Top of the Six Nations table and still the highest-ranked northern hemisphere team in the world, but the debate over whether Ireland boasted the best player over the last two months will drag on a while longer yet, writes Brendan O'Brien.
Voting opened yesterday to find the official RBS Six Nations player of the tournament and all six countries have at least one horse in a race that will end when the voting window closes at midnight tomorrow.
Twelve players in all have been singled out on the back of statisticalinformation gathered whereby each player was awarded or deducted points across different action categories, all of which were weighted in terms of importance. Sounds complicated, but the results spat out by computer yesterday revealed three of the delectable dozen are Irish with Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw getting the nod.
An England foursome of out-half George Ford – whose nomination is especially interesting given Jonathan Sexton misses out — top try scorer Jonathan Joseph, rampaging back row Billy Vunipola and scrum-half Ben Youngs all joined them. Out-half Dan Biggar and second-row Alun Wyn Jones provide the Welsh contingent, lock Jonny Gray and full-back Stuart represent Scotland while Sergio Parisse flies the Italian flag despite missing the last game, against Wales. Even that list was enough to kick-start arguments and the eventual winner is likely to generate similar debate given the inability yesterday of Leinster’s forwards coach Leo Cullen to pick out even the best of the Irish players.
“It’s hard to say,” Cullen started. “Johnny (Sexton) when he came back into the mix against England and France at home was pretty exceptional. Paulie, I thought, was pretty exceptional over the course of the five games. It is a remarkable career. What he has done over the last number of years has been phenomenal.
“Seanie (O’Brien) hit a bit of form. I thought (Rory) Bestie played pretty well also. Overall, I thought the lads performed really, really well. They all had their ups and downs. (Robbie) Henshaw, after the England game everyone was talking about him. He was outstanding across the championship.”
Already decided is Ireland’s world ranking from here until the autumn’s World Cup warm-ups with the team’s four wins and solitary loss securing their continuation as the third-ranked side in the world behind New Zealand and South Africa. That they failed to make up any ground on the points table that decides these things – they are still 2.47 behind the Springboks — may be down to Scotland’s lowly status. They lie 10th, ahead of Japan. That said, the glow from the weekend’s fare in Rome, Edinburgh and London, when an astonishing 221 points that included 27 tries were recorded continued to be felt on the face of rugby through to yesterday.
Saturday’s triple header has, rightly, been the beneficiary of considerable applause from a rugby public that had been slightly benumbed by the defensive physicality of the first four rounds in this latest Six Nations championship. Suggestions this was the greatest day in the long history of the tournament are impossible to refute. Less bombproof is the assertion that this was some epiphany for the game after so much bosh.
George Hook exemplified the rush to judgement at the weekend when claiming that this ‘Super Saturday’ had somehow “saved” the game of rugby, but rarely if ever will a set of such circumstances align to provide such a free-spirited canvas. It is unlikely we will see it’s like again.
Cullen certainly seems to think so.
“I don’t know if the tactics changed drastically,” said the former Ireland lock yesterday. “It is just the mindset of the players gets tweaked. It is that lead. You often see when teams are 20 points down then the shackles are off. As they say, the clichés are there for a reason — they are generally true.
“The shackles were off. They had to go out to play. It was like they were 20 points down so in many ways that gives more creative license because you know winning by a score wasn’t going to be good enough. Ordinarily you would be delighted to win by (one) score in Murrayfield. That would be a very good result.”
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