FIRST a further thought about the shortage of tries in the Six Nations compared to the number scored a few years ago.
It wasn’t only the weather and it wasn’t only the general improvement in defences, though these both played a part. The main reason, however, is that there wasn’t a really poor team in the championship. England once ran up a score of 80 against Italy; three years ago, Chris Ashton scored four tries against the Italians at Twickenham, only one fewer than England scored in their five games this year. Easy tries are almost never conceded now. So there are fewer tries in the tournament because teams are all more evenly matched.
Another point. If you want to see more tries scored, then regulate the use of replacements. At Philiphaugh a few weeks ago, David Bell, for long the heart of the Selkirk scrum, remarked on how replacements have changed the game. Iain Milne, he said, would know that he would wear his immediate opponent down and be absolutely on top of him in the last 20 minutes of the game. Nowadays he would be faced with a fresh prop coming off the bench. Many of us think the flooding of the field with replacements has spoiled the game. Another thing for the IRB to take a look at?
Meanwhile, rather than play the Lions selection game, it’s more immediately interesting – for me anyway – to nominate the team of the tournament.
Full-back: for all Stuart Hogg’s dashing exploits, it has to be Leigh Halfpenny. The first duty of the full-back is to be a rock in defence, and Halfpenny was that. A terrific goal-kicker as well, even if he does take a bit long about it. Andrea Masi was very good too.
Right wing: Alex Cuthbert scored four tries, and, even if his defence is a bit flakey, this gets him the nod. Sean Maitland looked the best all-round wing, but had too few opportunities in attack. Italy’s Giovambattista Venditti is a young bull; keep him out of a china shop. It says much about France’s deficiencies that Vincent Clerc doesn’t come into the reckoning.
Outside centre: Matthieu Bastareaud made his case, but it still has to be Brian O’Driscoll. One moment of rare skill against Wales shines more brightly in the memory than almost anything else. Manu Tuilaigi disappointed even his fans.
Inside centre: Wesley Fofana, no question. Runner-up, Matt Scott, even though Jamie Roberts at last struck form against England.
Left wing: one would love to pick Simon Zebo, but he was on the field too short a time. Tim Visser scored two tries, which might put him ahead of George North, except that North‘s defence is better. However, for all-round excellence nobody matched Italy’s Luke McLean
Fly-half: Jonny Sexton played less than a game and a half, which rules him out. Owen Farrell had his moments – more anyway than dear old Freddie Michalak – but, for all-round competence and his ability to control a game, Dan Biggar was the best 10 on view. On the evidence of matches against France and England, you might pick Luciano Orquera; on the evidence of the Scotland game, you wouldn’t.
Scrum-half: Difficult. Mike Phillips was outstanding against England. Greig Laidlaw showed better generalship than any other 9, but, overall and in difficult circumstances, Ireland’s Conor Murray was the most consistently effective.
Loosehead prop: If we’re honest, few of us are competent really to judge how a prop performs, but nobody ever seems to get the better of Thomas Domingo. Ryan Grant did pretty well too. Sadly, it’s “addio” to one of my favourite players, il Barone Siciliano, Andrea Lo Cicero. He went out in style with a storming run through the Irish midfield.
Hooker: Rory Best might be most people’s choice, but I think Richard Hibbard may have edged it.
Tighthead prop: Adam Jones reigned supreme.
Locks: Alan Wyn Jones had a great tournament. So did Jim Hamilton. Nobody better than either. Richie Gray didn’t do quite enough, and was then injured.
Blindside flanker: If Kelly Brown had played at 6, he might be picked, but he didn’t. The same might be said of England’s Chris Robshaw. Ireland’s young Peter O’Mahony was tireless and very effective, but Italy’s Alessandro Zanni was outstanding.
Number 8: how do you choose between Sergio Parisse and Louis Picamoles? You might as well spin a coin. Heads, Picamoles; tails, Parisse. It comes down heads.
Openside: Thierry Dusautoir was, as ever, tremendous in defence, but I can’t see past Justin Tipuric. He is the best 7 Wales have and might also be their best 13 if you played him there.
So the XV lines up: Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Brian O’Driscoll, Wesley Fofana, Luke McLean; Dan Biggar, Conor Murray; Thomas Domingo, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alan Wyn Jones, Jim Hamilton, Alessandro Zanni, Louis Picamoles, Justin Tipuric.
Funny: no Englishman there. Perhaps I’m biased.
Second XV: Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Matthieu Bastareaud, Matt Scott, George North; Owen Farrell, Mike Phillips; Ryan Grant, Rory Best, Dan Cole, Ian Evans, Geoff Parling, Peter O’Mahony, Sergio Parisse, Thierry Dusautoir.
Three Englishmen there; I’m not biased after all. With some referees, who shall be nameless, the B side would probably be penalised every scrum. But I can’t help that.