There weren’t many automatic selections for this year’s best of the Six Nations, but that just makes things more interesting and a little unpredictable.
1 – Jack McGrath (Ireland) It’s not easy to fill in for one of the world’s premier looseheads, but we quickly found out that perhaps Cian Healy isn’t as secure as he thought in the jersey, both for club and country. McGrath was excellent in the scrum and looked not far off Healy in the loose, regularly getting stuck into the breakdown. Joe Marler finishes a close second.
2 – Leonardo Ghiraldini (Italy) Though never really the standout in a given week, the chief lieutenant of Sergio Parisse was consistently strong for his country. His carrying and leadership in the narrow confines of the ruck and maul led his side to victory over the Scots, and held them together for a little while against Wales.
3 – Dan Cole (England) Another position with no bona fide standout, the Leicester anchor was a welcome return to the international ranks. Might not have reached top gear yet, but he was solid in the scrums and proved a nuisance at the breakdown.
4 – Alun Wyn Jones (Wales) Arguably the best forward in the competition. First class in nearly every category, if you had to pick a World XV tomorrow you would be hard pressed to leave his name out. His impact at ruck time is second to none.
5 – Paul O’Connell (Ireland) What a way to end his last Six Nations. Time takes its toll on every man, but he looked as good as ever, whether at the lineout, carrying the ball, or making tackles. As close as it gets to irreplaceable.
6 – Peter O’Mahony (Ireland) A strong lineout presence, an engine that doesn’t stop, and a desire to turn every breakdown into a scrap. Starting to carry with a little more authority, but it’s his willpower and love of the dirty work that makes him so invaluable.
7 – Sam Warburton (Wales) In his best form since the Lions tour. A constant presence at the tackle area and picked his work rate up on the offensive side of the ball. Looks to be in great shape headed towards the World Cup.
8 – Billy Vunipola (England) Has his detractors but showed them up with an excellent championship. Not as dynamic as Ben Morgan, but his ability to make yards where there aren’t any is hugely valuable. His workrate in defense has improved considerably, to the point where he is now one of his country’s most effective tacklers.
9 – Conor Murray (Ireland) Just survives a late run by Ben Youngs to unseat him. Murray’s ability to control the tempo of a game, as well as his kicking skills, set him about his English counterpart. Maybe wasn’t quite as flash as some might of liked, but it’s hard to argue against a championship medal hanging around his neck.
10 – Jonny Sexton (Ireland) Heads off the challenge of George Ford by the slightest of margins. Even at less than full strength he still makes a palpable difference in the side. His tactical kicking keeps the Irish pack on the front foot and his commitment in the tackle is never in question.
11 – Liam Williams (Wales) Played much of his best rugby at fullback but it was the left wing where he was picked to start, so it’s the left wing he occupies. A tough choice over Jack Nowell in the end, he forced his way into the Welsh side with his exceptional counterattacking skills and confidence under the high ball. Alex Cuthbert may find it hard to get back in.
12 – Jamie Roberts (Wales) There will be calls for Robbie Henshaw, but the defensive prowess of Roberts puts him above all the rest. His straight forward running might be predictable, but it’s gloriously effective on the front foot and a critical ingredient to the Welsh attack. Like his captain, he looks to be in his best form in some time.
13 – Jonathan Joseph (England) Easily the breakthrough player of the championship, and of the season. Carried over his top club form with some scintillating attacking rugby. Never quite gelled with Luther Burrell but that didn’t stop him from standing out in every game. The question is, what happens when Manu Tuilagi returns?
14 – Tommy Bowe (Ireland) Wasn’t running in tries but he was playing his role to perfection. Chases kicks as well as anyone and a constant source of go-forward as an inside option for Sexton. Maybe not quite as fleet of foot as he once was, he’s still class.
15 – Stuart Hogg (Scotland) Surely the most contentious position in the team, with at least Mike Brown and Leigh Halfpenny also in the conversion, if not others. Hogg’s electric running gave opponents something to worry about and his tactical kicking has added another string to his bow. The best pure attacker at his position, if only had the team in front of him to exploit it.