After 7 weeks of scream-inducingly intense excitement, it's time to reflect on the 2014 Six Nations. With Ireland winning the title with a dramatic victory in Paris on Saturday night, it was the perfect sign off to Brian O'Driscoll's magnificent career and a championship that has delivered more tries and excitement than any other in recent memory. Ireland may have won but they were pushed all the way by an exciting young England side, and the pair of them were streets ahead of the competition in this year's tournament as both Wales and France had mixed fortunes, and Scotland and Italy once again disappointed. So, without further ado, let's hit the RuckedOver Six Nations awards ceremony – no tuxedo necessary…
We were lucky enough to be served up with some absolute classics in every round and I could easily have picked France v England or Scotland v Italy for their last minute dramatics, or France v Ireland for the sheer pant-shittingly frantic end to the championship, but I've gone for England 13 – 11 Ireland at Twickenham. England's home crowd was a loud as any could remember for the last decade and the intensity as the two best teams in the tournament went toe-to-toe was jaw dropping. There was a phenomenal 5 minute spell at the end where the ball didn't go out of play and both sides continued to plough in with huge hits that shuddering in their physicality. Brilliant stuff.
Scotland v England. Not because it was a terrible match in the sense that nothing happened – England played some very good rugby, in fact – but because Scotland just simply didn't show up. They were about as threatening as Mother Theresa to the point where the only thing that was worse than their performance was the standard of the Murrayfield 'pitch', if it could be called that, as it resembled a pile of porridge by the end of the 80 minutes. One the sport's great rivalries looked like little more than a training exercise for the men in white.
The standing ovation Brian O'Driscoll received as he left the pitch at the Aviva Stadium in his last home game for his country, against Italy. The legendary centre was utterly sublime during his 60 minute stint, creating 3 tries through a glorious display of strength, deception, vision and dexterity. It was vintage O'Driscoll, and the dignified and humble manner in which he accepted the applause and then played down his achievements in the post-match interview was indicative of the unassuming nature of one of the greatest players the world has seen. At the risk of rattling a few favours, it drew a stark comparison to the self-glorifying 'retirement game' of another great player, Shane Williams, who dived spectacularly over the line for a try against Australia, despite his team being on the wrong end of a convincing defeat, and celebrated as if he'd just won the world cup. For O'Driscoll it was always team first, personal glory second.
Jake Ball shades the brave effort of Gordon D'Arcy. The Welshman's hedge is so thick it usually contains remnants of that morning's porridge for an in-match energy-boosting nibble. Magnificent and practical.
|Leigh Halfpenny congratulated Jake Ball on his face-tree|
Scotland and their pitch were a big let-down, as described above, as were the showings of the Lions-laden Welsh side in defeat against Ireland and England, but for me Italy have taken two steps back where they took one forward last year. The Azzurri have been in this competition long enough for me to avoid patronising them by saying "It's another step of the learning curve". At the end of the day, they know what the competition is about and, after winning two games last year, they know how to beat sides, but the bottom line is that they simply didn't look like winning games; even against Scotland, they never looked confident. Aside from the form of fantastic hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini and the occasional sparks from Michele Campagnaro and Leonardo Sarto, there was very little to be positive about from an Italian perspective.
The Danny Care Sh*t Haircut Award
Goes to…Jack Nowell. In an unprecedented and controversial turn of events, Danny Care no longer has the most idiotic haircut in the England squad, with young upstart winger Nowell stealing the award with a classic greasy-slick-across-and-rat-tail combo. How Care will to this devastating news is not yet known, but rumours involving bleach and hair-curlers are doing the rounds on the internet.
Best Try Award
With so many great efforts to choose from, I've decided to pick my top 3:
3. Danny Care v Ireland. The try that turned the game in England's favour and summed up the new, heads-up brand of rugby Stuart Lancaster's men are playing. Chris Robshaw spotted a dog-leg in the Irish defence, drew two defenders and offloaded brilliantly to Mike Brown, who in turn drew in Rob Kearney to send Care scampering away under the posts.
2. Gael Fickou v England. The try that, in hindsight, cost England a Grand Slam in the Championship. France had been dominated in the second half but, with England out on their feet, Les Bleus scored a spectacular effort in the final minutes in a manner that only the French can muster. Lovely hands from Szarzwski found the young centre in space – a dummy and a burst of speed, and the rest is history.
1. Jamie Roberts v Scotland. Sure, playing against 14 men made it easier, but the execution and speed of this Welsh counter-attack showed the 2013 champions at their best, and that's why it's my favourite try of the tournament. After Warburton had snaffled a loose lineout ball, Liam Williams broke clear up the left, before sumptuous offloading and interplay between forwards and backs saw Jamie Roberts crash over the line. Pure class.
All others pale into insignificance next to this classic tweet by Fergus McFadden after he had replaced BOD in the centre's last ever game in Dublin:
"That standing ovation I got coming off the bench yesterday was amazing
Biggest Balls Up
There were some strong contenders in this category, with Pascal Pape's utterly abysmal attempted pass against Ireland in the dying embers of the game and Stuart Hogg's brainless shoulder charge both in the running, but for sheer consistency of cock ups it has to go to Scott Johnson. Got a captain? Drop him. Got one player who is making yards and having a good game in the pack? Sub him off. Yes, Johnson demonstrated that he is a keen subscriber to the Philippe Saint-Andre school of crap coaching, and left most of us scratching our heads in the process as Kelly Brown and Dave Denton were the unlucky victims of the Aussie's madness.
Perhaps the most clear-cut it has been in a while. There were plenty of worthy contenders – Leigh Halfpenny for Wales, Brian O'Driscoll and Peter O'Mahony for Ireland, Bruce Dulin for France, Joe Launchbury and Chris Robshaw for England – but Mike Brown was just sensational from the first game. Counterattacking at every opportunity, Voldermort's sporty cousin demonstrated that he now has world-class finishing ability to complement his knack of beating defenders from deep and his security in defence. He can now be mentioned in the same breath as Israel Dagg and Israel Folau. Italy's Michele Campagnaro wins the young player award for an exciting introduction to the international stage.
Team of the Tournament:
15. Brown (ENG), 14. Trimble (IRE), 13. Burrell (ENG), 12. Roberts (WAL), 11. Huget (FRA), 10. Sexton (IRE), 9. Care (ENG), 1. Healy (IRE), 2. Hartley (ENG), 3. Ross (IRE), 4. Launchbury (ENG), 5. Lawes (ENG), 6. O'Mahony (IRE), 7. Robshaw (ENG), 8. Heaslip (IRE).
Visit http://www.therugbyblog.com/six-nations-2014-team-of-the-tournament for my justifications on the selections…
And, of course, no round up would be complete without a quick check up on how each side did and what, in some cases, went wrong…
Wales: C plus. Disappointing average. Cracking displays against France and Scotland were counteracted by ineptitude against Ireland and England, who showed that if you stop the big runners at source, there's not much else they can threaten you with. They're still stuffed full of quality players, but they need a plan B.
England: A minus. But for 20 minutes against, France, this was a fantastic tournament for Stuart Lancaster and his merry men. They may have failed to win the tournament – and they can look to various inaccuracies in matches aside from Paris where they missed chances to boost their points difference – but the brand of fast attack and aggressive defence looks very promising. The key now is to integrate some of the missing key players of the squad without upsetting the balance.
Scotland: D minus. They the bozo at the SRFU who decided the best way to treat their pitch was to spray it with garlic, as opposed to arranging an alternative venue when they knew about the problem back in October. Farcical. The same word could unfortunately be used to describe Scottish displays throughout the tournament, lacking intensity and penetration, with 2 competitive displays against Italy and France the only glimmers of light in a very dark 7 weeks for the Scots.
Italy: D. See above for "biggest disappointment". They have some talented players now but their pack, unusually, let them down. Perhaps they were missing the physical Simone Favaro, but they looked like they were lacking aggression and athleticism, both of which are delivered in spades by the Treviso openside. After a positive campaign last time out, this was a step in the wrong direction.
Ireland. A. One hardfought loss against England aside, this was a fantastic tournament for the Irish. They looked fit, physical and clinical throughout the tournament and deserved a championship victory with a lung-busting display in Paris. The fact that they went from 5th to 1st with effectively the same team is a sign of how well Joe Schmidt has done with his troops. The next key question is if they can keep going to the next World Cup with Brian O'Driscoll retiring and four 34 year olds still forming the spine of the team.
France. B minus. The fact that they were still in with a shout of winning the tournament on the last day was mind-blowing. They lucked out against England, performed well enough against Italy, and were abject against Wales and Scotland, yet somehow snatched a win from Murrayfield. Only in defeat to Ireland did the ferocious French pack stand up and demand to be counted. With a gameplan that just didn't make sense, Les Bleus need to go back to basics, and settle on a half-back pairing.