With the Six Nations at an end, its smouldering coals are being raked for analysis and lament.
Irrepressible France. crowned champions with their first Grand Slam in a dozen years, have their eyes trained on World Cup glory on home soil. Ireland developed their multi-phase, high-tempo blueprint impressively. Italy won at long last, but Wales and Scotland have uncomfortable questions to answer.
This piece answers none of those questions. Let’s park the serious business of introspection for the time being. Let’s engage instead in the far more serious business of make-believe selection.
Below is our France-heavy team of the championship. Disagree with the calls? That’s what the comments section is for.
15. Melvyn Jaminet
Metronomic from the tee, Jaminet’s near-flawless place-kicking kept scoreboards ticking over and momentum with France. He covers the back-field well, and has a howitzer right boot ideally suited to Fabien Galthie’s territorial strategy. France force teams to infringe a lot, and Jaminet punishes them. Though he can be a little flaky in the air, the full-back withstood a much-anticipated English bombardment on the final day.
Hugo Keenan, too, stood out for Ireland, with his lancing runs and a magnificent try-saving tackle on Stuart Hogg.
14. Mack Hansen
Australia’s loss is Ireland’s considerable gain. Tall, rangy and intelligent, Hansen seared on to the international scene this year. The Connacht man has stepped up brilliantly, with his ability to lope beyond defenders and dominate the skies. His opportunistic try in Paris was superbly taken.
13. Gael Fickou
If Shaun Edwards’ blitz is a juggernaut, Fickou is its ravenous captain. Few backs read the game as astutely, and fewer still are as adept over ball. On Saturday night, Fickou burgled three English rucks, amidst a masterful defensive performance. And he remains a significant threat with ball in hand, scoring well-taken tries against England and Scotland.
Joe Marchant deserves a mention too.
12. Jonathan Danty
Built like a New York fire hydrant, Danty is the perfect gain-line machine. Without Virimi Vakatawa, Galthie needed a muscular centre to fracture defensive links on first phase. Danty’s power led to a return of nearly eight metres per carry and like Fickou, he is a limpet on the jackal. The centre’s squad form is nearly immovable when he clamps on the ball, and he won France five turnovers.
A tip of the cap to Bundee Aki.
11. Gabin Villiere
The tale of Villiere is incredible, from failed ProD2 scrum-half to world-class winger. Not only does he have fabulous speed and footwork, his lust for defence is a dream in Edwards’ blitz. Villiere makes telling hits for a small man and pilfers an incredible volume of opposition ball on the deck. A nightmare to play against.
Monty Ioane can be Italy’s game-breaker, and as well as topping the charts for broken tackles, he finished at the summit for dominant hits made.
10. Romain Ntamack
While Marcus Smith dazzled in patches, and Johnny Sexton laughed once more in the face of Father Time, Ntamack was the tournament’s premier play-maker. Aided, of course, by having a monster pack and the world’s best player as his half-back partner, he kicks so cleverly and operates with extreme precision under pressure. Ntamack never seems flustered, laying on four French tries.
9. Antoine Dupont
Was he at his best? No. Was he the top scrum-half in the tournament? Absolutely. Dupont has set such towering standards lately that his influence was not so omnipotent as it had been in 2021. He still made so many telling plays. Think of the counterattack against Scotland that led to Paul Willemse crashing over. Or the mighty fend that nearly cracked Josh Navidi’s sternum, then an impossible offload that followed it in Cardiff. And of course, the slam-sealing try in the Stade when he sniffed out Gregory Alldritt’s break and powered through two tackles to score.
Jamison Gibson-Park was the spiky conduit for Ireland’s high-octane attack.
1. Cyril Baille
There isn’t a loosehead in world rugby to match Baille’s excellence. A brutal scrummager, whose dynamism and dexterity in open prairie are underpinned by superb anaerobic fitness. It shouldn’t be surprising to hear Baille can supposedly put up a decent spiral bomb too, though we haven’t yet been treated to one. Maybe next year.
Ellis Genge was the roaring embodiment of English defiance against Ireland and France.
2. Julian Marchand
Not quite as massive as Baille but just as useful on the carry. Yet another vigorous French bruiser who punches above his considerable weight. A key cog in a French line-out that seldom faltered.
3. Uini Atonio
With Paul Willemse wedged behind him, Atonio is virtually immovable at scrum time. He is still a frightening prospect in the loose, much more so having shed some excess poundage and made his huge figure more explosive as a result.
Tadhg Furlong, rightly or wrongly, had a tough time against Genge, but otherwise burnished his reputation as the world’s top tight-head.
4. Maro Itoje
A penalty machine in 2021, Itoje was a turnover-gobbling monster in 2022. Delivered one of the defining individual performances of the tournament against Ireland. His relentless hassling of half-backs, menacing of breakdowns and worrying of line-out rivals was imperious. Edges Cameron Woki.
5. Paul Willemse
The bedrock of the French pack. Willemse is a colossal man, built like an American fridge freezer, who shifts his mighty frame with great explosiveness. The Montpellier lock has made more dominant tackles than anyone else bar Ioane, and brought stability and snarl to Galthie’s tight-five.
Tadhg Beirne made a sheer nuisance of himself at breakdowns throughout the championship and Will Rowlands went well in the Welsh engine room.
6. Anthony Jelonch
Jelonch has flown under the radar a little, certainly in comparison with his illustrious pals in the backline, but his quiet effectiveness was very compelling. The flanker laced tremendously disruptive breakdown work with sharp support lines. A pugilist in contact, Jelonch finished in the top ten for tackles completed and finished a massive try in Cardiff.
Caelan Doris also had a fine tournament.
7. Michele Lamaro
Italy’s new totem. Lamaro was Kieran Crowley’s immediate choice as skipper when he took charge in the autumn, anointing the 23-year-old who had missed swathes of rugby through serious injury. How that decision is paying off. Lamaro looks every inch a leader, by deed and by word.
A powerful orator despite his age, he is a tiger on the park. It is not surprising that an Italian back-row should top the Six Nations tackle charts, but 85 in five games is a terrific return, as is an average of nearly 6m per carry. He could be the Azzurri’s snarling figurehead for the next two World Cup cycles.
Josh van der Flier carried and tackle with aplomb; Rory Darge came of age as an international player for Scotland.
8. Gregory Alldritt
Galthie’s great carrier in chief maintained his usual exemplary level of charging, steamrolling and general mayhem-wreaking with ball in hand. He gets through a mountain of work on the hoof, so much of it into the heaviest of traffic, laying the platform for Dupont and the piano-players outside him. The hulking number eight is also a potent weapon at the breakdown.
Alldritt edges Taulupe Faletau, who continues to defy conventional wisdom that it takes players a few weeks to produce anything near their best stuff after returning from long-term injury.