The heartbeat of Irish rugby fans can finally revert to normal after an incredible clash with France to decide the 6 Nations Championship. Ireland won the most exciting Six Nations in Paris to give Brian O’ Driscoll a fitting send-off. With the competition now over here is a final assessment of Ireland’s best players.
It is hard to pick just one player in any of these categories, especially in the pack as Ireland’s front eight were so dominant in every game. Forwards coach John Plumtree will be justifiably proud of his work as he seemed to reenergise the Irish lineout and made the scrum one of the most dominant in the Championship.
To pick one best forward is tough, with Peter O’ Mahony propelling himself onto the international scene with some fine performances working hard on the ground and offering an added dimension to the lineout. Chris Henry filled the boots of Sean O’ Brien superbly and O’ Brien will be looking over his shoulder at Henry on his return. Cian Healy was at his storming best when needed, Paul O’ Connell was superb throughout and Jamie Heaslip put in some of his finest international performances since 2009.
However, the best forward award goes to Rory Best. His lineouts were excellent throughout the Championship. Out of 75 lineouts Ireland only lost five, which gives him an incredible 93% success rate, the best in the Championship. Many were worried about Best’s throwing especially after his poor form during the Lions tour but he was near faultless with his darts. Excellent in the loose as well, carrying hard when called upon, Best had a fine Championship.
Selection: Rory Best
This is another area where it is hard to single out just one player. Gordon D’Arcy found a return to his best form during this Championship, with Dave Kearney, like O’ Mahony announcing himself as a quality international test player. Rob Kearney had a superb Championship a rock under every high ball and counter attacking threat, while half backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were instrumental for Ireland and going into the World Cup the performances of those two will be vital.
Although Brian O’ Driscoll may have been the man that dominated the headlines, Andrew Trimble had a fairytale of his own. Six months ago Trimble was way outside the circle and it looked like his international days were numbered. However, injuries to other players and some good form for Ulster were his saving grace as he was drafted into the team to play Scotland in the opener and has not been bothered since.
Trimble played with the sort of form at international level that he plays with a club level and he has reaped the benefits. Consistency was his greatest assist in the campaign as every week he played well and more importantly he worked incredibly hard for the team. He touched down in the opening game against Scotland and Italy before playing his best game against France where he scored Ireland’s second try and as Ronan O’ Gara said, the Ulsterman seemed to grow six feet out there.
Trimble’s second half break in the build-up Sexton’s second try was superb as he beat two men and he could have gone himself instead of passing to O’ Driscoll. His work-rate going backwards and his desire to get stuck in, is what Schmidt likes about Trimble and what makes him such an important assist. The statistics also show his skill going forward as he leads the charts with the most clean breaks (6). The medal around his neck is certainly deserved.
Selection: Andrew Trimble
When the Irish team was announced for the first game of the Championship against Scotland, I was pleased with 14 of the 15 picks. Devin Toner lining out alongside Paul O’ Connell was, I felt, a mistake. I had yet to see the big man play to standard that made me think he was good enough to be an international test player. Fast forward two months, and there is a large slice of humble pie on my table.
Toner proved every last doubter wrong during this Six Nations campaign, and the faith shown in him by Joe Schmidt is thoroughly justified. In the lineout he was strong, as to be expected for a man of a height of 6’ 11’’, and he had the most lineout steals (3) of any Irish player. In the scrum he pulled his weight with O’ Connell in the engine room helping Ireland dominate at scrum time yet it was in the loose that he was most impressive. Every time he got to a ruck he cleaned out effectively and every time he was asked to carry he did with so with everything he had.
Against Italy, Toner led the carry count (18) with Jamie Heaslip, and never tried to hide away from a tackle having the second-highest tackle count (14) against England, one behind Chris Henry. His stamina was superb playing a full 80 minutes in all but the opener. Game after game, he proved his doubters wrong (and there were few more doubtful than me) and going forward it looks like the number 4 jersey is his to lose, rather than one he is trying to win.
Selection: Devin Toner
Player of the Championship:
There are a few players who could be named as our best in the Championship, and it would be hard to argue. Johnny Sexton was our focal point leading our try scoring with four, including two vital ones against France. Paul O’ Connell was our fearless leader, picking everyone up around him when things didn’t work out, and dominating rucks and mauls.
However, the best player award has to go to Brian O’ Driscoll. The man probably wouldn’t agree with it if you told him he was our best player as he said picking up two man of the match awards was farcical, but BOD showed he still has all the skills going forward and all the courage in the world while in defence. His 60 minutes against Italy were some of his finest rugby, displaying all his tricks and unlocking the Italy defence with three superb passes. So rarely has a player been able to write script as perfectly as O’ Driscoll has. He began his career by bursting onto the scene in Paris all those years ago, so how fitting that he ends it in the same place, as a champion.
His influence on this Ireland team cannot be replaced and there is no other man more deserving of all the praise and accolades than O’ Driscoll. It may be the sentimentalist in me that is giving O’ Driscoll Ireland’s player of the championship and people so often say there is no room for sentimentality in sport, but when it comes to BOD, the rules do not apply. As Joe Schmidt said “I’m sure we’ll get someone to fill his boots but their feet might be a bit smaller.”
Pundit Arena, Steve Neville.