So, congratulations Wales – a thoroughly deserved Slam - although (and far be it for me to be the one to urinate on your fireworks amidst all that euphoria on the other side of the Severn) here are a few things Welshmen might want to consider:
- if England hadn’t committed tactical hari-kari in the 2nd half at Twickenham the Welsh Grand Slam would have been stillborn. I know that many consider that the Twickenham result was the consequence of a great Welsh fightback but I beg to differ – all the Welsh achieved that afternoon was competence – English incompetence did the rest;
- even the most one-eyed Welshman must admit that the Welsh team was extremely lucky with injuries during the tournament, allowing Gatland to select from full strength more often than not and make changes that he wanted to make rather than having them forced upon him;
- while admittedly Wales do have strength in depth in certain positions, notably at half back, there are several areas – tight five, openside flanker and centres in particular – where injuries to frontline players would have seriously affected Welsh chances; and
- apart from England for 40 minutes, no other team showed anything in attack against Wales. While only 2 tries conceded is a testament to the Welsh defensive effort and goes a long way to deifying Shaun Edwards, the tactical approach from both France and Ireland in particular was shocking, whilst the Scottish and Italian attacking efforts were just inept.
As for the rest, a 2nd place for England in the championship might be their best result since 2003 but shouldn’t detract from a shoddily inconsistent overall effort as Ashton’s selectorial conservativism and obstinacy could just as easily have led the team to a wooden spoon. France might argue that they’ve found one or two players of promise for the future but the team lacked intelligence against both England in Paris and Wales in Cardiff and they have serious problems in the front row. Ireland suffered injuries to key players but Eddie O’Sullivan can only have himself to blame that there were no suitable replacements in the pipeline and it looks very much like his days are numbered. And, aside from 80 minutes in the rain at Murrayfield, Scotland were truly awful throughout the championship while Italy look as if they are only a proper fly-half away from being a half-decent team.
So, it now falls on me to select my best XV taken from those who have put their bodies on the line during the past six weeks as I name the TOTAL FLANKER TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT:
15. You’ll be pleased to know that, not being Brian Ashton, I feel no compulsion to hand the fullback shirt to Iain Ballsup. It looked at the beginning of the tournament as if France’s Cedric Heymans would sew this position up (until he ran into Jamie Noon in Paris) but the overall solidity of LEE BYRNE wins this one (a surprise as he’d never threatened to impress me previously).
14. Paul Sackey had his moments, and Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe both showed glimpses, but France’s VINCENT CLERC wins this shirt comfortably. As well as his tries he also looked like the only back with a half a clue against Wales.
13. One of the easiest decisions – TOM SHANKLIN was streets ahead of anyone, including the likes of Brian O’Driscoll. The reason for Warren Gatland going with the embarrassingly bad Sonny Parker to start the England game is anyone’s guess and perhaps punctures Gatland’s aura of perfection.
12. Until the Scotland game I’d been impressed with the contribution of Toby Flood to the England cause and Damian Traille had a decent tournament until Cardiff. It pains me to say it, but I’m afraid that the perma-tanned GAVIN HENSON gets my vote here – his dominance of Yannick Jauzion in Cardiff being the pick of his performances for me.
11. Ickle SHANE WILLIAMS. No contest. Player of the Championship.
10. Now then…logically this should be a toss up between Stephen Jones and James Hook, Jones being the far better tactical game-controller with Hook having the better eye for a break and creative output. However, on Saturday I witnessed the whole package and, although it surprises me to say this, on the strength of just one game I’m going to select tranny-dating nightclubber DANNY CIPRIANI – if only for the fact that he managed to say “fuck” live on the BBC.
9. Scotland’s Mike Blair, it has to be said, had a great game against England but he suffers by association with the dreadful overall contribution of the Scotland team. Eoin Reddan also had a good tournament but Wales scrum half MIKE PHILLIPS was the standout performer, appearing to be the biggest beneficiary of the Gatland/Edwards effect.
1. I know every Welshman would pick Gethin Jenkins, but I can’t ignore the scrummaging power of ANDREW SHERIDAN. He didn’t have his finest 80 minutes overall against the Scots by any means, but his scrummaging and ball carrying power has been central to most of the good things achieved by England.
2. No truly outstanding candidates for the hooker’s shirt. Lee Mears looks to have come of age for England while pretty-boy Dimitri Szarzewski adds dynamism to the French pack. My choice, however, is HUW BENNETT, if only for his tackle on Paul Sackey at Twickenham, saving a try that would surely have taken the English out of sight.
3. Italy’s pack was as fearsome as ever and MARTIN CASTROGIOVANNI was its tighthead cornerstone. Honourable mention also to Adam Jones, who not only proved that nowadays he can last the full 80 minutes if required, he can also do it while sporting a ridiculous Alice in Wonderland plaited hairdo.
4. A number of contenders for the front-jumping spot – Simon Shaw and Nathan Hines both having decent tournaments for instance, but it looked to me as if IAN GOUGH somehow managed to do the work of ten men each game - a huge effort worthy of recognition.
5. As for the middle jumping spot, Alun Wyn-Jones proved an athletic option for Wales while Jerome Thion looked the part for France and Donnacha O’Callaghan had a decent tournament, but I thought STEVE BORTHWICK really showed up well for England this championship and provided much needed leadership at times.
6. The one player who really impressed for Scotland was Alistair Strokosch, who kept Jason White out of the starting XV, while both James Haskell and Tom Croft looked promising for England. Josh Sole worked hard for Italy and Jonathan Thomas showed up well for Wales - but it’s Thomas’s skipper RYAN JONES who gets the nod – picked out of position to accommodate an even more impressive number 8.
7. There's only one realistic contender for the openside birth. Michael Lipman and Marco Bergamasco do get mentioned in dispatches but ex-retiree MARTIN WILLIAMS stole the show as the outstanding backrow forward of the tournament.
8. Finally to number 8 where France discovered a good young prospect in Louis Picamole and Jamie Heaslip will undoubtedly enjoy many seasons to come at the back of the Irish scrum. However Italy’s captain SERGIO PARISSE was head and shoulders above all the other contenders, Ryan Jones perhaps excepted.
There that’s it. No doubt there’ll be those thinking I’ve lost my marbles (if I ever had them) with some of those selections but hey, rugby’s all about opinions. Overall it wasn’t a tournament of huge quality, but there was plenty of drama, excitement and controversy and moments where the only option was to scream at the TV - and you can't ask for much more than that (other than an an England Grand Slam, of course, which never realistically looked on the cards).