Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Six Nations Review 2009

And so, unbelievably, another Six Nations has come and gone. It's all over for another year and once again we have a Grand Slam winning team, this time the honour passing to the Irish.

It does seem strange that, for a tournament that is supposed to be so tight, we quite often get a Grand Slam winner. I guess we can put that down, in part, to the momentum gathered by a winning team - but it would appear that any team who can achieve any degree of consistency throughout he competition stands a decent chance of the ultimate prize.

Ireland's Slam wasn't pretty. Deserved, no doubt, but Ireland weren't exactly the most stylish of teams by any means. For hard work, endeavour and intensity, however, they were clearly ahead of the rest. Their best performance for me was their first - against France at Croker - and for sheer drama the finale against Wales takes some beating. And, given that this was their first Slam since 1948, I can't really begrudge the Irish their success.

So, it falls on me once again to select my best XV taken from those who strutted their stuff for the past six weeks as I name the TOTAL FLANKER TEAM OF THE 2009 SIX NATIONS:

15. Lee Byrne came into the Six Nations so far ahead of the competition that there really should be no contest for the 15 shirt - Jeremy Guscott even labelled him the best player in the world (although to be fair, it's a well known fact that gardeners regularly follow Guscott around with a shovel). Byrne didn't have a bad tournament but equally he really didn't live up to the hype and, despite the claims of the equally heralded Rob Kearney, I'm going for DELON ARMITAGE - three tries, plenty of attacking intent and safe as houses under the high ball doing it for me.

14. It's fair to say that this wasn't exactly a winger's Six Nations unless you're turned on by the sight of them fielding seemingly never-ending punts upfield. On the right wing Leigh Halfpenny looked promising, Simon Danielli had his moments and Mark Cueto completed something of a regeneration but TOMMY BOWE was the pick of the bunch - his try against Wales proving the most crucial.

13. Some excellent contenders for the outside centre birth - Max Evans was a find for Scotland, Tom Shanklin was his usual excellent self for Wales, even Mike Tindall was half-decent at times and I thought Mathieu Bastareaud had a sensational debut for France, but BRIAN O'DRISCOLL hauled Ireland through a couple of matches almost single-handedly and must start favourite to retain the Lions captaincy this summer.

12. Only one real contender here - with Gavin Henson nowhere near his 2008 form, Yannick Jauzion a shadow of his former self and with Jamie Roberts revealed to be somewhat one dimensional by Joe Worsley, RIKI FLUTEY was the outstanding inside centre and looks established now as England's number 12.

11. Another case of the pre-tournament favourite struggling to justify the hype. Ickle Shane Williams started well against Scotland but didn't ever convince after his ankle injury. Thom Evans was probably the pick of the bunch from the British Isles left wingers but, for me, France's MAXINE MEDARD was the most impressive (his stint at fullback against England aside) - not least for sporting the tournament's best sideburns.

10. In theory this should be a toss up between Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara, but O'Gara wobbled alarmingly against England and was only marginally better against Wales. Jones was far steadier and saw off the challenge of James Hook, but the Welsh backline rarely fired after the Scotland game and Jones must take some responsibility for that. And so, perhaps somewhat controversially and in the absence of a truly outstanding candidate I'm going for TOBY FLOOD who managed, at long last, to get the England backline running again. And I'm sure absolutely no one other than his Mum will agree with me on that choice.

9. Of the scrum halves, Harry Ellis is getting back to where he was a couple of years ago and I thought Mike Phillips, recovering from injury, got better as the tournament wore on. Scotland’s Mike Blair, however, was a huge disappointment, whilst neither of Ireland's scrum halves were that impressive and Italy's Paul Griffen was just pure comic genius at times. That leaves France's MORGAN PARRA who gets my vote.

1. It was good to see Andrew Sheridan get back to somewhere close to his best and we all know how well Salvatore Perugini scrummaged for Italy but GETHIN JENKINS had, I thought, an immense tournament both in the tight and in the loose where his tackling was phenomenal.

2. At hooker I thought Lee Mears had a strong tournament and Jerry Flannery did little wrong for Ireland, whereas Scotland's Ross Ford and Matthew Rees of Wales probably underachieved. However, despite being way too good-looking, I thought the play of French pretty-boy DIMITRI SZARZEWSKI was exceptional, even in the debacle against England.

3. Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni (despite his punch up with Chabal in a Rome nightclub) and Carlos Nieto were once again fearsome scrummagers, while the old warhorse Phil Vickery finally managed to stop giving penalties away and start playing a bit for England. Big John Hayes was his usual muscular self in the lineout (although he still can't scrummage imho) and Sylvain Marconnet's return to French colours certainly shored up their scrummage this season. Euan Murray also made a welcome return to action but it's the hair-bear bunch's ADAM JONES who takes the honours with an exceptional series of performances.

4. The return of 76 year old Simon Shaw was a welcome sight if not exactly boding that well for the future for England second row development and Ian Gough's impressive workrate and brutal tackling also stood out. However, PAUL O'CONNELL was back in form and was probably the outstanding lock of the tournament, his efforts against England and Wales in particular earning deserved plaudits.

5. As for the middle jumping spot, Steve Borthwick's return to form coincided with his return to the middle of the lineout where he replaced the impressively spring-heeled Nick Kennedy. Lionel Nallet had a decent all round tournament as did Donnacha O’Callaghan until the red mist descended against Wales. Pick of the bunch though was ALUN-WYN JONES who is dead cert for a Lions starting spot.

6. Moving on to the back row, there were a number of blindside contenders, Steve Ferris - who I knew next to nothing about prior to the tournament - making a real impression. Thierry Dusutoir was also generally excellent and Alistair Strokosch showed well for the Scots. However, TOM CROFT really came of age as an international flanker and therefore gets the nod.

7. Martin Williams was another who didn't really have the impact I expected, given that I rate him incredibly highly - perhaps Wales' obsession with the kicking game just didn't suit his natural fetcher instincts. France's Fulgence Ouedraogo had a fantastic start to the tournament until inexplicably dropped by Mad Marc Lievremont and Joe Worlsey was a total revelation at openside for England. However, DAVID WALLACE stole the show with hugely consistent performances for the Irish.

8. And finally we turn to the only one-man team in the tournament. Despite the very strong claims of Imanol Harinordoquy and Jamie Heaslip, one man who simply stood head and shoulders above the rest was Italy’s captain SERGIO PARISSE - a superb athlete, great leader and all round brilliant rugby player. Player of the tournament, easily - and if Ian McGeechan isn't doing so already he should go over Parisse's family tree with a fine toothcombe in search of just a hint of British or Irish ancestry.


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Nursedude said...

I think given all of the questions France had at scrum half prior to the 6 Nations, I thought Parra had a really good tournament. He and Batereaud were probably the two biggest revelations for France this year. Parra's kicking was surprisingly good, eventhough with his own club, he is not the first choice kicker.

Nursedude said...

I almost forgot to mention, that I think Delon Armitrage was by far England's most consistent player since November. Trinidad and Tobogo's loss is England's gain.