Saturday 20 July 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor's Six Nations awards: Marvel O'Connell rolls back the years

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IT WAS a Six Nations finale we'll never forget, but with the Champions Cup quarter-finals just 11 days away, the world of rugby will move on quite quickly,

Yesterday, the Six Nations issued their nominees for their player of the tournament and three Irish players made the cut, with fans being able to vote for Paul O'Connell, Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray who face competition from the likes of Dan Biggar, Alun-Wyn Jones and Jonathan Joseph for the prize.

The tournament began with an epic slugfest between Wales and England in Cardiff and while the other teams failed to match that level at times, Ireland's journey towards first Grand Slam disappointment and then title glory was one to remember.

The turgid nature of the rugby brought criticism from around the world before Saturday's explosion of colour, while the spectre of concussion loomed over the event from first game to last.

Soon, it will be time look towards the World Cup and dream of Ireland reaching the latter stages for the first time, something this team are more than capable of, but first it is the moment to reflect on the last eight weeks and the wonder of last Saturday while handing out some imaginary gongs in the process.

Best player

Paul O'Connell

Despite his advancing years, the Ireland captain played every minute of every game and got better by the week.

Had he not finished on the losing side of that epic encounter in Cardiff, then he'd have won the man of the match and only Sean O'Brien's brilliance in Edinburgh denied him the prize on Saturday.

That his ball-carrying effectiveness increased by the week should be encouraging for the World Cup too, while his presence and leadership add huge value.

For some reason people seem intent on retiring the legendary Munster second-row when they should be begging for him to carry on.

Paul O’Connell is tackled by Scotland’s Blair Cowan (left) and Greig Tonks at Murrayfield in the Six Nations

Best game

England 55 France 35

On a day when rugby went mad, the sight of England and France slugging it out for 80-plus minutes at the end of eight weeks of action was surreal, yet magnificent.

The French came off the pitch talking about the heart they'd shown despite conceding more than a half-century of points, while England threw everything at chasing the total Ireland had set them, but were left to regret their poor discipline, open defence and a second-half lineout collapse.

Played at 100mph from the beginning to the end, it will go down as one of the great Test matches.

Magic Moment

Wales holding out Irish assault

The final day obscures much of what went before, but the Welsh defensive effort in repelling Ireland's attack during a second-half spell in the Millennium Stadium was a sight no one who saw it will ever forget.

The roar that greeted Johnny Sexton going off his feet after more than 50 phases was incredible.

Tackle of the tournament

Jamie Roberts on Tommy Bowe

Jamie Heaslip might be a tad unlucky after Saturday, but Roberts' effort to deny Bowe in Cardiff was incredible.

The Racing Metro centre had bought Ireland's decoy run, but managed to re-adjust his feet quickly and snag the Lions winger who was clear through for a try that would have changed the course of the competition.

What might have been

Ireland's lost Slam

No one is talking about it now, but this Irish team felt they were capable of winning a Grand Slam. Although the events of last Saturday have helped ease their pain and erase the memory of Cardiff, they were a few decisions and a slow start away from an even better achievement.

Best newcomer

Jonathan Joseph

Robbie Henshaw gets the Irish award, but on a tournament scale the hot-stepping Bath centre made a remarkable entry to the tournament, finishing as the Six Nations top try scorer at the first attempt.

Before the rest of the teams caught the bug, England were the best attacking force thanks largely to their impressive new face.

Jonathan Joseph scoring one of his two tries against Italy

Play of the tournament

Robbie Henshaw try v England

Sure, there were lots to choose from last Saturday but Henshaw takes the gong for his brilliant try against England.

Calling Conor Murray's attention to the possibility of a chip over the top, he had it all to do as he contested with Alex Goode, but physically dominated the full-back, before showing intelligence and skill to ground the ball.

Must do better

Ireland's lineout/Wayne Barnes

With the collective motoring so well, there were few individuals who let themselves down but Ireland won't be happy with the way their lineout accuracy fell away towards the end of the tournament. Simon Easterby and Paul O'Connell won't be happy that theirs was the least effective lineout in the tournament and surgery may be needed before the World Cup. Honorary mention for ref Wayne Barnes who awards far more penalties than any of his peers and is a negative influence on the matches he's in charge of.

Welcome back

Luke Fitzgerald

Despite being so long out of the game, the Leinster winger proved that his class is permanent on Saturday with a performance that showed bags of potential ahead of a World Cup in which, fitness permitting, he'll have a major role.

21 March 2015; Luke Fitzgerald, Ireland, is tackled by Stuart Hogg, Scotland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Scotland v Ireland. BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Scotland. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Best Coach

Joe Schmidt

The Ireland supremo's winning record speaks for itself and his team's ability to adapt to each and every occasion makes them the hardest to beat out there. Wales needed an era-best performance to beat them by seven.

22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Unsung hero

Jason Cowman

Ireland fitness coach Cowman is relatively unknown beyond Carton House, but the Dubliner is held in high regard and we saw why as Joe Schmidt was able to make minimal changes to his team and Ireland suffered no injuries in the last two games.

World Cup prospects

Ireland, England and Wales can all look forward with real optimism, with Schmidt's side facing the more favourable draw. Ireland's pool rivals France and Italy are in varying levels of disarray which will provide some reasons for optimism.

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