A patchy but ultimately enthralling Six Nations campaign reached its breathless climax on Saturday, but already teams of the tournament have been put to bed and the focus shifts to the British and Irish Lions tour this summer.
With half its teams tied on three wins each and even Grand Slam winners Ireland desperately narrow Six Nations campaign victors over England and Wales, the Six Nations has provided few dead certainties for the Lions team. Ian McGeechan and his coaching team will once again have the toughest selection job in rugby as they seek not simply to select the best fifteen players in the British Isles but to decide who will combine well with whom, how to blend flair with stability, and which players will gel as a team in the face of the most brutal defense in world rugby.
We start in the forwards, where the Lions will have to find the brawn to match the sheer bulk of the South African pack, the best line-out jumper in the world, and the beast that is Schalk Burger. Man-mountain Andrew Sheridan has had a disappointing tournament and is likely to be warming the bench for the man who played all three tests four years ago, Gethin Jenkins.
Rock solid in the scrum and quick enough in the loose to tackle Hugo Southwell on the touchline, Jenkins' physical toughness was proved by the incredible 16 tackles he made against England in what both packs described as one of the most bruising matches they had ever played. He must start.
Only England's Phil Vickery made more that day, but he loses out in my XV despite a recent resurgence. Frequent treatment to his neck and recurrent poor discipline suggest there could be better options at loose-head. Adam Jones has had a good winter but may find the hard, running pitches and thin air of the Highveld too much. Euan Murray will hold the scrum steady and put in plenty of work with one of the others a useful option on the bench.
No man stands out at hooker: Lee Mears is busy without punching any holes and played his part in an unflappable English line-out, and Ross Ford has been solid for Scotland, but Rhys Jones’ throwing will hardly stand the Matfield test. In the absence of an outstanding candidate the temptation is to choose Jerry Flannery in the hope he can reproduce the Munster and Ireland jumping chemistry with Paul O'Connell.
Lock Paul O'Connell has been totemic for Ireland this campaign and stands alongside fellow captaincy candidate O'Driscoll as a dead certainty for the Lions XV. His line-out prowess could shake even Victor Matfield and he is a warrior with and without ball in hand. This is one man who will not falter in the face of the Springbok pack.
The place alongside O'Connell is up for grabs. Alun Wyn Jones had the pundits purring early on, but faded, especially in the line-out. Team mate Ian Gough caught the eye with a couple of terrific big hits but also suffered at the line-out. English captain and line-out tactician Steve Borthwick only turned up for one game, while Scotland barely had a fit lock in their squad, ruining Jason White’s winter in the process.
Donncha O'Callaghan did not look out of place alongside O'Connell for Ireland and would be a safe choice, with Wyn Jones' athleticism perfect for an impact substitution to ease him into the leonine fray.
Competition in the back row is ferocious. Ireland's David Wallace has by common consensus been the star in the loose, but even then his position is open to debate—should he play at blind-side to accommodate the veteran scavenger Martyn Williams of Wales? I feel a pack with two men weighing in at a ‘mere’ 100kg could be overpowered by Schalk Burger et al.
Tom Croft and James Haskell both gave dynamic performances for England, while Ryan Jones’ leadership would be a significant asset at six or eight. Dennis Leamy would roar too, given the chance, and some pundits are backing an emerald-green trio to round off the pack.
I would pick Jones on the blindside and give Jamie Heaslip of Ireland his head at number eight—he gives physical presence and running power and has outperformed Wales’ Andy Powell.
Scrum half was one position that looked extremely well stocked back in January, but the contenders have fallen back into the pack. Mike Blair was ordinary, perhaps crushed by the expectations and reality of a disappointing Scottish campaign, while Mike Phillips’ delivery looked a little sluggish and he could have lost his place to Dwayne Peel.
The ever-eager Harry Ellis made the most of his chance with some typically combative games for England without shutting the door on Danny Care. Thomas O’Leary was strong and kicked well for Ireland but Peter Stringer’s faster service and sharp running have their fans too.
In the end Mike Phillips’ size and strength make him the prime candidate—just witness his late break against Ireland when he strode through a series of tackles. The next week for the Ospreys he even acted as a back row runner might, giving his forwards a target by running from the base of the scrum. However, Peel or Blair’s swifter pass could see one of them playing a role at some point in South Africa.
The fly-half position has been symptomatic of the tournament as a whole. No team or player took the Six Nations by the scruff of the neck: Goddard was as forgettable as much of Scotland’s play until the Evans brothers sparked into life; Flood was tidy and was able to glide through the odd space without silencing the incipient sibilance of wistful whispers for a Cipriani firing on all cylinders.
Of the number tens who contested the championship decider in Cardiff, Stephen Jones is holding James Hook at bay without launching the Welsh back line as consistently as he would have liked; meanwhile Ronan O’Gara’s kicking from hand was surprisingly poor for a man accustomed to driving his team down field with such power and accuracy. In the first half of the final game he was clearly rattled by the giant dragons Wales sent thundering his way, repeatedly crashing backwards as his team mates came to the rescue.
However, both men showed exceptional strength under pressure as they traded match-winning drop goals at the death. Stephen Jones’ solidity means he has to start against South Africa, with O’Gara a worthy replacement and a cool tactical head for the closing stages.
Riki Flutey began the winter as a man of potential untapped—potential to become the new Andy Farrell according to some—and ended it as a devastating attacking force. His stepping off either foot sometimes beats two men, flummoxing the player inside his marker as well, and his timing of a pass and support lines have also drawn praise. A more dominant presence with every game, he is the man to unlock space outside or break the line himself.
Rumours of Brian O’Driscoll’s demise have been very much exaggerated. The Irish captain is one of the few men in world sport whose sheer genius can make everyday excellence appear mediocre. He broke the line and swerved home to open a lead on a well fancied French team before turning loose forward to smash and burrow his way to the line in desperately close contests with England and Wales.
Every time Ireland faltered the hand, heart and striving legs of BOD drove them on again.
On the wing, Shane Williams rarely looked the 2008 IRB player of the year, but may have been hampered by the ankle injury he sustained early in the tournament as much as Wales’ inability to summon the ‘go forward’ to release his talents. However, with his irrepressible energy and desire to look for openings at scrum half and in midfield he remains the outstanding flyer in world rugby.
Tommy Bowe was a surprise winger of the tournament, not least for his chase, catch and sprint for the line ahead of Henson and Williams in Cardiff. He must be given the chance to carry this form to South Africa—like Flutey his star is on the up and opponents have not yet had time to work him out. Behind these two a pack of chasers includes a resurgent Mark Cueto, one-match wonder Monye, the electric Evans brothers and Leigh Halfpenny’s lightning acceleration.
As with Shane Williams, and Wales in general, Lee Byrne was not on top form throughout, but he still hit the line at superb angles and has been touted as the best player in the world this winter. His siege gun boot, brave defence, especially under the high ball, and physical strength will also be needed against the Boks. The more mercurial and elusive broken field running of Armitage and Kearney will be best utilized as the game starts to fray later on.
So: Byrne, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Flutey, Williams; Jones, Phillips; Jenkins, Flannery, Murray, O’Connell, Callaghan, Jones, Wallace, Heaslip. It is hardly controversial, but then the Lions could name two teams without either surprising. My choice is a dazzling back division that will not yield in midfield and a powerful engine room with leadership throughout.
What say you?