The RBS Six Nations is back and following the poor showing in last years World Cup from the northern hemisphere nations, reputations are at stake. With Ireland trailing their third successive Six Nations title and England looking to begin their first major tournament under new head coach Eddie Jones, the trophy is very much for the taking. An exciting first round of action saw France and England defeat Italy and Scotland respectively, and the Irish holding Wales to a draw in Dublin. Here is my team of the weekends’ opening fixtures:
Loosehead Prop – Jack McGrath (Ireland)
McGrath embodied the Irish fighting spirit, hitting every ruck and even making good yardage, particularly in the build up to the Conor Murray try. A dynamic and muscular performance from Ireland’s loose head prop also saw some solid tackling, with the Leinsterman coming out of the tough encounter with the joint highest Irish tackle count, alongside Jamie Heaslip.
Hooker – Dylan Hartley (England)
All eyes were on the newly appointed England captain for their opening match against Scotland, with many critics wondering whether or not he had the discipline for the role. However, he proved many doubters wrong, making the right decisions at the correct times (which is not what could always be said for Robshaw) as well as not rising to a punch on the ground. Such was his demeanor and leadership on the pitch that comparisons of Martin Johnson are even beginning to be made. Whilst this may be somewhat premature, he does have the Calcutta Cup under his belt and it is intriguing to see where he can take England in this tournament alongside new boss Eddie Jones. One thing that is for sure is that there was a distinct improvement in lineouts since the woeful World Cup displays of last Autumn.
Tighthead Prop – Samson Lee (Wales)
Samson Lee was solid all game against the Irish, scrumaging well and putting his body on the line in a strong Welsh defensive performance. An increasingly key component of the Welsh front line and aged just 23, I’m sure there’s much more to come from the Scarlets tight-head.
Second Row – Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Another immense performance came from the ever-reliable Alun Wyn Jones, a stalwart of Welsh rugby and a towering presence in the second row. Locked in an intense battle with Ireland’s Devin Toner, Jones made 12 tackles and worked tirelessly, a true leader in the Welsh pack.
Second Row – George Kruis (England)
Vying for competition with the some of the biggest names of English rugby (Lawes, Launchbury and the much lauded Itoje), Kruise needed to step up to the plate when given this big opportunity by Eddie Jones, and that he did. Making 16 tackles and stealing a lineout, the Saracens second row put in a big shift, even scoring a try to cap off a solid performance.
Blindside Flanker – CJ Stander (Ireland)
Stander rightly picked up the man of the match award for his resilient debut against the Welsh on Sunday. The Irish flanker got to every breakdown and was a forced to be reckoned with making 38 hard fought yards with his 23 carries, the most of any players throughout the weekend. Even stealing a lineout to seal a wonderful first game for the former South African U20s Captain.
Openside Flanker – John Hardie (Scotland)
New Zealand born, Scottish Flanker, John Hardie was at the forefront of everything that Scotland did at the weekend against England. An irritant to the English at every breakdown and dynamic in defense, Hardie was by far the brightest light for Scotland in what was largely an underwhelming Saturday afternoon.
Number Eight – Billy Vunipola (England)
Billy Vunipola was a true talisman for England in their victory against Scotland, oozing class and proving his quality as an internationally renowned number eight. Despite big performances from the likes of Parisse and Faletau, Vunipola was the pick of the bunch making 22 carries and gaining 51 metres for his side. The in-form Saracens player could be a huge part of Eddie Jones’ team going forward in this tournament.
Scrum Half – Conor Murray (Ireland)
Arguably the best scrum half in the competition, Murray kicked off this year’s Six Nations with a try from one of his wily breaks near the line. Murray’s influence on the Irish game is enormous, providing great service to both the forwards and backs, completing the most passes over the weekend with a huge 98 and avidly getting the side’s best ball carriers involved in the play.
Fly Half – Carlo Canna (Italy)
One of the big surprises of the opening weekend came in the form of the Italian fly-half Carlo Canna. The number 10 role has been a thorn in the side of Italy for a number of years, however it appears they have finally come up with a solution. Whilst somewhat inconsistent with the boot, Canna managed to notch the full house of a try, conversion, penalty and drop-goal, making him the highest point scorer of the competition so far as well as the only player to score a drop goal. This is the sort of player Italy so desperately needed to enable them to progress as a top nation in world rugby.
Left Wing – Virimi Vatakawa (France)
Another strong debutant was New Zealand born, Fijian raised, French winger Virimi Vatakawa, a former Rugby 7s player who is showing signs of successfully making the big transition to Union. A strong and powerful carrier of the ball, Vatakawa managed his first try within 13 minutes and made some very impressive runs, gaining 63 metres in the French victory in Paris. One of France’s few positives in a narrow win against the Italians.
Inside Centre – Jamie Roberts (Wales)
One of the greatest performances of the weekend came in the form of Roberts’ solid defensive effort. The big Welsh centre was huge in the tackle, epitomising the dogged determination of the Welsh to earn their draw at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday. Such an enormous endeavour also saw Roberts come in from the weekend as the joint top tackler of the competition so far with fellow compatriot Taulupe Faleteau, both making 21 hits. His ability to cut out and prevent the Irish attacks was crucial in gaining the draw in Dublin.
Outside Centre – Michele Campagnaro (Italy)
Another of Italy’s top performers in their narrow loss to France in the opening game was Exeter Chiefs centre, Michele Camapgnaro. The exciting young prospect was at the forefront of Italy’s energetic attacking display, with Campagnaro managing the most clean breaks of any player.
Right Wing – Jack Nowell (England)
Campagnaro’s Exeter team mate Jack Nowell also had a match to remember, as his lightning fast running caused Scotland great trouble, beating three defenders and ultimately scoring his eighth England try and the game’s second. A strong performance that should cement his position in Eddie Jones’ upcoming plans against Italy at the weekend.
Full Back – Liam Williams (Wales)
Despite being a late addition to the match day squad following the injury to Gareth Anscombe, Williams was a key player in a resilient Welsh team. A committed performance that saw him gain 90 metres from 19 carries, Williams has almost certainly made a claim for a permanent position in the starting team, with his distinctly attacking style sure to be even more successful against weaker opposition.