PARIS // Hits and misses of the Six Nations which finished with England winning their first Grand Slam since 2003:
HIT: Maro Itoje (England)
London-born Itoje has long been touted as future England captain, given his age-grade precociousness wearing the armband. Having missed the cut for England’s 31-man World Cup squad, Saracens lock Itoje was handed his first-team debut against Italy. The 21-year-old forward, studying politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, properly announced his arrival on the international stage with a startling man-of-the-match display in England’s victory over Wales. Masterful in the attacking line-out, Itoje was rampant at the breakdown and a sure ball carrier.
HIT: Michele Campagnaro (Italy)
He might have missed Italy’s final match against Wales, but the 23-year-old Exeter centre has shone in a team on the backfoot throughout the championship. Since a two-try showing against Wales in his first Six Nations match in 2014, Campagnaro has proved himself to be a versatile, attacking centre with an ever-hardening defence outside Argentina-born midfield partner Gonzalo Garcia.
HIT: Guilhem Guirado (France)
The new France captain was the standout player for a stuttering team that at times faltered badly under newly appointed coach Guy Noves. Whether the latter’s game plan was left on the training pitch or the players were simply unable to carry it through, one shone through: Guirado. The Toulon hooker was indefatigable, even turning out for his club during one of the Six Nations breaks. Ever-ready in the loose, Guirado was one of France’s effective go-to ball carriers while also packing a punch in defence, his tackle on Dave Kearney unfortunately seeing the Ireland winger’s tournament come to a premature end.
HIT: WP Nel (Scotland)
South African-born prop has shorn up the Scotland scrum. Signed by the Scottish Rugby Union in 2012 as one of their “project players”, Nel became eligible for Scotland after having served his three years of residency, playing for Edinburgh. Criticised by many for his mercenary approach and the union under fire for having signed a prop not seemingly good enough to cut it for the Springboks, Nel has become the northern hemisphere’s leading tighthead. A master of the scrum, the 29-year-old Loeriesfontein native has also proved a valuable addition to the Scotland XV in the loose.
HIT: George North (Wales)
The Northampton winger went into Wales’ final game against Italy as the top attacker in the tournament, topping the charts of defenders beaten, tries, metres made and clean breaks. He didn’t disappoint in the nine-try 67-14 romp against the Italians, named man-of-the-match after clocking up another 143 metres and touching down for a fourth try in successive games.
HIT: Billy Vunipola (Englad)
The one that got away from Wales? Although Pontypool childhood friends with Welsh No 8 Taulupe Faletau, Vunipola’s destiny was always England, notably after winning a scholarship to Harrow School. The 23-year-old Saracens backrower has previously come under fire for his fluctuating weight, but new coach Eddie Jones quickly installed Vunipola at the base of the scrum and told him to “play like a Tongan”. And Vunipola, weighing in at 126kgs, has done just that, putting in man-of-the-match performances against Scotland, Ireland and France.
MISS: Jules Plisson (France)
The Stade Francais fly-half, it is fair to say, did not enjoy his most memorable championship. In France’s loss to Wales, it seemed everything he did failed, a botched defensive cover handing the Welsh the upper hand. Coach Guy Noves duly dropped him to the bench to bring in Francois Trinh-Duc and will be hoping Plisson can go on to reproduce his club form when France travel to Argentina in the summer.
MISS: Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
The Leinster man failed to live up to his exalted standings. Targeted for a nasty off-ball tackle by Yoann Maestri in the match against France, Sexton was asked to perform behind a misfunctioning pack that had been forced into a series of injury replacements following last year’s World Cup. One to forget for the Ireland No 10.
MISS: Alex Cuthbert (Wales)
Coming off the back of a miserable World Cup in which he was much criticised for his defence that led to the try that gave South African victory in the quarter-finals, Cuthbert’s confidence had already been shaken when Warren Gatland dropped him after a dip in form. The Cardiff Blues winger seemed to have refound his élan, however, before a defensive shocker against England when he missed five tackles. He didn’t feature in Wales’ match-day 23 for the final game against Italy.
MISS: Sergio Parisse (ITA)
Perhaps a touch harsh to include the dynamo who is Italy’s leading player, one of the best in the world. But his snap decision to go for a last-gasp drop-goal against France changed Italy’s desperate course. For all his versatility, Parisse found himself in the slot with Italy pushing France for what would have been a match-winning try. The No 8 instead attempted a drop goal that went well wide and the referee brought the game to a halt. After that, Italian backs were to the wall in a failed attempt to avoid the wooden spoon.
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