2016 Six Nations: Team of the tournament

The 6 Nations is over for another year. England have cast off the shadow of World Cup embarrassment to win their first Grand Slam since 2003. It’s easy to argue that this hasn’t been the best quality 6 Nations – injuries took their toll on some teams, 2 teams were rebuilding – but there were still plenty of players who shone with their individual performances. Some of these players did exactly what fans everywhere expected them to do, but some came out of relative obscurity to become some of the top players of the tournament.

Below, I have put forward my opinion of the team of the tournament. Some positions I found simple to pick, but some were a real struggle so for each selection I have tried to justify why these players have made the XV, whilst also taking note of some of the players who were very unlucky to miss out.

Head Coach – Eddie Jones: It would be hard to argue against someone who’s just won the Grand Slam at the best of times, but when you look at where this England team was after the World Cup then Eddie becomes the obvious pick. Whilst avoiding wholesale changes from the Lancaster regime, he has began to blood young exciting talent as they become ready. A 100% winning record and a Grand Slam will certainly help the RFU feel they got the right man.

Loosehead Prop – Alasdair Dickinson: Oddly, as I used to play prop myself, I found this possibly the toughest position to pick. I thought Jack McGrath and Rob Evans both had good tournaments, but when I came to make my selection, I couldn’t see past the general dominance of the Scottish scum throughout the tournament. Control of the set piece is vital in modern rugby and with the scrum being a great chance of 3 points at the moment (don’t even get me started on THAT subject), the Scottish prop has my vote.

Hooker – Guilhem Guirado: France had a poor tournament, very rarely looking completely comfortable. If Sergio Parisse’s drop goal attempt had been successful in Week 1, it’s possible that they could have been fighting to avoid the Wooden Spoon this year. One shining light throughout this though was their captain, Guirado. The Toulon hooker edges out Dylan Hartley with his impact going forward and his 2 tries.

Tighthead Prop – WP Nel: Similar to his Scottish front row colleague, Dickinson, much of this was based on his impact in the scrum, but he also performed well in open play. It’s no surprise that the Scottish scrum has become more of a weapon since Nel made his international début. Surely at this moment in time he is favourite for the 3 shirt for the Lions Tour.

Second Rows – Maro Itoje & George Kruis: Did Eddie Jones mean for these two to play significant game time as England’s second row pairing? Injuries to some of England’s more experienced locks led to the emergence of a young but very promising partnership. ‘Krutoje’, as I saw on Twitter last night, caused havoc at the opposition line-out and did their job well in the loose too. Jonny Gray, Alun Wyn Jones and Devin Toner all performed well at times but at times, this English pairing was almost unplayable. At a combined age of 47, there is plenty of chance that this could be England’s second row partnership for many years to come.

Blindside Flanker – CJ Stander: After winning back-to-back titles, the form of the Irish in the early weeks was probably one of the biggest disappointments. One player who was anything but disappointing though was CJ Stander. The Munster flanker was Man of the Match on his début against Wales and continued to carry hard throughout the tournament, finishing with 2 tries. The Emerald Isle may have more than its fair share of injuries in the back row, but they have unearthed a real gem in Stander.

Openside flanker – John Hardie: 7 is always going to be a difficult position to pick purely because of the differing playing styles of the players. Some lapses in discipline aside, James Haskell performed well for England, carrying strong and tackling non-stop, but I prefer my 7 to be a ball-stealer. Of those who played 7 regularly this tournament, I felt that Hardie was the best ‘jackal’ that I  could pick. Hardie is solid in defence and often does the dirty jobs that no-one else wants to do. Similar to WP Nel, the improvement in Scottish fortunes has coincided with the former Highlander’s début.

Number 8 – Billy Vunipola: Who else could I pick here? Vunipola is surely one of the top contenders for Player of the Tournament. The vast majority of his carries broke the gainline and helped England generate the quick ball that has often been missing in recent years. I will be very interested to see what Eddie Jones decides to do once Nathan Hughes is eligible to play for England.

Scrum Half – Greig Laidlaw: I’ve tried to avoid any Gloucester bias with this selection. Conor Murray finished the tournament with 3 tries, but the Scottish captain gets my vote for the 9 shirt. He may not be most dynamic in his position, but he marshals the team and more often than not makes the right decision in the heat of the moment. A very accurate goal-kicker, his 62 points saw him finish second only to Owen Farrell (69) in points scored this tournament.

Fly Half – Dan Biggar: What a shame that Carlo Canna missed so much of the tournament, he looked like he could be the 10 Italy have been waiting for all these years. Sexton had some great moments but seems unable to last a match without getting injured (though some of those injuries are a bit questionable). Dan Biggar may not have been at his best this tournament, but he still managed to keep the Welsh back line operating well on the whole, whilst finishing the tournament with the third highest points tally (54).

Inside Centre – Jamie Roberts: Owen Farrell was the top points scorer and helped ease the pressure on George Ford. Gonzalo Garcia put his body on the line time and again for the Italian cause. Both were in contention, but I’ve gone with the Welsh brick wall that is Jamie Roberts for the 12 shirt. Though quiet against England, he was Man of the Match in Week 2 and must have only just lost out to CJ Stander in Week 1. Strong in defence in the early rounds, we then got to see more of his attacking ability as the tournament went on.

Outside Centre – Michele Campagnaro: Sergio Parisse is often the de facto Player of the Tournament for the Azzuri, but I think this time he was overshadowed by the young Exeter Chief. Duncan Taylor was very unlucky to miss out here, but to have performed so well in a struggling team suggests that Campagnaro is a player to build the new generation of Italian rugby around. When all are fit, Rob Baxter will have some headaches selecting his Exeter midfield with the talents of Campagnaro, Slade, Steenson and Hill available and Devoto joining in the summer.

Wings – George North & Tommy Seymour: George North’s scoring drought is well and truly over. A try in each of his last 4 games saw him finish top of the try scoring charts and earned him the 11 shirt in this team. Tommy Seymour may have only finished with 2 tries, but it’s his general play that has got him the 14 shirt here. Scotland’s kicking game would not have been as effective without Seymour’s chasing. If Seymour wasn’t up there competing to win back the high ball, he was usually there to make the tackle as soon as his opponent landed with the ball.

Fullback – Stuart Hogg: Hogg and Vunipola were the easiest selections to make in this team. I can’t see beyond these two for Player of the Tournament. We’ve known for years that Hogg is a quality player, but now that he’s in a competitive team, it’s becoming clear just how good he is. An elusive runner with quick hands and a monster boot, he is one of the most exciting players in the Northern Hemisphere. If he can continue this form into the summer tour, then he surely has to come into the discussion when picking a World XV. The scariest thing? He’s only 23 so has plenty of time to just get even better!

 

So there you go, my 2016 Six Nations XV. I’m sure that there’s at least a few controversial selections in here, so feel free to post your own selections in the comments if you think that there’s someone I missed.

 

Now it’s time to start the countdown to the start of the summer internationals: England v Wales on 29/05/16…

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