Six Nations 2015: Ranking the Best 20 Players

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistMarch 23, 2015

Six Nations 2015: Ranking the Best 20 Players

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    Scott Heppell/Associated Press

    Ireland's bastions did enough against Scotland on Saturday to fend off England's challenge and retain their Six Nations crown in what was one of the most tense final days in the tournament's history.

    No fewer than four sides were still in the running for the title in the final round—Ireland, England, Wales and France—showing just how high the quality of competition currently is among the northern hemisphere's elite.

    As such, it's not only the Irish who impressed in this year's Six Nations, with Welsh and English representatives also figuring prominently among the best of the bunch.

    Looking at individual performances over the past seven weeks, we've ranked the top 20 players from the 2015 Six Nations, where consistency is considered key over the five rounds of competition.

Honourable Mentions

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    Jack McGrath

    Had the recovered Cian Healy not spoilt his momentum halfway through the tournament, Jack McGrath would assuredly have made it past the honourable mentions.

    Joe Schmidt will be pleased to know loose-head is an area with some depth, as the less prominent Leinster prop impressed magnificently through the first few rounds of the tournament, at ease against some big opponents.

    Edoardo Gori

    It's true (and correct) that Italian attention tends to swirl around a certain No. 8, but scrum-half Edoardo Gori is rising to become a real gem for the Azzurri.

    He may not have the best assets outside in the shapes of Kelly Haimona or Tommaso Allan, but 24-year-old Gori gave the Italians a reliable threat at No. 9 and could emerge as a leader for the team in years to come.

    Mark Bennett

    Unfortunate not to make it into the top 20, Scotland's Mark Bennett was one of only a few standout stars under Vern Cotter this year who managed to make their mark on a weekly basis.

    The outside centre was unfortunate to see his midfield relationship disrupted with injury to Alex Dunbar, but it's a sign of Bennett's class that he continued to perform irrespective of who was alongside him.

20. Rob Kearney

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    The quality of full-back talent in Europe right now is evidenced in the fact Rob Kearney doesn't figure more highly in these rankings, having not set many—if any—a foot wrong in the past seven weeks.

    Following his displays in this year's Six Nations, one might well argue there isn't a safer pair of hands than his under the high ball, which came to benefit Ireland greatly when operating with a kicking strategy.

    Defensively, the Leinster man still tends to give his opponents a tad too much space, but a total of 340 carrying metres is something Kearney can be proud of, and it helped ease the transition of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw in midfield.

19. Yoann Huget

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    Our sole French entry was one of only two France players to feature in every minute of Les Bleus' Six Nations tournament, and Yoann Huget rightly stands as the most reliable member of Philippe Saint-Andre's squad.

    No matter how bad things looked for the French, wing wizard Huget was always on hand to give his all and can be bitterly disappointed after ending the tournament without a single try to his name.

    That wasn't for lack of trying, though, as the Toulouse speedster came extremely close on numerous occasions, once again sticking out as being among Saint-Andre's assured weapons.

18. Sergio Parisse

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    Like Scotland's Stuart Hogg later in this list, Sergio Parisse is another man marvel who happens to effectively shoulder an entire country's hopes, except he's been keeping up the act for many years at this stage.

    This wasn't Parisse's best tournament by any stretch, although it's difficult to quantify that kind of statement given just how much he has to make up for others, but it was typically all-encompassing from the No. 8.

    Parisse had a hand in all things Azzurri, be it ensuring his side retain ball in the backs, trucking the ball into contact himself or getting back to do the dirty work in defence.

    Ultimately, his statistics might suffer because of that exhausting responsibility, but he nonetheless does a very good of keeping up with the pace and was instrumental in handing Italy a crucial win over Scotland.

17. Taulupe Faletau

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    No Welsh player made more tackles (71) over the course of the tournament than No. 8 Taulupe Faletau, who played every minute of the competition and surged once more from the base of their pack.

    Faletau's conditioning looks to have improved, and his usual trend of never allowing standards to slip was once again on show, with not a poor performance to speak of.

    Warren Gatland may only ask for more of a try threat from his No. 8, but it would be a harsh critique of Wales' most regular carrier.

16. Johnny Sexton

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    It goes without saying that Johnny Sexton's return was a key component to Ireland retaining their Six Nations title, but after featuring in only four rounds of competition and poorly in several of those, his ranking suffers slightly.

    After playing a vital hand in the Week 3 win over England, Sexton looked to be on track for a return to his best, but some pivotal errors were made against Wales and Scotland in rounds 4 and 5, respectively.

    Nevertheless, a figure of such class improved Ireland immediately after making his comeback in Week 2, and his kicking intelligence was again instrumental in leading Schmidt's side back to top spot.

15. Rhys Webb

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    In-form Ospreys playmaker Rhys Webb got his Six Nations off to the right start by scoring the first try of the tournament against England, and he didn't let his foot off the pedal following that standout display.

    Missed tackles popped up more regularly than Gatland may like to see in certain fixtures, but a brave tally of 13 in the victory over Ireland showed Webb is capable of stopping his foes in their tracks.

    The Wales scrum-half finished his tournament with three tries in total, and his all-systems-go approach gave Wales a sense of swiftness when picking up their pace.

14. Sean O'Brien

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    Like the aforementioned Sexton, Sean O'Brien wasn't present for the entire Six Nations, but by Jove did he make his impact felt on those occasions when he was fully fit.

    The flanker's tournament will probably be most fondly remembered for his astonishing ruck clear-out against France, but it was Scotland who fell to the full force of the "Tullow Tank" in Week 5.

    O'Brien's injury troubles looked to be a thing of the past as he soared for two tries in a man-of-the-match run against the Scots, asserting just what a physical specimen he is in those more prominent chances he received.

13. Luke Charteris

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    Stu Forster/Getty Images

    Very arguably enjoying the best form of his career, Racing Metro's Luke Charteris formed a brilliant lock partnership alongside Alun Wyn Jones but was every bit the individual dynamo for Wales.

    No player made more tackles in any one Six Nations game this year than Charteris did against Ireland, accounting for 31 of Wales' 250 tackles in the Week 4 clash. That's an average of just under one tackle every two-and-a-half minutes.

    Charteris' rise is especially impressive when considering he didn't start in the first two rounds of the tournament, but Gatland won't be dropping him from his XV any time soon.

12. Dan Biggar

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    There's not much glamour about Dan Biggar's approach to Wales' fly-half position, but it speaks volumes of his tournament that Gatland probably now has the Ospreys man nailed on to start at this year's World Cup.

    From putting his body on the line against Scotland to his lung-bursting try against France, Biggar was lacking in flash throughout the competition, but that's what makes his contribution to the Welsh cause so humbling.

    Without kicking duties on his plate, Biggar was essentially tasked with releasing Wales' back line as best he could and did just that with both boot and hand on a weekly basis.

    The No. 10 leaves the competition with his fair share of battle wounds, too, signifying his willingness to put his own health first for the team.

11. Peter O'Mahony

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    Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

    Doing the dirty work so his team-mates don't have to, Peter O'Mahony continues to revel as a constant thorn in the enemy's side without ever raking in the plaudits.

    The Munster flanker is a terrier at the ruck, and if enemy support is in any way struggling to get there, one can bet O'Mahony will be smothering ball in a flash, consistently turning the penalty count in Ireland's favour.

    That discipline was one of the main factors behind Ireland's success in this year's tournament, and while O'Mahony may not always receive the praise he's due, he continues to work behind the scenes as a vital orchestrator of Schmidt's plans.

10. Stuart Hogg

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    Were he part of a winning team, Stuart Hogg may be regarded as one of the finest players in the northern hemisphere, but shining in a losing Scotland side doesn't earn one all the plaudits they might desire.

    For the full-back, it must feel like swimming upstream, but even with that torrent rushing against him, Hogg still managed to beat 20 defenders and carry for a total of 442 metres.

    Had Jamie Heaslip not knocked the ball from his mitts in the Week 5 clash at Murrayfield, Hogg may have scored to gift England the Six Nations, but Irish intervention had other plans.

9. Robbie Henshaw

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    Paul O'Connell was quoted by the Irish Independent's David Kelly as saying the Murrayfield trophy presentation on Saturday "was like Robbie Henshaw's 21st," which is poignant for two reasons.

    Firstly, that Henshaw has already become so prominent in this Ireland team that his captain uses him as an anecdote in such a prestigious moment, and secondly because it reminds us the centre is still just 21 years of age.

    To be playing so comfortably in a Six Nations-winning team at this stage of his career and scoring a crucial try in the win over England is bewildering, and Henshaw promises only to improve.

    Even though his midfield make-up with Payne is still in its infancy, the signs are there that he can be the crux of this Irish setup in future, although his missed-tackle rate could do with some reducing.

8. Conor Murray

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    Were it not for Ben Youngs' superb displays in the last two rounds of the tournament, Conor Murray would be a shoo-in for just about any Team of the Tournament, but Ireland's No. 9 nevertheless reached a coming-of-age in this tournament.

    Before now, Murray was reliable, admittedly, but his game appeared to thrive upon new levels of responsibility in the past two months, and Murray suitably scored Ireland's first try of the 2015 Six Nations.

    His kicking masterclass was a foundation in the 19-9 win over England, and there aren't many scrum-halves who can boast the same consistency, with Murray barely committing an error in five outings.

    Now an integral part of Schmidt's lineup, Murray calls the shots as he sees fit and proved himself an incredibly rounded No. 9, combining sniping initiative with soft and safe hands throughout.

7. Leigh Halfpenny

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    A host of full-backs showcased their quality as attacking marvels in this year's Six Nations, but Leigh Halfpenny yet again proved there's something to be said of those who thrive in defence.

    The Welshman's form under high ball was imperious, and Halfpenny finished second in the points scorer ranks with 60 overall, just 15 behind overall top points scorer George Ford.

    Many argued the carrying might of Liam Williams may have been preferred at No. 15 prior to the tournament, but between his kicking contributions and defensive nous, the jersey remains Halfpenny's to lose.

6. Ben Youngs

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    As aforementioned, Youngs' tournament went from good to great in Week 4, where he claimed the first of back-to-back man-of-the-match awards against Scotland.

    That display was only improved by the outing against France at Twickenham last Saturday, where the England scrum-half took the bull by the horns and glided over for two tries against France.

    As things stand, there's no longer any debate regarding who deserves Stuart Lancaster's starting spot at scrum-half, and Youngs looks to have established a stellar understanding alongside a certain Bath fly-half.

5. Alun Wyn Jones

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    Stu Forster/Getty Images

    Certainly one of those players in the debate for Player of the Tournament, Wales are fortunate to have a leader figure in the shape of Jones, who ruled the line-out with an iron fist in rounds 1 through 5.

    In truth, the Ospreys lock may perform better without the pressures that captaincy can bring, and it showed as he darted about for a very respectable 49 tackles in his five outings.

4. George Ford

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    Youngs' partner in crime during the 55-35 drubbing of France also managed to score against Les Bleus, with George Ford taking his 2015 Six Nations try tally to two as he finished as the competition's overall top points scorer.

    With no Owen Farrell in contention, Ford has now cemented his place at No. 10 for England and is no longer the starlet but very much the star Lancaster has been waiting for.

    It's difficult to find much weakness in the 22-year-old's game; his place-kicking is excellent, his accuracy with boot out of hand is getting better every week and his passing is gradually becoming arguably his greatest strength.

    Luther Burrell was a more consistent asset for England this year than he was in the 2014 tournament, and perhaps that can be attributed to his fly-half giving a much more sympathetic supply through the hands.

3. Jonathan Joseph

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    At the beginning of February, fans and critics alike were guessing as to whether England's latest midfield experiment, Jonathan Joseph, would be a success inheriting the No. 13 jersey.

    Having now finished his first Six Nations tournament as top try scorer with four in five games, it's fair to say Bath's maestro is looking like the real deal.

    The encouraging thing about Joseph is there's an awful lot of talk behind his walk, too, with 45 tackles made across his Six Nations campaign, missing only five along the way. 

    Able to engineer something out of nothing, Joseph may grow to be capable of unleashing his wings on a more frequent basis in future, but as things stand, the ball need not necessarily go past him as long as he remains so dangerous in possession.

2. Sam Warburton

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    The Wales captain failed to make even the 12-man shortlist for the official Player of the Tournament, but Sam Warburton's efforts won't be missed in our reckoning.

    Although still just 26 years of age—relatively young for one so experienced—Warburton continued to prove himself as the man to lead Gatland's squad, with a man-of-the-match display in the win over Ireland the most fitting evidence as to why.

    There aren't many in world rugby who possess the flanker's engine, which was put on display for all to see against Italy, where Warburton somehow mustered a 68th-minute gallop that George North would envy to score.

    The Cardiff Blues back-rower made 61 tackles in all, averaging just over 12 tackles per game, and marshalled his troops well to bounce back after the Week 1 defeat against England.

1. Paul O'Connell

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    Just how Paul O'Connell is playing to this standard at 35 years of age only he will know, but Irish supporters the world over won't care where the lock found his fountain of youth.

    It almost seems like fate that in what could prove to be his last-ever Six Nations appearance, the far-from-prolific O'Connell should touch down for the opener against Scotland, setting his country on their way to successive Six Nations trophies.

    Even in his old age, O'Connell played all 400 minutes of Ireland's tournament and made 55 carries in total, registering particularly fine outings against Wales, England and the Scots.

    That ability to step things up a gear when the going is at its toughest is something not every player possesses, but then figures likes O'Connell don't come around very often.

    All statistics come courtesy of ESPN Scrum

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