Candidates by country for 2016 Six Nations player of the tournament
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | March 19, 2016
The Six Nations is sadly over for another year, with champions England completing the Grand Slam with victory in France.
Wales finished runners-up, with 2014 and 2015 winners Ireland in third, then Scotland and Les Bleus ahead of regular Wooden Spoon recipients Italy.
There is much to ponder ahead of summer Tours for the Home Nations quartet, who travel either to the Southern Hemisphere heavyweight trio Australia, New Zealand and South Africa or emerging Pacific prodigies Japan that will host the next Rugby World Cup.
Before the dust settles on another satisfying Six Nations campaign, however, there’s the question of who are candidates from the respective half-dozen countries to be player of the tournament? Here are the thoughts of Coral’s expert rugby writers…
Billy Vunipola (England)
Saracens back row Billy Vunipola has made the number eight position his own with the Red Rose on his chest during this Six Nations campaign with a number of powerful displays.
A big build and solid strength has allowed the Australian-born Harrow educated Vunipola to beat two dozen defenders and make 72 carries. He is essentially a human wrecking ball, who has played every single minute of England’s Grand Slam campaign.
While overall team performances under Eddie Jones will be a clear bone of contention ahead of a trip Down Under this summer, the individual displays of Vunipola and fellow youngster Maro Itoje at lock are undoubted successes.
Over 400m gained by full back Mike Brown and tries in three successive Six Nations games from Anthony Watson should not go unnoticed either. There is also fly half Owen Farrell, masquerading at centre, who scored an unparalleled tally of 69 Six Nations points.
In Vunipola, though, Jones has a physical specimen that could well take on the Southern Hemisphere physiques and physicality that European rugby players struggle to handle.
Three Man of the Match performances, first in the Calcutta Cup clash that kicked off the Tasmanian Devil’s reign as England boss, then for the home win over Ireland and in Paris, mean recognition for Vunipola is mounting. Watch this space.
Virimi Vakatawa (France)
From Rugby Sevens to the Six Nations. Fijian-born winger Virimi Vakatawa will know he is not currently in a vintage French side, yet tournament stats overwhelmingly point to him as being Les Bleus’ best player.
Not helped by having a settled side around him, Vakatawa has still managed to lead France in territory gained (332m), carrying the ball (56), beating defenders (24) and clean breaks (eight). The fact he has been outscored by a hooker in skipper Guilhem Guiardo is something we can gloss over.
These are impressive numbers for a newcomer to XV-a-side international rugby union. Vakatawa also scored a try on his senior Test debut against Italy, but has also shown some naivety in conceding nine turnovers, so there is room for improvement.
Guy Noves needs to decide who will take kicking duties and stick with his selection, with Maxime Machenaud (29 Six Nations points) and Jules Plisson (63 kicks from his hands) the half back pairing that France ended the tournament with.
Les Bleus are off to Argentina this summer, and Vakatawa will be able to add further experience against a close-knit Panthers roster – many of whom played together for Super Rugby franchise Los Jaguares.
CJ Stander (Ireland)
Back row operator CJ Stander has been a real find for the Irish, and kudos must go out to Joe Schmidt for bringing the South African-born flanker into his setup.
A number of injuries and retirements following the conclusion of last year’s Rugby World Cup mean this was always going to be a difficult and transitional – ugly word that it is – campaign for Ireland.
Stander indeed stands out because he was named Man of the Match on his international debut against Wales, and made most Six Nations carries for his adopted country (79 of 600).
Although outscored in the try department by scrum half Conor Murray. who also made over 400 passes, Stander has taken to Test rugby very well indeed.
With Ireland on Tour in his native homeland this summer, Stander may be one the Springboks regret letting slip through their fingers with ageing flanker Schalk Burger in need of replacing sooner rather than later.
Carlo Canna (Italy)
The contribution made by Azzurri fly half Carlo Canna in just two-and-a-quarter hours of Six Nations rugby he played, before being taken off injured during England’s game in Rome, is quite remarkable.
A virtuoso 13-point display against France where Italy’s kicker scored in every conceivable fashion in Paris – try, penalty, drop goal and conversion – has to go down as one of the greatest individual displays of glorious failure in the recent annals of this sport.
Cunning Canna also kicked three first-half penalties when the Azzurri hosted Eddie Jones’ Red Rose, and that subsequent collapse to the Six Nations champions seemed to follow him hobbling off the field.
It would be lazy to give this award to Italy captain and admittedly influential number eight Sergio Parisse, whose virtues are well-documented; although, he did make the most metres (253) and racked up a half-century of carries.
Exeter Chiefs centre Michele Campagnaro, meanwhile, with seven clean breaks and 15 defenders beaten is a fellow injured candidate alongside Canna, but the fly half edges it by contributing almost 28 per cent of the Azzurri’s tournament points tally of 79.
Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
More than one respected rugby pundit on British TV during the 2016 Six Nations has pointed out we would all be waxing lyrical about Scottish full back Stuart Hogg – were he in an All Blacks jersey.
Like the country he represents at large there is the odd mistake in him but, as in evidence during the home win over France, Hogg exerts a remarkable influence on proceedings when donning a Scotland shirt.
Besides being their joint-top tryscorer with a couple of crossings and leading assists maker (three), Hogg has helped the Tartan team by making almost a quarter (395) of total Scottish metres, beating 17 men and embarking on five clean breaks.
Skipper and scrum half Greig Laidlaw’s tournament tally of 62 points, including 16 penalties, is impressive, but Hogg has taken some of the longer-range kicks either for territory, into touch and even over the posts.
If he continues to impress, then Hogg is looking a dead cert to go on Tour to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions in 2017, where the visitors are 3/1 chances to win the series.
George North (Wales)
Dragons winger George North came into this Six Nations campaign bemoaning the fact his club side, Northampton Saints, had adopted a style of play that “isn’t really helping my game”.
In a Wales shirt, however, he has certainly been able to express himself in a way that has paid off. North scored in all but one of the five Six Nations matches, with only then defending champions Ireland keeping him from crossing the tryline.
Going over in four consecutive games is a Dragons record and makes him top tryscorer, but it’s not just putting a total of 20 points on the Welsh scoreboard – kicker Dan Biggar boasts a tournament tally of more than double that at 54 – which has made North stand out.
The 23-year-old wideman ends the campaign with double figures for clean breaks; North also beat 26 defenders (both those stats account for around 30 per cent of Wales’ entire team totals), and made almost half a kilometre (468m) of ground.
Biggar (also most Dragons assists), plus half back partners Gareth Davies (two tries and most passes with 247) and Rhys Webb, tend to grab most of the headlines, but nifty North is proving a potent weapon and was a worthy recipient of the Man of the Match award against Italy.
Coral’s all-star 2016 Six Nations squad
Full backs Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Mike Brown (England)
Wingers: George North (Wales), Anthony Watson (England)
Centres: Owen Farrell (England), Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
Fly halves: Dan Biggar (Wales), Carlo Canna (Italy)
Scrum halves: Conor Murray (Ireland), Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)
Flankers: Sam Warburton (Wales), CJ Stander (Ireland)
Number eights: Billy Vunipola (England), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)
Locks: Maro Itoje (England), Richie Gray (Scotland)
Hookers: Guilhem Guirado (France), Dylan Hartley (England)
Props: Jack McGrath (Ireland), Dan Cole (England)