Six Nations 2014: Ranking the Best 40 Players

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistMarch 19, 2014

Six Nations 2014: Ranking the Best 40 Players

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    The 2014 Six Nations championship didn't fail in living up to its billing as the tightest tournament of its kind to date, with a flurry of last-minute drama giving the competition a particularly vivid send-off.

    In the end, it was Ireland who withstood a French tide in Paris to claim their first title since 2009, with Joe Schmidt reigning triumphant in his first major voyage with the team.

    However, irrespective of where their country finished in the standings, here we've taken the liberty of ranking the Six Nations' top 40 players this term. This is a forum where every individual has equal chance to shine, although it certainly helps if one keeps good company.

    Just to be clear, tries alone aren't good enough to rise up these rankings. Consistency, level of impact and performing well against the bigger teams are all very prominent factors taken into account.

    Where applicable, statistics used have been provided by ESPN Scrum.

Honourable Mentions

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    Jack Nowell

    One of the previously untested characters in Stuart Lancaster's experimental England back line, Jack Nowell grew with each and every step taken in national colours this year, suitably grabbing his first try for the team in Round 5's closing win over Italy.

    Adam Jones

    Wales' scrummaging hero wasn't quite at his best during this Six Nations, but it was nevertheless a reliable tournament for Adam Jones, who was safe in all regards if nothing else. 

    Joe Marler

    Another menacing prop figure was England's Joe Marler, who once again proved that the injury layoff of Alex Corbisiero isn't the end of the world, with Mako Vunipola a third talented loose-head option. 

    Matt Scott

    Matt Scott is one of those youngsters that Scott Johnson did manage to help evolve in national colours of late. The Scotland inside centre stands as one of his team's more impressive individuals with what looks to be a promising stage of development laying ahead.

40. Alex Dunbar, Scotland

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    Were it not for his performance in the win over Italy, Alex Dunbar may not have made it onto this list, but a brace of tries at the Stadio Olimpico paved the way for an essential one-point victory that would mean Scotland avoiding the Wooden Spoon for a year.

    Alongside the aforementioned Scott, Dunbar actually showed some signs of a promising Scotland centre partnership that Vern Cotter may look to take advantage of, but it's still very much a work in progress.

39. Dave Kearney, Ireland

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    Dave Kearney sits as one of those players benefiting from Schmidt's assumption of the Ireland coaching throne, having previously held a relationship with the New Zealander during their time at Leinster together.

    The younger of the Kearney siblings was far from as dazzling as his brother Rob, but his reliable presence on Ireland's left wing rarely gave the opposition much ground and his injection of pace didn't go astray. 

38. Michele Campagnaro, Italy

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    In near identical fashion to Dunbar, Michele Campagnaro's inclusion on this countdown is also mostly due to a two-try performance in particular, but what a set of tries the young Italian managed to grab in Cardiff.

    However, Campagnaro has the added benefit of also providing a bit of a bright spark for the Azzurri at other turns, showing until the very last meeting against England just how extraordinary his determination and grit are for a 21-year-old.

37. Alex Cuthbert, Wales

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    Alex Cuthbert had the honour of scoring the first try of this year's Six Nations, but unfortunately for the Welsh winger, his points tally failed to rise past that mark.

    However, while nowhere near as dazzling as the man sat on Warren Gatland's other flank, Cuthbert's horse-like gallop was a constant catalytic asset for the Welsh, with the Cardiff Blues speedster seldom failing to make ground after getting ball in hand.

36. Mike Ross, Ireland

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    For the fourth year in a row, Mike Ross started all five Six Nations matches as Ireland's tight-head, but this year was one of ascendancy for the Leinster man who played a large role in the pack that bullied numerous of their opposition counterparts.

    Though Ross doesn't possess the same knack for carrying the ball as some of his forward teammates, he was secure in almost every aspect, missing just two tackles throughout the tournament and pitching in with some big influence at every set-piece occasion.

35. Jonathan Davies, Wales

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    Jonathan Davies may find himself higher in our rankings had he managed to feature in more than two games, but injury held the centre back in that pursuit.

    That being said, those minutes were efficient ones, and Davies' finale performance against Italy was a particularly powerful one, with a flicked back pass to Jamie Roberts standing out as a sumptuous moment to remember.

34. Alberto De Marchi, Italy

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    If there's one area in which Italy can always hope to compete with Europe's best and brightest, it's at the scrum. In Alberto De Marchi, the Azzurri would appear to have unearthed another fine set-piece technician.

    However, De Marchi was impressive in more open encounters, too, asserting his massive frame on opponents with ball in hand and generally surprising audiences with how quickly he's begun to soar as an international.

33. Jamie Heaslip, Ireland

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    This year's wasn't exactly a vintage Six Nations for Jamie Heaslip, but considering how high the No. 8 set his own bar some years ago, that's a forgivable sin.

    Another one of those benefiting from Schmidt's presence, Heaslip did however show signs of returning to his best form, marshalling the Irish maul with beacon-like guidance.

    Scotland and Italy saw the best of Heaslip's performances, but a slightly dimmed input when playing against the bigger sides in the competition prevents him from rising any further.

32. Richard Hibbard, Wales

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    Every time Richard Hibbard puts on international colours, it seems like he gets more and more physically daunting for the opposition—such is the ferocious nature with which he carries the ball.

    Hibbard's line-out work could have used some tinkering at times, but the Gloucester-bound hooker impressed overall.

31. David Denton, Scotland

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    At the time of the incident, it was difficult to understand why Johnson had decided to drop Denton for the Week 3 encounter with Italy. After making his return to the line-up, Denton's omission became all the more bizarre.

    That's due to the fact that the Scotland head coach clearly had a very talented individual who was a source of yardage that seldom settles for anything but breaking the gain line.

    Denton's response to the dropping was massively encouraging in any case, and the No. 8 is likely to only progress further in future.

30. Stuart Hogg, Scotland

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    It's inevitable that Stuart Hogg's 2014 Six Nations campaign will be remembered for the fashion in which he signed it off—with a Week 5 red card due to a late shoulder charge on Wales' Dan Biggar.

    However, prior to that, the Scot was performing as one of the few promising points in Scotland's squad and ever was the starting point of his team's attack after taking possession far downfield before creating even the slightest spark with his return.

29. Leigh Halfpenny, Wales

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    Fans have come to expect more of a player generally regarded as one of the best full-backs in world rugby, but this was still a reliable Six Nations in Leigh Halfpenny's case, if far from sensational.

    The Welshman continued to provide Warren Gatland with a staunch defensive figure at the back—albeit one that came undone against Ireland—and Halfpenny's 51-point kicking tally, including all 18 of his team's points in the loss to England, were nevertheless pivotal.

28. Dylan Hartley, England

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    After seeing his reputation dip at the end of last season, Dylan Hartley's rise back to the top has been confirmed at this year's Six Nations—if he hadn't already done so in the months previous.

    The red card shown to him in the Aviva Premiership final—which would ultimately prove crucial in preventing Hartley from claiming a place in Warren Gatland's British and Irish Lions squad—seems like nothing but a distant memory now.

    Hartley's throwing at the line-out was superb, with only a small amount perhaps to be asked of the Englishman in the loose.

27. Alun-Wyn Jones, Wales

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    Wales' second row was among the side's most inconsistent areas this Six Nations, merely because injuries picked up by Luke Charteris and Alun-Wyn Jones in staggered periods meant that cohesion was difficult to come by.

    However, Jones showed a professional side of his character in dealing with the issue, averaging just under 11 tackles per game for the four matches in which he did feature. The Osprey man led the pack with aplomb and stepped in as Sam Warburton's captaining deputy when necessary.

26. Joe Launchbury, England

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    Alongside Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury has helped establish a second-row partnership under Lancaster that could yet go on to rule for years, and it's a daunting duo, too.

    Launchbury's contributions in that dynamic were myriad throughout this Six Nations, and his work around the fringes was consistently of a great standard, ensuring England retain possession and gradually shoving his side against the opposition.

25. Gordon D'Arcy, Ireland

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    It may have been a certain outside-centre partner that attracted all the biggest headlines for Ireland, but this was as industrious a tournament as ever for Gordon D'Arcy, ever eager to put in a shift for his country.

    D'Arcy only came into the Irish line-up in Week 2 but would go on to play almost every minute of the competition's reminder, only coming off as a late substitute in the fifth-round victory over France.

    The No. 12 only managed to amass a carrying total of more than 20 metres in one of his matches, but his tournament was far more about production and getting the wider weapons into the game—a task in which he was very successful.

24. Dan Lydiate, Wales

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    Dan Lydiate's game is far from the prettiest one in the Welsh squad, but his dogged work ethic and willingness to get scrappy were attributes once again in full view this competition.

    The Racing Metro man failed to miss a single tackle in the Six Nations, while making 56 of his own. 

    Let those numbers sink in.

23. Rory Best, Ireland

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    One might argue Rory Best's case as being the most consistent player at Ireland's disposal, following another tournament in which the hooker maintained high standards throughout.

    Like many in the squad, Best's performance in the Round 3 loss to England was a more forgettable one, but he turned up to the fore when it mattered most. He made 13 tackles in the crucial decider against France, a tally which only two other players bested.

    His line-out throwing was accurate for the vast, vast majority of the time, and it's easy to forget that that infamous Irish maul all starts in Best's hands.

22. Sam Warburton, Wales

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    There were headlines surrounding Sam Warburton coming into the 2014 Six Nations; his central contract had created quite a stir among the provinces and some were questioning whether the Cardiff native even deserved the Welsh captaincy.

    Those fears were swept under the rug quite swiftly, though, as Warburton simply got his head down and let his rugby do the talking.

    The flanker made 48 tackles in the four matches he started, not to mention grabbing a superb, lunging try in the win over France.

21. Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland

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    The most talked about topic of this Six Nations was undoubtedly that this year's would be the centre's last, and how fitting a send-off it is for such an iconic figure in the sport to go out on such a high.

    At 35 years of age, it's understandable that O'Driscoll would have his quieter moments this year, but then it's even more remarkable that he was able to sparkle so brightly on other occasions.

    Elected man of the match for his performance in Paris, O'Driscoll's creative construction in the Ireland midfield will be sorely missed, and he showed precisely why with some highlight-reel moments over the past two months.

20. Peter O'Mahony, Ireland

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    Peter O'Mahony's evolution as Ireland's first-choice option at the blind side went through another phase of growth during the 2014 Six Nations, and Schmidt will be ecstatic with the fine sample of back-row options currently amassing at his fingertips.

    Just as he is for Munster, O'Mahony was a mobile, energetic figure mostly in defence, and his work at the breakdown securing turnover ball for his side was some of the best of any player.

19. Brice Dulin, France

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    In a time where French rugby is drawing its fair share of critics, one major positive has been the ease with which Castres' Brice Dulin has taken to the international scene.

    This Six Nations saw the full-back grab just the one try, but his penetrative runs from deep and general security under the high ball gives Philippe Saint-Andre, should he remain head coach of the team, something to be pleased about.

18. Sergio Parisse, Italy

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    Sergio Parisse's one-man army routine was once again in action for periods over the past seven weeks, though the Italian captain was once again unable to make it count for much.

    The Azzurri would once again finish as the Wooden Spoon "winners," but Parisse, particularly rebellious in the opening defeat to Wales, characteristically stands as the biggest positive.

17. Yoann Huget, France

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    France were a mixed bag in their five matches this year, opening their tournament with a home win over England, thanks largely to the brace scored by Yoann Huget in Paris that set the winger on the path for top try-scoring honours.

    However, though Les Bleus declined, Huget was one of those bright sparks who managed to keep some sense of high standards throughout the competition.

16. Cian Healy, Ireland

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    If there was any doubting Cian Healy's credentials as one of the world's finest loose-head props going into this tournament, the Leinster star went about proving those doubts wrong in the correct manner, letting his on-pitch product speak for itself.

    Tight-heads of all teams had a torrid time scrummaging against the humongous Healy, who once again showed that adapting to the new laws of the set piece won't be an issue for him.

    Healy should be looked upon as Europe's prototype for the modern prop, and an agile carrying game was highlighted best by a 30-metre dash made during the Round 1 fixture against Scotland.

15. Conor Murray, Ireland

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    Conor Murray saved the best until last this year, and were it not for the occasion of O'Driscoll's last match in Paris, the scrum-half himself was a strong contender for man of the match honours at the Stade de France.

    However, Murray's tournament had much deeper foundations than just that one game, with his mix of quick-fire supply to the backs and individual impact with ball in hand being among the finest of any No. 9 in the competition.

14. Courtney Lawes, England

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    Courtney Lawes' surge into England prominence has been meteoric over the last year, so much in fact that the lock now stands as one of the most respected pack figures in the squad.

    As ever, the Saints star was instrumental at the line-out, using his marauding 6'7" frame to its full advantage. His tackling figures remained consistent throughout, save for a slight dip against the unimposing Italy. 

13. Paul O'Connell, Ireland

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    O'Driscoll's final goodbye means that Ireland are losing the most important member of the old guard that reigned so dominantly down the years, but Paul O'Connell remains to remind fans that there's yet some wisdom in this Irish squad.

    In truth, the lock contributed only what we've all come to expect of him, guiding his team's pack every step of the way, be it by taking control of the line-out or calming the rolling maul just when it would be easiest to lose control.

12. Billy Twelvetrees, England

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    Billy Twelvetrees has been something of an understated figure of late. Instead of going for the glory himself, Gloucester's favourite son demonstrated his generosity and complete lack of a selfish bone during this Six Nations. Really, what more could you want from your No. 12?

    Twelvetrees' grubber through for Luther Burrell to score against Wales was a perfect demonstration of the utility's technical prowess. England have a potent mix emerging in their midfield, and the Cherry and White is a big part of it.

11. Andrew Trimble, Ireland

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    Having performed so well for Ulster in recent months, it seemed only right that Andrew Trimble get his shot in the Irish XV this year. Schmidt was in turn repaid for his show of faith in the winger's ability.

    Finishing joint second in the try count with three to his name in total, Trimble provided an eager and energetic outlet for the Irish, constantly searching to see where he could exploit the opponent's defence and clocking up more than 240 carrying metres.

10. Chris Robshaw, England

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    Just about eking his way into the top 10 is Chris Robshaw, Lancaster's Captain Fantastic who, two years after assuming the role, continues to flourish as his country's leading figure.

    As we've come to expect of the utility flanker, Robshaw's tackling proficiency was his most consistent asset over the past seven weeks, with 22 managed in the Week 3 win over Ireland.

9. Chris Henry, Ireland

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    Before this year's Six Nations, all talk of Ireland's open-side flanker revolved around Sean O'Brien's absence and how it would impact the team. Now that the dust has settled, Chris Henry is receiving rave reviews—and is deserving of every bit.

    It was clear from the Week 1 match against Scotland that the No. 7 jersey would be in good hands while O'Brien recovered from injury.

    Averaging a hugely impressive 13 tackles per match, it speaks well of Henry to say that Schmidt now has something of a conundrum on his hands at flanker. It shows just how good the dogged Henry has performed. 

8. Jamie Roberts, Wales

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    Jamie Roberts' only two tries of this Six Nations came in the midst of a Week 5 drubbing of Scotland, but there was a lot more to the centre's play than just scoring points.

    As is his modus operandi, Roberts made it his business to be the battering ram upon which Wales could pin the base of many an attack. The likes of Scott Williams, George North and Davies all benefited from the piercing runs of their inside partner.

7. Danny Care, England

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    Looking back, it's difficult to imagine that but a few months ago, Danny Care resided as England's third-choice scrum-half behind Tom Youngs and Lee Dickson in the pecking order.

    However, hard work would appear to have paid dividends in the Harlequin's case, with Care now standing as the team's undeniable first pick for the role.

    Wily as ever, it was Care's sense of initiative and wit that set him apart during this competition, with a snap decision for a quick penalty against Wales perfectly summarising just how dangerous he has once again become.

6. George North, Wales

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    George North's tournament was a mix of highs and lows, but whether he was fielded on his natural position of winger or filling in at outside centre due to the raft of injuries hurting Wales' squad, he held a fine account of his abilities.

    Rounding off his Six Nations with a superb two-try showing against Scotland, North crossed the whitewash thrice in total. He came into his own as the tournament progressed, but at which point his side's hopes of title triumph were out of reach.

5. Rob Kearney, Ireland

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    Tied alongside five others for second spot in the try-scoring charts, Rob Kearney's Six Nations was every bit the exemplary showing of what a full-back should aspire to be, despite another who's managed to pip him as the competition's most impressive.

    Regardless, Kearney was magnificent in every match, with his lowest carrying total sitting at 75 metres.

    The Leinster star yet again put forth his claim for being the Northern Hemisphere's safest pair of hands under a high ball, and an average of more than two defenders beaten per game would suggest that Kearney is getting back to his best.

4. Luther Burrell, England

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    As far as good beginnings go, Luther Burrell's first strides in an England jersey have been nothing short of marvellous, and Lancaster's "risk" in selecting the player have been firmly rewarded in retrospect.

    Scoring in his first two outings for the national team, it was clear that the Northampton Saints star had the potential to thrive under this newly found pressure, but that potential is looking more and more like a sure thing.

    Altogether, Burrell finished joint second in the try-scoring ranks with three, but a well-rounded and constructive partnership with Twelvetrees set the concrete tone for a championship filled with positives.

3. Owen Farrell, England

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    He left it late, but Owen Farrell managed to get a try on the board during England's Week 5 match against Italy, taking full control of his side's efforts to reduce Ireland's advantage in points difference at the time.

    Despite being just 22, this was a real coming-of-age period for Farrell, who was very arguably the best No. 10 in the tournament while jostling with a certain high-scoring Irishman for that honour.

    That being said, Farrell was solid in every outing. England's loss in the French capital was no fault of his, and toward the end of the tournament, the youngster's tee-kicking took a turn toward the superb.

2. Jonny Sexton, Ireland

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    One would have gotten good odds on Jonny Sexton finishing this tournament as joint-top try scorer, but the fly-half's four-score haul is likely to see those odds shortened in future competitions.

    Aside from Sexton's enthusiasm to carry the ball, the Irish playmaker was a constant source of points for his side, settling for 2014 Six Nations top points scorer in the end with 66, two more than Halfpenny.

    Sexton's kicking from the tee could have done with improving at times, but he was instrumental in pitching the ball into strong attacking areas with the boot. He was a leading figure on Ireland's rod to glory.

1. Mike Brown, England

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    A vast amount of the Player of the Series talk is currently being aimed in the direction of Mike Brown. The England's full-back supreme continues to go from strength to strength in his journey as an international player.

    Sitting alongside Sexton as the tournament's top try scorer with four, the ex-Mr. Angry was brilliant in all five outings, even if his Week 1 meeting against France ended in misery.

    Knowing full well that his team had a points deficit to claw down in the fifth-round clash against Italy, it speaks volumes of Brown's character that he was so able to take scoring matters into his own hands at the Stadio Olimpico, touching down for two scores in Rome.

    Other highlight moments include a goalkeeper-like save against Ireland that prevented O'Driscoll from getting in behind the English defence, and 543 metres carried in total isn't too shabby, either.