’s awesome at the breakdown, he can catch and pass like a fly-half, and he always breaks the gain line.  He does all this with an imposing physicality of a Piccamoles, which is why he just gets the nod for me.  In the three matches he played, he displayed why he is the premier no. 8 in the world.  It is no co-incidence that Italy were more competitive with their talismanic captain in the side.  Toby Faletau also impressed in the latter stages of the tournament with his ball-carrying skills.  A place on the Lions tour beckons.

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