Six Nations Team of the Week
Alex Shaw casts his eye over the standout performers from round one of the Six Nations
The wild and wacky era of bonus points in the Six Nations kicked off at the weekend and, well, nothing really changed.
No try bonus points were awarded and although two losing bonus points were picked up, the competition looked no different to the tight and compelling fixtures that we have become accustomed to.
Traditionalists have been placated, progressives remain hopeful, and now we can all just get on with enjoying the rugby.
We take a look at the standout performers from the opening round below, make some way-too-soon British & Irish Lions calls and assemble a XV of the week…
15. Stuart Hogg, Scotland
The Scottish full-back moved one step closer to securing the Lions 15 jersey with a classy and complete performance at Murrayfield. His two tries were just reward for an outing filled with attacking endeavour, mastery of any contested aerial balls that came his way and a more-than-solid defensive showing.
France’s Scott Spedding had one of his best games in a blue jersey but ultimately it was an easy decision to plump for Hogg here. Will it be so easy for Warren Gatland in the summer?
14. George North, Wales
Even after picking up an early leg injury and seeming to be holding his elbow at points throughout the game, Wales’ bionic man rose to the fore and had one of his better games at Test level for some time.
The Italians struggled to contain his power in the wide channels and whilst it was concerning to see him limping at times during the match, we can draw succour from the fact it was not an injury involving North’s head, something which has plagued him in recent years.
13. Jonathan Joseph, England
Whilst Joseph’s offensive performance didn’t catch the eye in the same fashion as Jonathan Davies’s second-half explosion in Rome did, it was his disciplined defensive duties which won him the nod here and certainly proved vital to England’s win.
Elliot Daly’s transition to the wing is a work in progress – particularly defensively – and Joseph is aware of this, biding his time in defence, shifting assignments as the ball is moved and often covering multiple attackers. It may not show up in any statistic but Joseph kept England in that game when they were severely under the cosh.
12. Owen Farrell, England
Comfortably England’s standout player on Saturday, Farrell is not only cementing his reputation as one of the best players in the world but also forcing Gatland’s hand with complete performances, week after week.
George Ford had a poor game by his standards and this put the pressure on Farrell to take over the back-line from inside-centre and then later at fly-half, where he assisted the game-winning try for Ben Te’o. His open-field tackle on a marauding Louis Picamoles wasn’t bad, either.
11. Virimi Vakatawa, France
The Fijian-born wing was the most potent weapon in the French back-line on Saturday. His effectiveness was only negated by England’s clear plan of kicking to him as an exit strategy and limiting his impact with an effective kick chase by Jonny May and Maro Itoje.
Even with this in place, Vakatawa still caused plenty of problems to May and if France’s midfield can regularly deliver the ball to him in space and situations where he is one-on-one with defenders, he will continue to light up the championship.
10. Sam Davies, Wales
Davies’s introduction from the bench proved the catalyst in Wales’ resurgent second-half performance in Rome and he couldn’t have done much more to warrant consideration for a starting spot this weekend.
The Welsh centres looked far more incisive running on to Davies’s passes and the young fly-half ran the line with aplomb, using decoy runners more effectively than any Welsh 10 since Stephen Jones.
9. Baptiste Serin, France
If France could divert some of their prodigious scrum-half production into their fly-half stocks, what a Test-playing nation they would be.
Serin shone in his first Six Nations start, delivering the tempo and distribution that most teams clamour for. Unfortunately for France, they aren’t necessarily the best-suited team to play at tempo, particularly in their tight five.
Ben Youngs’s pinpoint box-kicking also deserves a mention, given how critical it was in England’s narrow win.
1. Jack McGrath, Ireland
Another very solid outing from McGrath, who enjoyed a good deal of success against fast-rising tighthead Zander Fagerson.
He may not offer as much in the loose as Mako Vunipola or international and provincial team-mate Cian Healy, but McGrath is surely one of the names already pencilled into Gatland’s touring squad, such is the reliability and consistency he gives his teams at the set-piece.
2. Ross Ford, Scotland
Ford was called upon early after Fraser Brown left the game against Ireland with injury and the veteran hooker did not disappoint with his performance.
The lineout continued to function well and his defensive commitment in the loose was extremely impressive, as Scotland withstood significant Irish possession and territorial advantages.
3. Tadgh Furlong, Ireland
Just like McGrath, Furlong delivered at the scrum for Ireland and is another player pencilling himself into Gatland’s summer plans purely because of the advantage he can give you in the confines of the set-piece.
He tore into Allan Dell at the first couple of scrums and though the South African-born loosehead recovered well and held his own after that, it was not an area where Scotland were able to manufacture any kind of an advantage over Ireland.
4. Richie Gray, Scotland
Younger brother Jonny may, rightfully, be drawing more global acclaim of late, but it was the older brother who really stepped up in a dogged and hard-fought encounter at Murrayfield.
Both Richie and Jonny recorded over 20 tackles apiece but it was Richie who seemed to take the lead, organising the defence during repeated Irish barrages º particularly around the fringes – and getting up on multiple occasions to muddy the Irish lineout.
5. Alun Wyn Jones, Wales
It was never really in doubt but the experienced lock showed no signs of wilting under the pressure of captaincy. He helped rally Wales after their dire first-half performance and was at the centre of the front-foot ball his side delivered.
Courtney Lawes deserves a mention for an effective showing at Twickenham, particularly his momentum-shifting tackle on Serin, but Jones’s ball-carrying wins him the day here.
6. Sam Warburton, Wales
There is clearly no bitterness or resentment from Warburton for that captaincy switch, as the flanker got his head down and put in a very impressive performance at the Stadio Olimpico.
The turnover he won just before the interval drew plenty of praise – denying Italy an opportunity to extend their lead – and it was an example of the effective work he did at the breakdown all game long. He also brought more of a carrying presence to the pack than he has done previously.
7. Hamish Watson, Scotland
Another Herculean defensive performer for Scotland, Watson’s non-stop motor ensured he was affecting play throughout the game against Ireland, both in attack and defence.
John Hardie arguably brings more at the breakdown and Cornell du Preez is a more prolific attacking player, so turning in this kind of a performance was significant for Watson as he looks to nail down a spot in in the Scottish back row.
8. Louis Picamoles, France
The situation will look better once Taulupe Faletau and Billy Vunipola return, but what Gatland would give for a bending of old traditions and the ability to select this man to tour New Zealand.
Picamoles was outstanding for France on Saturday, looking markedly fitter than all of his forward colleagues, and he rampaged through England’s defence multiple times.
In fact, Picamoles had more metres with ball in hand than the whole of the England pack combined and very few of these were freebie metres, clocked up when running into open space. They were hard-earned.