It was another intriguing weekend of rugby where Wales, France and England came out on top but who were the star performers of Round Four?
By Alex Shaw
If the Irish, Scottish and Welsh players all delivered their British and Irish Lions statements in notable wins in the first three rounds, it was the turn of the English hopefuls to make their own this past weekend.
In addition to England’s 61-21 thumping of Scotland at Twickenham, plenty of French players impressed in their 40-18 victory in Rome, whilst Wales showed their power game is not as ineffective as it is widely regarded, defeating Ireland, 22-9, in Cardiff.
We’ve collated the best performances of the week to put together the XV of the penultimate round of the 2017 RBS Six Nations.
15. Mike Brown, England
It’s been a good championship for Mike Brown, who has barely put a foot wrong all tournament and Scotland’s inaccurate kicking on Saturday gave him the platform to put in his most effective performance of the last five weeks.
He doesn’t catch the eye in the same fashion that Stuart Hogg does but in terms of reliability, both as a last line of defence and a very competent aerial competitor, Brown may be the leading light in the Six Nations. He doesn’t often get talked about in the Lions equation, but don’t rule him out.
14. George North, Wales
The Welsh wing turned in one of his best performances in the last couple of years on Friday night and it was a pertinent reminder of what he can do when given the ball in space. His two tries sunk Ireland at the Principality Stadium and his stepping off his right foot left many an Irish defender rooted to the spot.
George North is one of the few players that if he is fit and plays to the high level that he is capable of, then his name is already on the Lions team-sheet. He seems to be hitting his stride at just the right time for Warren Gatland.
13. Jonathan Joseph, England
A hat-trick and an assist for clubmate Anthony Watson’s try, Jonathan Joseph turned it on for England, after not being included in the squad for the game against Italy in round three. The outside centre’s running lines and pace caused havoc in the Scottish midfield and neither Alex Dunbar nor Huw Jones had an answer for him.
Joseph joins Brian O’Driscoll as the only other player to have scored multiple hat-tricks in the Six Nations and the only Englishman other than Cyril Lowe to have done so in the entire – Five and Six Nations – history of the tournament.
12. Owen Farrell, England
Gaël Fickou had a fine outing for France but the puppeteering of Owen Farrell made it an easy call to go with the Englishman. He orchestrated a back line which cut Scotland to shreds and coupled it with an unerring boot, that saw him contribute 26 points to the scoreline.
He is inking himself into Gatland’s plans this summer – whether at 10 or 12 – and the chemistry he has with Joseph and George Ford will be helping their cases, too. Like North, there are only a handful of players whose inclusion, fitness-permitting, is a given and Farrell is certainly one of them.
11. Virimi Vakatawa, France
The French flier has been relatively well contained in the championship up to this point, but against a poor Italian defence he was able to break free, show the talents he has and why other nations have been wise to devise plans of limiting his impact on the game.
Liam Williams was also impressive for Wales, but just didn’t see enough of the ball to edge out Vakatawa. The Fijian-born wing shows the potential is there for France to be a force again, if they can develop a team that is comfortable with Test match intensity.
10. Camille Lopez, France
This could have easily been Ford, who shone at Twickenham, but an effective French fly-half performance these days seems to come around as often as a blue moon and should be rightfully celebrated when it does.
Fickou and Rémi Lamerat carved up the Italian midfield outside of Lopez’s string-pulling, whilst the Clermont 10 also kicked accurately, taking the game away from the Azzurri.
9. Baptiste Serin, France
Granted, Serin had two weeks to prepare for the possibility Italy would throw their “Fox” breakdown strategy at him, but on the sporadic occasions they utilised it, he was unflinched and made the most of the space it created for him.
The lively scrum-half has been one of the finds of the season for France and helps deliver the tempo that his side’s forwards don’t always provide of their own accord. His battle with Antoine Dupont over the coming years is just what Les Bleus need.
1. Cyril Baille, France
Another great find for France, Baille has done a noteworthy job at loosehead this championship and caused Lorenzo Cittadini plenty of problems on Saturday afternoon. Solid scrummaging and a good pair of hands are the requirement for modern day props and Baille fulfils both.
He’s also not quite the behemoth prop that France have prized of late and that mobility and conditioning make him an asset for them in the second half, as well as the first.
2. Ken Owens, Wales
The Lions hype is growing around Owens and with showings like the one he put on against Ireland, rightfully so. It was an industrious outing from the Scarlet, who was a key component in Wales out-working and out-muscling Ireland in Cardiff.
He threw accurately at the lineout, linked play well in the outside channels and was constantly committed in defence. It was a full-package performance that saw him narrowly edge out the also impressive Guilhem Guirado.
3. Dan Cole, England
Saturday’s encounter with Gordon Reid will give Dan Cole a measure of succour after the humbling he and his Leicester teammates took at the Scotsman’s hands earlier in the season against Glasgow Warriors. Cole anchored the scrum well against Reid, allowing Joe Marler to go after the inexperienced Zander Fagerson on the other side of the front row.
Cole also pitched in with a good effort at the breakdown, something which may be the ace up his sleeve when Gatland gets round to deciding on his prospective tighthead prop options.
4. Donnacha Ryan, Ireland
The only player from a losing side to make the XV in a one-sided weekend of Six Nations rugby, Ryan and CJ Stander were the only Irish players to live with and match the physical intensity that Wales brought.
An honourable mention is due for Joe Launchbury’s efforts on Saturday but what Ryan managed to accomplish, in extreme adversity, just does enough to see off the Wasps man.
5. Maro Itoje, England
The match with Scotland on Saturday was a great opportunity for Maro Itoje to measure himself against a Lion in Richie Gray and one of the brightest young locks in the game in Jonny Gray. It’s fair to say he met the challenge and passed with flying colours.
Dominant at the breakdown, lineout and in the tackle, Itoje laid down another big Lions marker this weekend.
6. Courtney Lawes, England
For someone who was pilloried for his performances on the blindside in years gone by, Lawes has been a revelation at the position this year. Ignore the five on the back of his jersey – Itoje is packing down in the engine room – and Lawes has brought all of his enforcing skills, with improved carrying ability, to the flank and filled in admirably for the absent Chris Robshaw.
Stander was stubborn in defeat for Ireland and worthy of honourable mention but it was no more than a consolation performance for Ireland, who looked lacklustre in Cardiff.
7. Sam Warburton, Wales
Sam Warburton switches over from six to accommodate Lawes, but it is no stretch to describe his performance as one befitting an openside. The Cardiff Blues man was a force at attacking and defensive breakdowns and only enhanced his Lions credentials with another emphatic performance.
He polarises opinion in Wales but there can be little doubt that he is the premiere breakdown operator in the northern hemisphere.
8. Louis Picamoles, France
Alongside Serin, Baille and Kevin Gourdon, Picamoles has been at the heart of everything good that France have done so far this year and he was at his best against Italy, breaking tackles with abandon and keeping plays alive with intelligent offloading.
He may not be France’s captain but he is one of their emotional leaders and the example he sets with his play is one that every other player in the French team should aspire to.