So there it is, all over. After eight exhilarating weeks the 2014 RBS Six Nations came to a close in Paris on Saturday night. The decisive France versus Ireland fixture not only brought the curtain down on one of the most exciting championships in recent memories, it also heralded the end of the international career of Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll.
O’Driscoll was hugely important to his team in the concluding fixture and while not as explosive in attack as when he announced himself to the world in Paris 14 years previous he again left with a victory. A victory which sealed the championship for Ireland. O’Driscoll started slowly but grew into the tournament and produced two excellent performances in his final two games. Did he do enough in those two games to make the team of the tournament?
15. Mike Brown (England)
Having for years been a solid club player, Brown never transferred the same level of consistency to his international performances. He was never helped in the fact he was constantly shifted between his favoured full back role and the less familiar left wing berth. Brown started all England’s games of the championship in the number 15 shirt and thrived.
His defence was excellent throughout, typified by his diving effort to stop Brian O’ Driscoll’s kick through in the clash with Ireland. He has brought an extra dimension to his play as an attacking force however and crossed the line four times in his five outings meaning he finished the tournament as joint top try scorer. There were some excellent showings from full back throughout this campaign, but Brown was a shoe in for team of the tournament and one of the favourites to win the Player of the Tournament award.
14. Andrew Trimble (Ireland)
Very few international players have suffered as much as Trimble down the years from lack of faith from management. Having been very much cast adrift from the international scene back in 2012, Trimble was ignored in November by Joe Schmidt as he gathered his first squad together. The 29-year-old would have been forgiven for thinking his time in green was done.
Due to a combination of injuries however, Trimble found his way onto the wing against the Scots in Round 1 and never looked back. He crossed for three tries, all of which came at important times in games for Ireland but it was his physicality and work rate that endeared him most to the supporters. Not as electric in attack as Simon Zebo or Tommy Bowe, Trimble brought plenty other talents to the table and just edges out Yoann Huget after his Tour de Force in Paris.
13. Luther Burrell (England)
The find of the season. 26-year-old Burrell has had a scenic route to the top but has marked his belated arrival in emphatic style. Nominally an inside centre at club level, the Northampton man was pressed into action in the outside channel because of injuries and lack of depth. He looked to the manor born.
Very much in the modern mould of hulking centres, in terms his physical appearance, Burrell has great footwork and terrific hands which keep defences wary in the wide channels. He fronted up in his opening two fixtures, crossing for a try in each, and backed that up with strong showings against world class operators such as O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies afterwards. He looks like the centre with an all-round game England have been craving since Will Greenwood retired.
12. Gordon D’Arcy (Ireland)
One of Ireland’s unsung heroes. It would be interesting to see how highly ranked D’Arcy would be in the pantheon of great Irish centres if he hadn’t spent his career as the junior partner to Brian O’Driscoll. D’Arcy put in tireless displays in defence against much bigger opponents in every outing and carried the ball with vigour every time Ireland needed to eke out some crucial yardage.
D’Arcy does not possess the same ability to split defences with his breaks anymore but has modified his game to maximise his attributes. He will be vital for Ireland until after the World Cup as his understudy Luke Marshall is seemingly concussion prone and he will need to help bed a new outside centre into the team.
11. George North (Wales)
Possibly the most exciting attacking player in world rugby, certainly the best on show in this tournament. Even when Wales struggled in attack against Ireland and England, the Northampton behemoth looked like he could make something happen. North played for periods of the tournament in the centre because of an mini injury crisis for the Welsh in that position but is most certainly at his best on the wing.
He was devastating against the Scots in Wales’ final fixture, revelling in the extra space afforded to him because of a Scottish red card. North crossed three times in five matches, in what was ultimately a disappointing campaign on a team level. North has 21 tries in 42 tests, and worryingly for the rest of the world is still just 21.
10. Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
The Ireland pivot will look back on this tournament with mixed emotions. Sexton is a self-proclaimed perfectionist and from that perspective won’t be happy with a couple of loose kicks throughout the campaign. The two he missed off the tee against France, which were straightforward by his standards could have proven costly but luckily for his side they did not. His kicking from hand against England was a bit ropey at times, and his restart that went out on the full gave England a scrum that their match winning try ultimately came from.
Still though, Sexton was instrumental in securing Ireland just a second ever Six Nations, crossing four tries and ending up as the tournament’s joint top points scorer. There were many flashes of him at his best, but Sexton will be looking for more.
9. Danny Care (England)
Like his club teammate Mike Brown, this was a watershed tournament for the buzzing scrum half. Care has been floating around England squads since he made his debut in 2008, constantly coming in and out of the team. Always regarded as a player with an abundance of potential there was the worry he may not do his talents justice.
Having started all five games in this tournament, Care matched his longest run in the starting jersey and England have benefited as a result of his new found consistency. He kept fringe defenders on their toes and scored two typical sniping tries against Wales and Ireland. Stuart Lancaster will probably look back ruefully on his decision to take Care off after 60 minutes against France in Round One when he had inspired their comeback from a 16-3 deficit. Behind a strong pack and an improving backline, England look to have found the perfect link man.
1. Cian Healy (Ireland)
The Leinster loose head did more than simply justify his pre-tournament billing as the most dynamic prop around the field in world rugby, he utterly enhanced it. His ball carrying is unrivalled by any other prop, while the tweaks to the scrum laws have suited his style. He was part of a highly functioning Irish front row that, despite the odd wobble, was the most dominate front row unit in the tournament.
He is now one of Ireland’s most important players and despite the timely emergence of back up in the sizeable shape of Jack McGrath, Healy is one of the players Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will be pinning his hopes on maintaining fitness.
2. Rory Best (Ireland)
Exactly a year after a hugely disappointing campaign for Ireland where they finished behind all but France, Rory Best was one of the fall guys. He was one of the few frontline players who did not succumb to injury, and while working with different combinations did not help, he was largely responsible for a badly misfiring Irish lineout. It got so bad for Best he missed out on selection for the Lions squad. He ultimately made the plane in place of the suspended Dylan Hartley but played no part in the test series.
Twelve months later things are altogether different, as Ireland are the Six Nations champions and Best rediscovered his best form. Ireland’s lineout operated very efficiently and his work rate around the field redefines what is expected of a front row player. In tandem with his backrow colleagues, Best was a constant presence at the breakdown and a massive contributor to Ireland’s stingy defence.
3. Mike Ross (Ireland)
Ross completes a clean sweep for the Irish front three. His campaign was not flawless as he encountered difficulties in the scrum but he held up at the most important of times. He is no longer required to do the eighty-minute shift for Ireland thanks to the arrival of Martin Moore on the scene and this seems to have added to his productivity outside of the set piece. He is much more prominent in the loose, both when defending and carrying.
For as beneficial as the new scrum laws have been for Healy, they have sometimes caused Ross difficulty but the Corkman has prevailed on most of his outings. He was also the only tight head to start every game in the competition this season.
4. Joe Launchbury (England)
It’s early days yet but the Launchbury and Courtney Lawes second row combination looks like one England can hang their hat on for a few years to come. Lawes is brash and abrasive while Launchbury is more understated yet clinical in everything he does. His work rate around the field was highly impressive all throughout the tournament. He gets over the ball at the break down very well for a man of his size and given his bulk is incredibly hard to move.
Lawes may make the bigger hits or carries but Launchbury does all the basics well that keeps England’s monstrous pack on the front foot. Launchbury seems to be the D’Arcy to Lawes O’Driscoll but if he keeps up his level of performance from this tournament he won’t stay under the radar long.
5. Paul O’ Connell (Ireland)
The Irish captain just about edges Lawes on this selection as his influence over this Ireland team cannot be underestimated. When POC plays, Ireland play better. He has had his injury issues over the past few seasons but now looks to be at peak fitness. His body has been through a lot but given the relative lack of minutes he has on the field in the last three years he is sure to have plenty of gas in the tank to take Ireland to the next World Cup.
O’ Connell is Ireland’s lineout king, a reliable defender and he does not shirk his responsibility when it comes to carrying. Outstanding in the defeat of Wales and like a man possessed against France.
6. Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)
Already the Munster captain, he is the heir apparent to O’Connell as skipper for Ireland. O’Mahony was outstanding at the breakdown, and led the competition with seven turnovers. His effectiveness waned towards the end of the competition as injury took its toll, but there is no doubting that the blindside was instrumental in Ireland’s championship victory.
The reckless use of his body at the breakdown is both worrying and awe inspiring in equal measure. His handling has improved substantially and he has become a useful option for Ireland toward the tail of the lineout. It will be interesting to see how Ireland’s backrow shapes up with Steven Ferris back in action and when Sean O’Brien regains fitness. The current number 6 does not look likely to move.
7. Chris Henry (Ireland)
Possibly the most indirect direct replacement for Sean O’ Brien available to Joe Schmidt. The Ulsterman is no shrinking violet but he is the exact antithesis of the Carlow number 7. Henry does the bulk of his work defensively, but contributed one of the most important passes of Ireland’s campaign against France to send Jonny Sexton in for Ireland’s opening try.
A hugely consistent performer, Henry’s defensive capabilities bring great balance to an Irish backrow that was the most impressive unit in the tournament. Arguably man of the match against the French, Henry just about gets the nod over England captain and namesake Robshaw.
8. Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
The Leinster man had his best tournament since the Grand Slam year of 2009. The vice-captain seemed liberated by the absence of Sean O’Brien, as he took on more responsibility in the carrying stakes as he attempted to fill the void left by Ireland’s most effective carrier. Heaslip has had his detractors in previous seasons but it was hard to fault his contribution to Ireland’s success this term.
He has remained entirely durable in his career to date and this is reflected in the fact that he was one of only two No. 8’s to complete every minute of every game. Given that the other was Taulupe Faletau, who played well below himself, Heaslip gains this spot without too much competition.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.