Sunday 19 August 2018

12 stars who have shone in the Six Nations so far

Owen Farrell, Hadleigh Parkes and Peter O'Mahony
Owen Farrell, Hadleigh Parkes and Peter O'Mahony

Will Greenwood

Will Greenwood picks two players from each country who have made a big impression in the Six Nations so far.


Forward: Sebastian Negri

Conor O'Shea needs a new type of Italian forward. Sergio Parisse has for too long been the exception. Alessandro Zanni has done his best to keep up with the great man but two were never enough. Italy need forwards who are athletic and dynamic, not just waiting for the next set-piece to start their Greco-Roman arm wrestle.

I enjoyed watching the kid Renato Giammarioli against England at 7. He is an all-action open side who made a right nuisance of himself. But Negri has been fantastic in both matches. It is tough in a beaten team to keep carrying hard into the heart of the opposition and getting up and making tackle after tackle. In among all of it, he showed real timing on his runs and awareness of those in space around him. Jake Polledri from Gloucester may not have to wait long to join him.

Back: Matteo Minozzi

I considered putting forward Tomaso Allan for his real control in both games under extreme pressure. Allan was brilliant in the second half in Ireland - so much time and accuracy in everything he did. But it is impossible not to pick Minozzi as one of the stand-out performers of the whole Six Nations from any team. Conor O'Shea told me to "watch this fella" and, wow, haven't we watched him.

The little man with dainty feet lives on in the world of gargantuan rugby: he is absolutely electric out of the blocks and has genuinely top class positional play to neuter threats. He skipped around Irish wonder kid Jordan Lamour to work a lovely piece of handling with Parisse for the Edoardo Gori try in Dublin, and then scored an absolute cracker in the corner himself. The sort of player that has the crowd on their feet in anticipation whenever the ball goes near him. Italy have never had one of those - until now.


Forward: Josh Navidi

I have talked enough about Aaron Shingler in recent weeks, and multiple Welsh forwards have been exceptional: Ken Owens; Alun Wyn Jones; Rob Evans. Navidi, though, is one of the nice stories about sport. The quality of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric as an openside double act has limited Navidi's chances.

But he has stuck to his game and waited for his chance. When it has come, he has grabbed it with both hands, just like he does any loose ball in and around the ruck. Navidi could play anywhere in the team, no question. He is blessed with raw strength, incredible flexibility, the hands of a centre, teak-toughness and an attitude which says: 'I don't quit'. When defending under his own posts, if the opposition big men crank up their carries, he chops them down and pilfers the ball. Asked to handle in the wide areas, to link up with backs and keep the play moving, he slides in effortlessly.

Back: Hadleigh Parkes

Lots of contenders again, here, as Wales have been successful and entertaining in the opening two rounds, even with a loss to England. Rhys Patchell is most definitely fit and able to play at this level. He has the “bottle”. Steff Evans is a slippery old customer. But Parkes has been exceptional in an understated way.

Comparisons with Conrad Smith would be fair: he is the right place, right time man in defence and attack. Smith was so good at predicting where to be that I always got a sense of deja-vu when watching him, almost to the point of reckoning that he must have already played the same game 24 hours earlier. Parkes is very similar and does the basics so very well. I have watched him closely in both games and I do not remember an error. Square to the opposition in attack and defence, he knows when he must link or when he must run, and he knows when he must drift or press. Solve those two questions and you can have a good time at the top level.


Forward: Arthur Iturria

Guilhem Guirado must wonder what he has to do to skipper a winning side. The front row's work-rate is immense - he is the tackle count leader, a hard carrier and part of a mighty set-piece. Marco Tauleigne, meanwhile, will get better and better and Yacouba Camara was huge in Edinburgh. But I have gone with Iturria, the second row who doesn't physically look like the modern lock.

Today, second rows are supposed to run like back rowers. Iturria is a little upright and a little cumbersome, yet he defies both those characteristics to play like a back row forward from the front five. He shows fantastic handling ability in the close quarters or wider channels, and runs exceptional angles. He also contributes hugely to a very successful line-out.

The old school second row in him sees him hit rucks like a steam train. You’d better not leave any soft areas when Iturria approaches. And he poaches balls at breakdowns like a good 6. You do not expect him to snap so sharply from the hips to get in and over the ball. Blink and he is in and winning penalties.

Back: Teddy Thomas

I have always had my favourites so it's tough to overlook Remy Lamerat for his tireless work in the midfield in the opening two games. Geoffrey Doumayrou will scare a couple of midfields in the last three games. But it's impossible not to pick out Thomas as France's key man in the backs. He doesn't get as many touches as Virimi Vakatawa, who goes hunting like Nowell.

But before talking about Thomas’s tries, I must mention his wider game and the fact that his awareness of rugby is dramatically improving. Thomas used to be the goal scorer that did nothing else - he didn't track back, and just expected the ball. His contribution in attack and defence now is much more rounded and positive.

Then he lets his explosive pace and power do the rest. He has scored two carbon copy tries, showing pace up the flank to get beyond the front line and then the step and arc around the last defender who is scrambling across. The real pace comes in the fact that he beats the last defender on his inside and still gets away from the cover veering in from his left. Sharp and much more rounded.


Forward: John Barclay

What a player. True, he hasn't been perfect at the breakdown. There are so many good players in this area that even Barclay makes bad decisions or gets beaten to the floor and the ball. But his complete understanding of the field and the situation makes him such a valuable player. I have the feeling that you never truly beat John Barclay.

The whistle goes, and you may have more points than him, but he will be stood looking you in the eye ready to go again. He is a great line-out option, a tough tackler, top handler and great leader. The sort of player every single coach on the planet would like to have available.

Back: Peter Horne

'Who?' I hear you ask. The Galacticos of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and Tommy Seymour normally steal the headlines. And Greig Laidlaw's kicking display against France was magnificent. So how have I ended up with Horne, who didn't start the first game? Because it is very clear that every backline in world rugby needs "glue" or ballast.

Horne is not the biggest ball carrier, but he is very direct and punches way above his weight. The ability of the Scottish backline to play wide needs a fella who is going to run at inside shoulders, straighten up, and take people on physically. If that doesn’t happen, then Scotland are not going to be able to play with the width they so desire. Before you can play the fancy stuff someone has to go forward. Horne has done that well in his time on the field.


Forward: Peter O'Mahony

Injuries and selection calls have meant that only three lads in the pack have played most of the rugby: Rory Best, Ian Henderson and Peter O'Mahony. Devin Toner is becoming increasingly crucial for Ireland and I would expect him to start the rest of the Championship in the second row.

I always enjoy Best and Henderson when the battles become close quarter. But O'Mahony will play in any game, anywhere, against anybody. A line-out and restart guru, he is also defensively alert around the fringes and can survive well in the wide channels defending faster men. But his ball handling and carrying is what keeps getting better.

He is so much more natural when handling now and one burst up the right flank against Italy suggests the fitness guru has had him on the track doing some sprint work. I had to rewind to check it was him on the ball. Ireland need O'Mahony at his best to win this Championship - that is what they have right now.

Back: Keith Earls

I think Ireland will miss Robbie Henshaw badly in the next three games and it may be that Keith Earls fills the 13 jersey. Bundee Aki has been getting better and better at this level. Conor Murray is never below a 9/10 at scrum half. Johnny Sexton has been magnificent. But when you expect someone to be magnificent, often the quality of his effort can seem normal.

I always think he will be fabulous. Earls, meanwhile, has in the past dipped in form and confidence, been loose on the ball, had an error here and there. But in recent months, and specifically the opening two rounds, he has rammed any doubt I had about him down my throat. He looks as explosive as any player in the Championship from a standing start, with great top-end speed. He has been contributing up the midfield, tracking Sexton, and has been so very Irish in his excellence in the air.

I love watching this lad at the moment. But to make sure I am not accused of being two-faced I must own up to considering him a potential weakness previously.


Forward: Joe Launchbury

I know, I know, no point going over past ground but how on earth did Joe Launchbury not go on the Lions tour. Most players pull back the curtains on match day and hope for a certain type of conditions. Wet or dry, most have a small preference. Not Joe. He can play any style the coach asks him to.

Joe has the ballast to lock out either side of the scrum; he is a heavy, heavy man. Yet he gets up in the air and wins his line-out ball. On restarts, you can hit him with everything you have, and he has the balance and the foot placement knowledge to spread the collision and stay on his feet. When you need a hard yard, he dips his shoulders and almost always wins the contact. In defence he can hit head on or scramble with fingertips and drag you down, few escape his clutch.

And then his ability to handle sets him apart from everyone in the English pack, except for maybe the Vunipola boys, although I suspect his error count is lower. The carry and the offload for Jonny May’s second try against Scotland was a masterclass. Win the contact, drive the legs, control the fall, lift the ball into space, in that order - the only way it can be done.

Back: Owen Farrell

My admiration for this player is enormous. His goalkicking doesn't even get a mention when I list the contributions he makes to the team. Energy, drive, close-quarter passing, accuracy of distribution, kicking game, defensive awareness, defensive desire. Then there is the noise, leadership, aura and decision making. The great players get others to play their best every time they play alongside them. Farrell has that impact. I may occasionally think England are vulnerable in certain areas but with Farrell on the field I tend to park my reservations. Total class.

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