Sunday 21 January 2018

Ireland's top five performers in an enthralling Six Nations campaign

Michael Verney

What an exhilarating tournament. From the opening Friday evening in Cardiff where England stunned Wales to the final Super Saturday where scripts were repeatedly ripped to shreds, the 2015 Six Nations has ensured its place in the annals of sporting history.

Round five had it all with Joe Schmidt's Ireland eventually prevailing via higher scoring averages after dramatically defeating Scotland by 30 points at Murrayfield and nervously watching as England failed to beat France by the necessary 26 points in Twickenham.

This secured two-in-a-row for the Irish after last year's epic Paris victory and have chosen the five players who were most important throughout this extraordinary campaign. 

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell goes over to score his side's first try, his seventh career try, in the fifth minute of the game

1. Paul O'Connell

His ability to lead from the front, never shirk a challenge and refuse to lose have been the backbone of this Irish side and it was fitting that he should lift the Six Nations trophy after an absorbing climax.

Many are saying it could be his last campaign with the inspirational Munster man set to retire from international duty after this year's World Cup.

But, like a fine wine O'Connell has gotten better with age and his early try against Scotland set the tone while his performance in defeat against the Welsh was a sight to behold. Truly a giant amongst men.

Jonathan Sexton in action with Scotlands Finn Russell. Reuters / Russell Cheyne

2. Jonathan Sexton

Such is the esteem that Sexton is held in by head coach Schmidt that he was parachuted straight back into action against France following a 12-week concussion layoff.

Despite lacking match sharpness he produced scintillating displays against France and England, and after performing below his usual standards against the Welsh, he bounced back with another masterclass against Scotland.

Central to the Irish game plan with his kicking game, Sexton displayed the wealth of his passing and creative skills in Edinburgh and is vying for his place as the best number ten in world rugby.

Simon Zebo and Conor Murray of Ireland celebrate victory. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

3. Conor Murray

Murray's meteoric rise through the ranks has been a well-documented one but his game hit new heights during this year's tournament and the scrum-half was a major cog of the Irish system.

His tactical play, pinpoint box kicks, ability to make things happen with ball in hand and instinctive relationship with out-half Sexton were key to Ireland's victory, most notably in the earlier rounds where the pair controlled games at will.

The Munster man looks at ease on the biggest stage with an array of tricks in his arsenal and was able to show his attacking flair against the Scots when the situation allowed for it.

21 March 2015; Adam Ashe, Scotland, is tackled by Robbie Henshaw, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Scotland v Ireland. BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Scotland. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

4. Robbie Henshaw

Many had touted him as the heir apparent to the throne vacated by Brian O'Driscoll but few would have had the guts to predict how sudden his impact on the international scene would have been.

The Connacht centre looked a natural throughout and one of the most pleasing aspects of his game is the ability to get stuck in, tackle ferociously and gain those precious yards in attack.

His try against England was a picture of athletic beauty soaring through the air to collect a dainty Murray chip before touching down one-handed in the corner, breaking English hearts in the process.

Sean O'Brien, Ireland, breaks through the tackle of Adam Ashe, Scotland, to score his side's second try of the game

Sean O'Brien

It was only a matter of time, and maybe the public should have been a little more patient considering his injury woes, but O'Brien officially announced his international return against the Scots when he was needed most.

The Tullow Tank gave a man of the match performance carrying ball like only he can in a dynamic display putting Ireland on the front foot time after time while also storming over for two tries.

Bubble-wrapping him until the World Cup in the autumn would be a suggestion as the Leinster man is one of the most influential Irish players and is simply irreplaceable. Six Nations glory would not have been possible without him.

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