Six Nations 2014: 20 Most Influential Players so Far

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Six Nations 2014: 20 Most Influential Players so Far

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    Three weeks into this year's Six Nations and audiences have been left feeling satiated with the entertainment on display, with no less than four teams currently tied at the top.

    With such a balanced platform at hand, it's no surprise that the competition's big guns have each thrown up their share of influential figures thus far, but even last-place Italy can boast a leading figure or two.

    Looking at the first three rounds of the tournament, we've ranked the 20 most influential players of the Six Nations so far, taking individual contributions into account first and foremost, but also considering how said stars affect the playing standards of those around them.

    Unsurprisingly, it's the more successful sides that boast a greater share of influential players, whether it's due to sustained, role-model worthy performances or, in the odd case, just that one particular burst of sheer brilliance.

20. Louis Picamoles

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    Coming into this tournament, Louis Picamoles was one of those figures in the French pack with a hefty weight loaded upon his shoulders, standing as one of the most prominent staples in Philippe Saint-Andre's side.

    However, Week 3 proved to be a great equaliser for the Toulouse No. 8, who after being irresponsibly sin-binned late in the 27-6 loss to Wales, has been dropped by his coach for mocking the referee's decision, per BBC Sport.

    Picamoles is a rare quantity on this list in that he's been included with a great focus on the negative influence his actions promise to have on his team, but up until this point, his on-the-pitch actions were laudable for periods.

19. Duncan Weir

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    Granted, the Glasgow Warriors fly-half is included almost entirely due to one very specific piece of flash-in-the-pan wonder, but what a moment it was for Duncan Weir.

    Scotland were 20-18 down with just over a minute to go in their Round 3 fixture against fellow Wooden Spoon candidates Italy, but a 79th-minute drop goal—the first of Weir's international career—ensured that Scott Johnson's side won their first trip to Rome in their last nine attempts.

    As a result of those few seconds of collected calm from the No. 10, Scotland may avoid a bottom of the table finish in 2014, and that is what individual influence is all about.

18. Yoann Huget

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    Nobody took more initiative in advancing their scoring account than Les Bleus' Yoann Huget, who managed to grab a brace in France's opening 26-24 win over England.

    Those 10 points proved pivotal in the result which, considering the declining form of Saint-Andre's squad, will be key if the French are to maintain any sort of challenge on Six Nations silverware.

    Huget hasn't taken his try count further in the two outings since that Week 1 game, but the winger has maintained pace as one of the most consistent backs in his squad, with Brice Dulin, Hugo Bonneval, Mathieu Bastareaud and even the mercurial Wesley Fofana going through their weaker patches.

17. Dan Lydiate

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    No player in the Welsh squad has a higher average of tackles per game in this year's Six Nations than Dan Lydiate, whose ratio of 13.3 tackles per game isn't entirely shocking given the player's reputation as a superb stopper.

    For all the scoring habits of his higher profile team-mates, Lydiate's defensive work-rate is one of the most crucial components of Warren Gatland's setup.

    The flanker rests under the radar as a less conspicuous Welsh wonder, but his contributions to the cause have been massive for the team nonetheless.

16. Wesley Fofana

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    As was the case with most French players in Cardiff, Wesley Fofana went missing during the Week 3 loss to Wales, but that capitulation doesn't eradicate the impact made during the matches leading up to that trip.

    Like Picamoles, Fofana had huge expectations placed upon him leading up to the tournament, his form for both Clermont and Les Bleus over the past year being a thing of beauty on occasion.

    In the tight victory over England, Fofana was one of those most consistent in plugging away at Stuart Lancaster's defence, not to mention holding the onslaught back himself.

    However, his brightest display came against Italy, where a blockbuster try sat as the gem in a spotless game for the inside centre, showing that despite his young years, the Clermont figure is capable of playing the role of leader already.

15. Danny Care

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    Like Weir, Danny Care's tournament so far will be most vividly remembered for the moment he latched onto a Chris Robshaw pass, gliding through the Ireland defence to score what would be the game-winning try at Twickenham.

    However, undoubtedly to the surprise of some, the scrum-half has managed to hold down the No. 9 shirt with some security over the past month, with British and Irish Lion Ben Youngs even being released for club duty.

    In Care, Lancaster has been able to rely upon a consistent supply of fast and fluid ball from the base of the ruck, which has been crucial in helping an experimental back-line find its feet.

14. Courtney Lawes

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    Courtney Lawes' 2013 proved to be a massive rise to prominence for the England lock, and 2014 has maintained that course of evolution.

    With the Northampton Saint ruling their line-out, England have had the ability to compete with just about anyone at the set piece, Lawes' take tally of 11 against Scotland being a particularly impressive statistic.

    However, just as he continues to do so on the club level, it's the dynamism that Lawes brings to the loose that makes him a cut above the rest, something that not every second-row can boast.

13. Jamie Heaslip

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    Ireland's pack master went through a period of lost identity during 2013, but Jamie Heaslip is making up for lost time from the base of Schmidt's scrum in 2014.

    After looking to have added a bit of extra weight, the No. 8 is once again getting about the park with the same mobility he once was known for, managing a tackling total of less than 10 in just one of his three outings thus far.

    In the Week 1 win over Scotland, Heaslip clocked up more than 66 metres with ball in hand and has been generally puppeteer-like in controlling the infamous Irish maul, ascending in his role as the voice of the Irish front eight and scoring one try in the process.

12. George North

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    It may have taken three weeks for George North to cross over for his first try of this year's tournament, but the winger's contest has been about so much more than simply scoring numbers this time around.

    With Scott Williams injured and replacement centre Ashley Beck out of the frame, North was left to step into the vacant outside centre spot against France, leaving an enigmatic prospect in the No. 13 jersey, especially worrying when one considers it was Fofana and Bastareaud lined up opposite.

    However, those questions couldn't have been answered in more confident fashion, as the malleable marvel not only stood up to his French counterparts, but proceeded to trod over them.

    Whether it's in midfield or in his natural position out wide, North has been a reliable outlet for Gatland, as ever, and the contributions made in both attack and defence have been an essential aspect of the Welsh title defence.

11. Rob Kearney

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    Rob Kearney may not have been the No. 1 full-back during last summer's British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, but the Leinster star is once again excelling as part of Joe Schmidt's Ireland setup.

    The 13-10 loss to England in Week 3 was initially given a breath of Irish hope thanks to Kearney's break off the shoulder of Jamie Heaslip, but his performances have been thorough throughout.

    Kearney is yet to fail in clocking up a carrying distance of less than 75 metres in any one match at this year's championship, and the fact that he's missed just two tackles as of yet speaks volumes of how assured his defensive game has been.

10. Cian Healy

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    A prototype for what up-and-coming potential should aim to bring to the front row, Cian Healy continues to demonstrate just how effective his hybrid approach of play is at loose-head.

    The Irish scrum has been in fine form, largely thanks to the game-by-game consistency that Healy brings to his side of the scrum, but there's arguably no prop in the competition more effective when carrying the ball.

    Always eager to pick up and go around the fringes, Healy's 35 carrying metres against Scotland stand out as especially dominant, but there's seldom an opportunity where the Leinster behemoth attempts to make ground with ball in hand and fails.

9. Jamie Roberts

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    Jamie Roberts is yet to claim a try at this year's Six Nations, but so unselfish have the centre's performances been, that Warren Gatland boasts no more consistent a creative weapon right now.

    Setting up scores for Scott Williams and Sam Warburton, respectively, against Italy and France, the Racing Metro-based midfield machine has tested defences on a very frequent basis thus far, winning on most occasions.

    The sole exception to that trend came at the Aviva Stadium where, like the rest of Schmidt's side, Roberts couldn't match the intensity of his hosts, but even then he managed to carry for more than 40 metres, forcing two turnovers and beating a couple of defenders.

8. Sergio Parisse

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    The Week 3 loss to Scotland was Sergio Parisse's 103rd cap for the Italian national team, a joint-record now held by him and fellow stalwart Martin Castrogiovanni, which is a more material way of pointing out his importance to the Azzurri's cause.

    A less material way of doing so is to simply watch how, despite the overall gulf in standards between him and the average Italian player, Parisse insists on always holding a sublime individual quality in every game that he features.

    Jacques Brunel's outfit may have lost all three of their matches so far, but in each of those fixtures the Stade Francais No. 8 has been the spearhead of Italy's probing, averaging more than 50 carrying metres per match so far.

7. Leigh Halfpenny

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    It speaks volumes of Leigh Halfpenny's influence that the full-back can perform at not even his full potential and yet currently stands as the top points scorer of the tournament after three rounds.

    The Toulon-bound kicking sensation has been as reliable as ever when standing before the tee, notching a total of 33 points for the Welsh cause so far, something that's been vital considering Rhys Priestland isn't quite as concrete before the goalposts.

    Just like other team-mates, he had an off day in the Irish capital. But Halfpenny has, for the most part, been solid at the back, giving his back line a sense of relief, something which allows them to truly express themselves to their fullest.

6. Luther Burrell

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    One of two uncapped mysteries coming into this year's contest as a part of Lancaster's England roster, it was anyone's guess as to whether Luther Burrell would sink or swim on the international stage.

    A month into his England tenure and it's safe to say that the Franklin's Gardens figure has taken to his national duties like a duck to water, the Week 3 fixture against Ireland being his first Six Nations outing in which he's failed to score.

    With the English centres in a state of some disarray, Burrell has flourished alongside Billy Twelvetrees, proving to be both the defensive quantity that the side need as well as the powerhouse capable of straightening things up with a direct burst up the middle.

    Burrell's smooth adaptation to England life has been a happy surprise for Lancaster and his coaching staff, but his two-try contribution is only the tip of the iceberg in how he's helped steady the side's ship.

5. Chris Robshaw

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    This year's Six Nations has been a difficult one for the captains. Pascal Pape has had to replace an injured Thierry Dusautoir in the French camp, Sam Warburton missed part of Week 1 through injury and Scotland's Kelly Brown has been dropped out of the squad entirely.

    However, one leader figure who's been there through it all is Chris Robshaw, who is yet to miss a minute of the English campaign, and for good reason.

    Two years after being handed the captaincy by his coach, the Harlequins hero is cementing his spot as national team icon, making an astonishing 43 tackles in just three matches, 22 of which came against Ireland.

    The English were incredibly unfortunate not to have come away from the Stade de France with two points in hand, and Robshaw would see his side at the top of the Six Nations pile, were it not for a last-minute lapse of concentration in Paris.

4. Sam Warburton

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    If Chris Robshaw has washed away any doubts regarding his captaincy credentials during this year's Six Nations, then Warburton has done the very same thanks to his rising to the fore when it matters most.

    A 27-6 win over Les Bleus last weekend put Wales right back into the mix to claim a third, historic tournament title, and it's these clutch fixtures that a side needs to be able to rely upon their leader for a guiding light; the flanker delivered.

    His try was just the icing on the cake of a display that saw him dominate at the line-out and exemplify the non-stop stamina and work-rate that Wales have become known for down the years.

    That being said, Wales' leading man Warburton is yet to fail to impress.

3. Jonny Sexton

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    Ireland's masterful 26-3 win over Wales in Dublin came thanks to a well-calculated game plan laid out by Schmidt, but it still took the New Zealander's side acting it out for it to be a success.

    In that effort, Jonathan Sexton was the most important tool. His ball retention and territory kicking ensured that Wales never had a chance to get a real foothold in the fixture, not to mention the fact that his kicking from the tee always kept the visitors out of arm's reach.

    However, Sexton's performances have controlled the tempo of every game, and with Ronan O'Gara now out of the frame, there's another playmaking presence in the No. 10 jersey who's oh-so-important to the Irish cause.

2. Owen Farrell

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    It's in rugby's nature for the fly-half to ever be looked upon as a leader figure as part of any team; it's a responsibility that some embrace, while others don't take to the tag quite as comfortably.

    Surrounded by older figures, Owen Farrell has shouldered England's needs consistently throughout this championship, seldom allowing his standards to drop far enough that he might be looked upon as a weakness.

    The 22-year-old has played every minute of England's tournament so far, slotting nine of his 14 attempted kicks on goal resulting in a 23-point tally that's currently good enough for fourth in the overall points standings.

    It's a testament to the youngster's ability that he's been able to not only perform on the individual basis but also managed to get a back-line into fine working order, despite having only a matter of weeks training alongside those faces.

1. Mike Brown

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    If there's any word that most aptly describes what it is that Mike Brown brings to the England forum right now, it's "consistency," something which every coach craves of their squad members, both big and small.

    At the end of 2013, I argued as to why Brown was England's best player in 2013; thankfully, in the name of saving face, the full-back has since gone on to only help provide further context to that case.

    It's a mark of the influential player to step up most at the big occasion, and for Lancaster's men, the Round 3 win over Ireland was about as big as things get.

    Is it a coincidence that Brown was elected Man of the Match for the role he played in that triumph? Not in the slightest.

    Defensively, there's admittedly more that England might ask of their No. 15, currently averaging just over one missed tackle per game. However, an average of 88 carrying metres per game helps balance out that very slightest of disappointments. 

    Constantly breaking down the opposition's forays forward before starting some of his own, one could easily argue Brown's case for the honour of Player of the Tournament after three rounds, and England are fortunate to have such an in-form figure at their root.