Monday 23 July 2018

Alan Quinlan reveals his Six Nations Award winners with Conor Murray landing top player gong

 

17 March 2018; Ireland players, from left, Jordi Murphy, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jonathan Sexton, Dan Leavy and Conor Murray celebrate following the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
17 March 2018; Ireland players, from left, Jordi Murphy, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jonathan Sexton, Dan Leavy and Conor Murray celebrate following the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton played a leading role in Ireland's success. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

It's always that bit sweeter reflecting on a Six Nations when Ireland have not only finished on top of the pile, but have beaten all-comers.

It was a breathless six weeks and there was no shortage of stand-out tries, tackles and moments, on and off the pitch. Here are my award winners for 2018:

PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT

The ref mic only picks up a fraction of the on-field discussions but one name is overheard time and again - Conor Murray. The tone is usually an anxious one as the opposition call for pressure to be put on the dangerous Ireland scrum-half because of the damage he can do with the ball..

Conor Murray, left, and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrate
Conor Murray, left, and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrate

But the Limerick man appears to be unflappable in everything he does, and he certainly has quite a box of tricks. His unruffled demeanour brings great assurance to those around him, epitomising the calm and collected attitude of this Irish team.

He sets the tempo from the base of the ruck, his delivery rarely falters, he has an eye for the try line, and his box-kicks complement Johnny Sexton's tactical nous superbly. Of course, he even he nailed a couple of kicks off the tee when required and was used as a lineout jumper - his talents seem endless.

Murray's work off the ball has been equally impressive this spring, and this is probably what sets him apart as the best No 9 in the world. He essentially operates as an extra back-rower; making plenty of big tackles and adding depth to the defence.

TRY OF THE TOURNAMENT

Sean Maitland's score against England was particularly pleasing on the eye, and was a real illustration of how fine the line is between risk and reward.

The New Zealand-born winger didn't have a lot to do when the ball dropped into his arms just metres out on the left wing, the hard work having been done by the likes of Finn Russell (twice), Huw Jones, Stuart McInally and John Barclay.

Russell's initial floated pass over the head of Jonathan Joseph, just outside the Scottish 22, was a thing of beauty yet toyed with danger all in one. Jones hit the ball at speed and within seven seconds was being taken down by Johnny May just 10 metres shy of England's line.

Scotland kept the ball moving at speed, recycling with efficiency and shifting play back across the field, which allowed Russell to deliver another lofted ball, this one a much safer bet, which put Maitland over for a crucial score.

Honourable mentions go to Steff Evans for his late try against the Scots on the opening weekend and Teddy Thomas for his piece of individual brilliance against Ireland on the same afternoon.

BEST MOMENT

That first weekend of action was comfortably the most dramatic from an Irish perspective and the leading role was undoubtedly played by Johnny Sexton.

'Le Drop' will go down as one of the iconic moments of Irish sport, and the manner in which the rest of the campaign unfolded ensured the Leinster man's drop goal was in effect the Grand Slam clincher - his ROG moment in Cardiff, except Sexton's came at the start of the tournament.

The 41-phase move that preceded it, which involved every Irish player on the field, laid the platform for Sexton to land a career-defining kick.

Sexton had been cramping in his calf and had missed a kick-off the tee earlier on that must have been playing on his mind, so to slot that drop goal from more than 40 metres, teetering on exhaustion, was truly special.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It a shame to see Conor O'Shea's Italy show little improvement from last year - they sparkled in attack a little more perhaps, but shipped more than 200 points for a third successive campaign and have now lost 17 Six Nations games on the spin.

They showed glimpses of quality against England but made too many errors and looked panicked in defence - the antithesis to O'Shea's native brigade in that regard.

To see Sergio Parisse become the first player to rack up 100 Test losses is tough; he deserves a few more bright days in blue before he hangs up his boots.

Conor can still turn things around and the improvements at Benetton and Zebre should help, but the challenge looks even greater than it did two months ago.

BEST MATCH

Ireland's late show in Paris may have delivered a blockbuster-worthy cinematic twist but in terms of intensity, Scotland v England was the greatest spectacle of the 15 matches.

It was compelling from start to finish and was another important victory as Gregor Townsend continues to build towards the World Cup in Japan.

The game had everything; sublime passing from Russell, a wonder score, an incredible performance from Owen Farrell, a game-changing TMO decision, and the result ended a win-less run for the Scots against their old enemy since 2008.

TACKLE OF THE TOURNAMENT

There were a number of contenders but ultimately, the timing and potentially match-defining nature of Sam Underhill's last-ditch tackle on Wales centre Scott Williams sees him claim the spoils.

England were on the ropes and after George North put Williams away on the left flank, it looked for all money that the 100kg midfielder would dot down in the corner and reduce England's lead to 12-8, with a tricky kick to come.

Williams committed early to the slide over the line but Underhill came steaming across and used great technique to get an arm under his opponent and flip Williams' legs into touch.

The sight of Earls pinning back his ears in chasing down Italy winger Mattia Bellini with the clock in the red and the Irish victory secure also stands out, as does Sexton's hit on Ross Moriarty that drove the Wales back-rower back over his own line to earn Ireland a five-metre scrum that would lead to a Cian Healy score.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

England's no-show remains a bit of a mystery. I wasn't sure whether they would retain their title before the tournament but I certainly didn't foresee them finishing fifth and losing three of their five games, and were it not for Underhill's heroics and a fortuitous TMO decision, they could have lost four times.

For a team that have largely been so dominant under Jones, it was perplexing to see such bland performances from that talented group of players.

Something has gone awry and it's up to Jones and the RFU to figure out the problem, and soon.

OFF-CAMERA MOMENT

Away from all the scrutiny and on-field celebrations, down in the tunnel at Twickenham, the relentless Kiwi leader allowed himself a brief moment of reflection; removing his veil of focus to display real emotion underneath his tough exterior.

Joe Schmidt doesn't put any pressure on his teams that he isn't comfortable with himself, and it was warming to see how much this Grand Slam meant to a man whose cards rarely leave the safety of his chest.

He was beaming with pride for this group of players, and was happy to let them soak up the limelight on the field, and however brief his moment of reflection was, it was a reminder that behind all the talk about process and detail is a man who takes great pleasure in success.

I'm sure he has since been back to his analysis station picking out bits from the Twickenham performance that can be improved upon ahead of the tour of Australia, and that's one of the primary reasons why Ireland will head Down Under as Grand Slam champions.

Irish Independent

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