The third round of the Six Nations brought surprises, drama and no little controversy but who were the individuals who stood out?
By Alex Shaw
The 2017 RBS Six Nations passed the halfway point this weekend, as the tournament whittled its title contenders down from five to three and set up a fascinating run-in to be played out over the remaining two rounds.
Scotland continued their renaissance at BT Murrayfield, inflicting an impressive 29-13 defeat on a Wales side that looked out of their depth. Rob Howley’s men have now been realistically, albeit not mathematically, eliminated from the title chase.
France also had their hopes of winning the Six Nations ended, as they slipped to a lethargic 19-9 loss to Ireland in Dublin.
Meanwhile, England notched their 17th straight win, as they beat Italy 36-15 at Twickenham and kept alive their Grand Slam hopes.
Here is your Six Nations Team of the Week.
15. Stuart Hogg, Scotland
The Scottish full-back was once again in rip-roaring form on Saturday and takes his place in this XV for the third consecutive week.
His work facilitating Scotland’s attack in the wide channels was directly attributable to their two tries. His running line and delayed pass caused Liam Williams to bite in on a decoy runner and gave Tommy Seymour the time and space to go over out wide, whilst his quick hands later unleashed Tim Visser and saw Scotland move beyond Wales’ reach.
14. Elliot Daly, England
Elliot Daly has come a fair way in his transition from a club outside centre/full-back to a Test wing and it seems a long time ago that he was sent off against Argentina for his poorly-timed chase and collision with Leonardo Senatore.
You can now see why Eddie Jones was so keen to get Daly into his back three – even if not at full-back – as his raking left boot proved important to England in the tactical kicking battle, whilst his speed showed in the wider channels.
13. Michele Campagnaro, Italy
A fine solo try, that saw Campagnaro power through a poor George Ford tackle and juke Mike Brown out of his boots, was the fitting reward for an all-action performance from the Italian.
Even before his second half try, Campagnaro was the constant threat in the Italian back line and was only narrowly stopped on a couple of occasions by good blitz defence from England. With slightly quicker ball from the breakdown, half-backs and inside centre, Campagnaro would have had himself multiple two-on-ones to exploit.
12. Alex Dunbar, Scotland
One errant kick aside, it was a really hard-working, nuts and bolts type performance from Dunbar, who was an irremovable thorn in the side of Wales’ attack.
He played like an extra back row on Saturday, very much in the mould of Brad Barritt or Jamie Roberts. That type of role may not always catch the eye, but it shows up in the final score line and Dunbar’s work containing Dan Biggar and Scott Williams and affecting both offensive and defensive rucks was excellent.
11. Liam Williams, Wales
Both Seymour and Visser did well for Scotland but Liam Williams reinforced his standing as one of the most prolific attacking threats in world rugby.
It’s a shame that Wales cannot get the ball in this man’s hands more often, as he has the capability to score tries from anywhere on the pitch. His try aside, Wales’ tactics stifle the Scarlet and if there is a reluctance to change that approach from the coaching team, it may be time to move him to his favoured position of full-back.
10. Jonathan Sexton, Ireland
Johnny Sexton’s inclusion over the in-form Paddy Jackson may have been the talking point going into the weekend, but it was his classy performance that was the only thing people were talking about after the game.
Fresh from injury, Sexton didn’t miss a step against France. He ran the line efficiently, deployed his trademark loop to good effect and didn’t shy away from the physical aspects of the game, making several key tackles and contributing at the breakdown.
An honourable mention is due for Finn Russell, who put in a similarly effective performance for Scotland.
9. Conor Murray, Ireland
One of the key reasons behind Sexton’s impressive performance was the superb work done by his half-back partner.
Murray’s decision-making as to when to run, pass and kick, not to mention his execution in doing so, allowed Ireland to control both the possession and territory battles and with France trailing at half time, the game was already over, with the French team looking out on their feet in the second half.
As ridiculous as it sounds, his try in the 30th minute was the nail in France’s coffin.
1. Andrea Lovotti, Italy
Another good outing for Italy’s loosehead prop, who caused England a number of problems, not just in the scrum, but also with his defensive work.
He was no stranger to the English backfield with Italy’s no rucking strategy and he played a big role in flustering England in the first half at Twickenham.
Scotland’s Gordon Reid and France’s Cyril Baille also gave very good accounts of themselves.
2. Fraser Brown, Scotland
Brown continues to shine for Scotland, keeping up his 100% lineout record in the Six Nations and putting in another industrious performance against Wales.
He has forced himself into the British and Irish Lions conversation this season and of all the starting Test hookers among the Home Nations, it’s hard to make an argument whereby he isn’t the most in-form of the lot.
3. Rabah Slimani, France
On a miserable day for France in Dublin, the return of Slimani to the starting XV was one of the few silver linings.
The Stade Français man bolstered the scrum significantly, giving loosehead prop Jack McGrath a torrid time and it was noticeable that France’s scrum ascendancy receded once Slimani went off the pitch. Les Bleus just don’t have the conditioning and/or the type of player selected required to beat the top teams at Test level and making games as set-piece orientated as possible is their best chance of success.
4. Joe Launchbury, England
In a game which offered the England forwards plenty of opportunities to run the ball on the fringes of the contact area or through what would have been the ruck were it not for Italy choosing not to engage, Launchbury impressed.
The Wasps lock’s strongest string to his bow is his ability with ball in hand and he was not afraid to show it at Twickenham. After confusing England with their approach at the breakdown, Italy were perhaps guilty of over-using it and, as the game went on, Launchbury punished them for it.
5. Maro Itoje, England
For the second week running, Maro Itoje packed down in the engine room despite having a six on the back of his jersey. The English scrum shared the spoils with their Italian opponents but it was Itoje’s overall impact that wins him his spot here.
In a seemingly alien first 30 minutes for the home side, Itoje, like Launchbury, was one of the few players to step up and overcome the innovative approach to the breakdown of the Azzurri pack. He made a nuisance of himself at defensive breakdowns and lineouts, had the mental wherewithal to exploit Italy’s tactics and showed his skills as a leader, when many around him were struggling.
6. Sam Warburton, Wales
Whilst Wales’ performance was drab and devoid of attacking proficiency – save for Scott Williams’ and Leigh Halfpenny’s passes for Liam Williams’ try – Warburton was at close to his best in Edinburgh.
The former captain was pilfering with abandon early on against the Scots and there were two or three further occasions when referee John Lacey ordered him to release the ball in what looked to be fair turnovers. The balance of the Welsh pack is off and they are having trouble retaining possession, but Warburton is far from responsible for that deficiency.
Alongside Launchbury and Itoje, Courtney Lawes was the other prominent English player to twig Italy’s tactics and its vulnerability and as such deserves an honourable mention for his contribution. Scotland captain John Barclay was not far off, either.
7. Hamish Watson, Scotland
How was Watson dropped to the bench after his emphatic performances in the first two rounds? Regardless, he was soon brought back into the action when John Hardie departed with an injury in the 25th minute.
That aforementioned issue Wales had retaining possession? Watson was a one-man wrecking ball at any Welsh attacking breakdown. It was a clinic in breakdown play from the Scottish forward who not only shone when trying to steal Welsh ball, but also stood up as an aggressive clearer and helped deliver the quick ball that Scotland thrived on in the second half.
8. Ryan Wilson, Scotland
Jamie Heaslip had a very good game in Dublin and came close to sneaking this spot but Wilson shone in Edinburgh, providing the go forward that was lost when Josh Strauss was injured in the previous round.
His control at the base of the scrum, especially on a couple of occasions when Wales got a drive on, was excellent, as was his contribution to the breakdown battle. Watson will draw the plaudits and rightfully so, but Wilson was just as industrious.