The best of the 2012 Six Nations and team of the tournament
So, another Six Nations is done and dusted, one of the best since Five became Six in 2000.
A third Grand Slam in eight years for Wales. Plaudits for runners-up England. Misgivings over Ireland and France, a win for Italy and a third Wooden Spoon in nine years for Scotland.
Time for a few awards, and a team of the tournament.
I canvassed the views of the BBC’s main television analysts – former Wales fly-half Jonathan Davies (JD), ex-England centre Jeremy Guscott (JG), former Scotland scrum-half Andy Nicol (AN) and ex-Ireland hooker Keith Wood (KW) – for their highlights, and asked them for a mark out of 10 for their respective home nations, as well as their composite teams.
Player(s) of the Tournament:
While Scotland lock Richie Gray, Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris, France centre Wesley Fofana and Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny all had deserved mentions, our BBC team’s award goes to Wales flanker Dan Lydiate.
The 24-year-old missed the opening game against Ireland, but returned with a man-of-the-match display against Scotland, and earned another award for his stunning performance in the Grand Slam decider against France.
Previously perceived as an unsung hero whose sterling efforts went largely unseen, Lydiate lived up to his “Chopper” and “Silent Ninja” nicknames in a superbly destructive display. As Jonathan Davies put it: “He does all the dirty work, and his work-rate is phenomenal. And he put in his biggest performance when it mattered most .”
Unanimous agreement from our BBC analysts on this. It came on the opening weekend, Ireland v Wales in Dublin. From a tap-down from flanker Justin Tipuric at the tail of a line-out, Wales – through half-backs Mike Phillips and Rhys Priestland – launched the giant George North off his left wing.
The teenage wing wonder skipped around Gordon D’Arcy and bumped off Fergus McFadden before unleashing the deftest of offloads out the back of his right hand to Jonathan Davies, who shredded the remaining defence to score at the posts. Brutal and beautiful in equal measure, an exquisitely timed move executed with power, pace and precision.
The aforementioned Jonathan Davies try against Ireland featured highly, as did Scott Williams’s winning solo try for Wales at Twickenham.
Keith Wood opted for a third Welsh try, Alex Cuthbert’s side-stepping effort that proved the difference against France, purely for its significance alone.
Andy Nicol picked out Stuart Hogg’s against France as “the first of many for a future star of Scottish rugby”.
The others both came in England’s stirring victory over France in Paris, Jonathan Davies and Jeremy Guscott both picking out Manu Tuilagi’s arcing run to the right corner, after a thumping hit from Chris Ashton and clever offload from Owen Farrell.
Nicol also enjoyed the way Tom Croft “put the after-burners on and scorched across the 22” for the winning try.
Scotland. “Started with so much promise but delivered very little other than a few stand-out performances from some of the young lads.” (AN)
Scotland’s discipline. “They performed well against England, Wales and France, yet they couldn’t go to Italy and win. A lot of that was down to their own indiscipline.” (JD)
“France’s unwillingness to play with the ambition that’s instinctive within them.” (JG)
“The Irish scrum's performance at Twickenham.” (KW)
Marks out of 10:
England: 7.5/10. “Winning all three away games was a massive achievement for this new, inexperienced squad. I had them down to finish fourth; they exceeded my expectations and, I bet, many others.” (JG)
Ireland: 6/10. “They struggled to find leadership. Senior players didn’t step up in the absence of the injured Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.” (KW)
Scotland: 3/10. “Whitewashed, Wooden Spoon and only four tries says it all really!” (AN)
Wales: 9/10. “I would have given them a 10 after winning the Grand Slam, but I believe there is more to come offensively from this side.” (JD)
France: 5/10. “That is because I am a very kind person!” (Thomas Castaignede). “They didn’t produce what we expected of them in terms of attacking ambition. I expected a lot more.”
Anyone want to give Italy a mark out of 10?
Team of the Tournament:
15: Rob Kearney (Ireland). Leigh Halfpenny, the tournament’s top points-scorer with 66, enjoyed plenty of decisive moments – a match-winning penalty against Ireland, throwing himself at David Strettle’s feet to stop the England wing in the final play of the game – and earned JD’s vote. But the Irishman – safe as houses under the high ball, and rejuvenated in his counter-attacking from deep – took the other three. Likely to be rivals for the British & Irish Lions Test jersey next year.
14: Tommy Bowe (Ireland). Alex Cuthbert, who got stronger as the tournament went on and scored three tries including the crucial one against France, earned KW’s vote. But the County Monaghan man nabbed the other three, taking his five tries with the sharpness that made him a Lion in 2009.
13: Jonathan Davies (Wales). England’s Manu Tuilagi missed the first two games but swiftly brought his destructive power to bear when he did enter the fray. But the Welshman brought variety, intelligent angles, sharp passing and finishing power to the Welsh midfield. A midfield diamond.
12. Wesley Fofana (France). Jamie Roberts had a strong tournament for Wales and earned a vote, but France uncovered a new star in the shape of Fofana, who scored a try in each of his first four Tests. Cuts delicious angles and pace to burn. Wasted when he was moved to the wing against Wales.
11. George North (Wales). JD felt Cuthbert had edged his more celebrated wing partner by the end of the Championship, but the original giant Welsh wing was a constant threat every time the ball came in his direction. Just the one try against Ireland, but brings so much more. A game-breaker.
10. Owen Farrell (England). Centre for first two matches, he moved to 10 after Charlie Hodgson’s injury and remained there after a superb outing against Wales. Still work to be done on his attacking game, but with Jonny Sexton only impressing in patches and Rhys Priestland suffering a mid-tournament dip, the 20-year-old ’s defensive excellence and nerveless goal-kicking gave him the nod.
9. Mike Phillips (Wales). With “no outstanding candidate or no-one setting the world alight” (JD), Phillips took all four votes. Started off in superb form against Ireland, and a tower of strength when Wales were down to 14 men, particularly at Twickenham, he also frustrated at times with the speed of his distribution and decision-making. Honourable mentions to Mike Blair and Lee Dickson.
1. Gethin Jenkins (Wales). England’s Alex Corbisiero enhanced his growing reputation against some of the best scrummagers in the game, but the Welshman – now a three-time Welsh Grand Slam winner – remains the benchmark for modern-day props. Intelligence, strength, and leadership.
2. Rory Best (Ireland). Although part of a badly beaten Irish front row on the final day, the Ulster hooker enjoyed a consistently strong tournament, led the side well after Paul O’Connell succumbed to injury and weighed in with a couple of tries as well.
3. Adam Jones (Wales). England’s Dan Cole enjoyed two barnstorming displays against France and Ireland to finish strongly and earn a couple of votes, but the hair-bear Welshman, another triple Grand Slammer, gets the nod. The rock on which Wales success was built, and perhaps their most important player. Has made the Welsh scrum a source of strength, when he is there.
4. Richie Gray (Scotland). Unanimous choice and another Lion in the making. Dominant in the line-out, prodigious ball-carrier, great hands, pace and footballing ability, as he showed with his brilliant try against Ireland. Shame Scots don’t have more like him.
5. Ian Evans (Wales). Ireland skipper Paul O’Connell earned a couple of votes but his campaign ended after three matches. Wales were without their two World Cup locks at the outset, but Evans unleashed a series of towering displays, after several years of injury misery, to deliver on the promise of his early career. Played in every minute of every game, and will take some shifting.
6. Dan Lydiate (Wales). Possibly the most hotly contested spot in this team, and the Lions Test team in Australia next year, with Ireland’s Stephen Ferris and England’s Tom Croft both enjoying excellent campaigns. But the unsung Welshman earned two man-of-the-match awards, the latter with a thundering display in the Grand Slam decider, to confirm his emergence as a world-class talent.
7. Thierry Dusautoir (France). Ross Rennie earned JD’s vote as one of several finds for Scotland, while Sam Warburton turned in a man-of-the-match display against England, but only played two other halves of rugby. The France captain, meanwhile, remained a totem figure and pillar of consistency even in a side struggling to find its true identity under Philippe Saint-Andre.
8. David Denton (Scotland). Toby Faletau built on the promise of the World Cup and finished strongly against France to confirm his reputation as another strong Lions prospect. But Zimbawe-born Denton began with a bullocking man-of-the-match performance against England, and was another revelation in a losing side.