After a rip-roaring weekend of Six Nations action, there are an abundance of worthy candidates for the team of the round in a Lions year
By Alex Shaw
Round two of the 2017 RBS Six Nations is in the book and the upcoming rest week gives us all a little longer to digest it.
From Ireland blitzing Italy in Rome to the fiery and physical Anglo-Welsh affair in Cardiff, the tournament delivered in emphatic fashion this weekend and was fittingly crowned with a breathless encounter between France and Scotland in Paris on Sunday.
The results ended the Grand Slam hopes of Wales and Scotland, but the tournament looks more competitive than ever, with just one loss from England enough to see them reabsorbed into the chasing pack and a five-horse race for the title emerging.
We dug deep into each game and came up with our XV of the week.
15. Stuart Hogg, Scotland
Not a vintage weekend for full-backs if truth be told but aside from coughing up possession late in the game, Stuart Hogg didn’t put a foot wrong against France and extended his try-scoring streak in the competition to four games.
With ball in hand, there is no better full-back in the northern hemisphere and he showed that again this week with his balanced running style, two hands on the ball and dangerous footwork.
14. Jack Nowell, England
Jonny May was sacrificed for Nowell to be brought into the XV, a decision surely made in part due to England’s inability to break the gain line against France and the Exeter man delivered.
He may not have torn Wales apart with big gains but his tendency to step inside from his wing saw him beat the first tackler on numerous occasions and his average of just over 5m per carry was representative of his outing, with constant, short gains on all his carries, rather than one big run weighting the statistics.
13. Garry Ringrose, Ireland
Ireland’s win over Italy had a feeling of shooting fish in a barrel towards the end but that should not detract from Ringrose’s classy performance in Rome.
The young outside-centre delivered equally in attack and defence and his nimbleness and ability to change direction in the moments just prior to taking contact saw him break numerous tackles and keep the Italian defence on the back foot.
12. Owen Farrell, England
Whilst England struggle to meet their own expectations as a team, Owen Farrell continues to turn in effective performances and deliver in the most crucial of moments. It’s no longer just kicking under pressure, it’s his leadership and execution of skill in times of adversity.
His pinpoint pass to Elliot Daly unleashed the winger to score the try which ultimately won the game for England, whilst his powerful tackling made him an impenetrable wall in defence.
11. Craig Gilroy, Ireland
This could easily have gone to Simon Zebo or Keith Earls, but Gilroy’s second half hat-trick – after being subbed on in the 48th minute – was a showcase in the kind of ball-tracking, support and work rate that every coach wants from their wings.
The game may have been won by the time Gilroy entered the fray but in this age of physical beasts and athletic sprinters on the wing, sometimes we don’t give enough credit to simply scoring tries and being a clinical finisher.
10. Dan Biggar, Wales
Wearing a rib injury suffered in the opening week against Italy and under pressure from the impressive Sam Davies on the bench, Dan Biggar delivered a very polished performance when it was most needed against England on Saturday.
It won’t be much relief for Welsh fans who long for a more fluid attack, but Biggar’s defensive performance was excellent. From an intercept that almost led to a wonderful solo try to the little details, such as his unwillingness to release as a tackler until the last possible moment, Biggar played a very positive role in Wales’ near-miss.
9. Rhys Webb, Wales
Webb’s proclivity for addressing the referee aside, the scrum-half had a fine game against England, including plenty of savvy in and around the breakdown.
He delivered the quick ball Biggar needed, organised his forwards well and, like any good scrum-half, got away with as much as the referee would let him. A few more snipes around the fringes to keep opposition defences honest and Webb will be throwing his name into the British and Irish Lions hat.
1. Cyril Baille, France
This was a tough contest with Cian Healy, who laid down a strong marker on his return to the Ireland starting XV, but the Toulouse loosehead exerted just a little more dominance over his opposite number than the Irishman.
Ominously for the other five nations, France are beginning to combine their power up front with a desire and ability to play at something much closer to regular Test match intensity and young prop Baille has been an important cog in that development.
2. Niall Scannell, Ireland
A late addition to the starting XV after captain Rory Best was deemed unfit, Scannell looked to the manor born in Test rugby on his debut.
He contributed well at the set-piece, carried effectively and defended efficiently. With Ireland’s lineout previously highlighted as an issue, Scannell did a good job of putting himself forward as a potential solution in the remaining three games of the championship.
3. Dan Cole, England
The Leicester Tiger did his British and Irish Lions ambitions no harm at all with a very impressive showing at the Principality Stadium, out scrummaging Rob Evans in an encouraging outing from England’s tight five.
His body position and bind were both good and he was a pivotal part in one of, if not England’s best scrummaging display under Eddie Jones. His spoiling work at the breakdown was also noteworthy.
4. Joe Launchbury, England
With Maro Itoje partnering Launchbury in the engine room and Courtney Lawes on the blindside, England seemed to find a better balance against Wales than they showed against France, a week previously.
The Wasps lock carried well, keeping England on the front-foot around the fringes, defended relentlessly and showed his impressive conditioning, finishing the game just as strongly as he started it.
5. Sebastien Vahaamahina, France
This writer has been critical of France’s ability to play an up-tempo game due to the conditioning of their larger forwards but Vahaamahina proved that wrong on Sunday, turning in a very energetic performance as Les Bleus subdued a confident Scottish side.
Tackling and hitting breakdowns for a full 80-minute shift, Vahaamahina was a significant part of the physical dominance that France had over Scotland in Paris.
6. CJ Stander, Ireland
The South African-born back-rower was at his dominant best in Rome, powering his way through the beleaguered Italian defence. He joined Gilroy in grabbing a hat-trick and is the first forward to do so in Six Nations history.
CJ Stander’s ability to shift the point of contact made him a nightmare for the Italian players to bring down and you could count on one hand how many of his 22 carries saw him stopped in a one-on-one tackle.
Honourable mentions are certainly due for Lawes and Sam Warburton.
7. Kevin Gourdon, France
This Frenchman is an under the radar candidate for player of the tournament, such has been his impact in the opening two rounds of the tournament.
Against Scotland on Sunday, Gourdon’s tackles on the gain line hit Scottish carriers like pistons. He seemed to be omnipresent on the pitch, constantly popping up at the breakdown or with incisive carries, both of which helped France maintain the tempo they needed.
8. Ross Moriarty, Wales
Maybe Wales were wilting overall as a team late in the game but it is hard to ignore the momentum swing that followed the decision to take Moriarty off the pitch.
The abrasive No 8 had been in sparkling form in defence, walloping English carriers on the gain line and, more often than not, rocking them back. It was these kinds of tackles that allowed Warburton and Justin Tipuric to flood forward on to the breakdown and do damage to England’s ball retention.
Just as there was at blindside, there were several standout performances at No 8 this week, with Jamie Heaslip and Louis Picamoles also worthy of note here.