Wales have won a memorable third Grand Slam in coach Warren Gatland’s final Six Nations and there were many diamonds in the Dragons’ ranks as they secured a first title in six years.
They broke the dominance England and Ireland had held over the tournament in recent years, with those two teams now needed to dig deep and regroup in time for the World Cup later this year.
There were many standout performers throughout the six weeks of action. England’s Jonny May finished as top try scorer, while fly-half Owen Farrell scored the most points, with no-one making more metres than Ireland flyer Jacob Stockdale.
But who has made our best XV and who has fallen short? Here is our Six Nations team of the tournament:
1 ROB EVANS (WALES)
One of the most improved players in the Gatland era, possessing the ability to become a world-class prop. Maturing Evans is strong in the set-piece and mobile around the park, plus is also cutting out the mistakes and indiscipline too.
It’s perhaps not surprising the 26-year-old is rapidly maturing – his father Graham is a teacher and recently accompanied Rob on a trip to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street as part of the St David’s Day celebrations, having been invited by Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb, a former pupil of Evans Senior.
He forced two turnovers during the Six Nations to lie only behind Adam Beard, Josh Navidi and Jonathan Davies in the Welsh ranks and has made the loosehead prop jersey his own.
2 KEN OWENS (WALES)
‘The Sherriff’ is an integral member of this talented Welsh squad, but yet another who had to play deputy for long periods of his early career.
Backed for Wales honours from an early age after being handed his Scarlets debut at 20, it was 24 before he donned the red jersey. Often playing back-up to Matthew Rees, with Richard Hibbard and Scott Baldwin also blocking his path.
But he surpassed Rees as Wales’ most capped hooker during the tournament and is now laying down the law for Gatland.
A warrior who always shows full-blooded commitment, Owens has become a dynamic and athletic hooker with a voracious work ethic and a true team mentality.
His commitment can be summed up by the fact he played in an alien No8 role for Scarlets against the Dragons and Leicester at the start of the year.
3 KYLE SINCKLER (ENGLAND)
In this modern era of the dynamic, mobile forward, Sinkler is a true standout. A mammoth prop who has pace to burn, he is a devastating weapon – if only he could control his temper and emotions.
He has his disciplinary issues for sure – they famously came to the fore in England’s derailing defeat in Cardiff when he was hauled off by Eddie Jones after conceding a momentum-shifting brace of penalties. But the Harlequins man is a hurricane of a player.
He is difficult to stop either using brute force or a surprising turn of pace. A number of behavioral flaws still need to be ironed out – Sinckler slapped French lock Arthur Iturria on the back of the head during ‘Le Crunch’.
But there is a great player in there, somewhere.
4 ALUN-WYN JONES (WALES)
Mr Dependable just gets better with age – his infectious drive, determination and spirit was a huge factor in a defensively solid and occasionally expansive Wales surging to a third Grand Slam under Gatland.
Jones is the only player to have been involved in all three and his presence in a Wales squad now blessed with immense depth is a testament to his longevity.
A warrior and a leader, Jones’ powers of leadership and bravery often gloss over his impressive statistics. In the battling opening night victory in Paris, he made each of the 15 tackles he attempted as Wales completed a memorable comeback win, pushing his troops forward and instilling the belief that the impossible was in fact possible.
Jones embodies Wales – pride, passion, fearless and ferocious. He leads by example and is never found wanting, playing through the pain against Ireland after twisting his knee early in the game.
5 JAMES RYAN (IRELAND)
Played his way into the tournament and subsequently this team – the only Irishman to do so.
Stockdale struggled to have the same impact from a year ago, his two tries paling in comparison to seven that helped him earn the tournament’s best player, but was still a threat, while Keith Earls and Cian Healy can also hold their heads high.
But Ryan was the only real Irish standout – just keeping the consistent George Kruis out of the number-five spot. He had similar tackle and lineout stats over four games as Kruis over five, but was more effective in his carries – 63 (second only to Billy Vunipola) for 74 metres to Kruis’ 21 for 36.
In his four games, Ryan’s 34 gainline successes were also over double his nearest second row rival, Federico Ruzza, who had 15.
6 JOSH NAVIDI (WALES)
An absolute workhorse and a key contributor to a fearsome back row that has made light of the fact they lost influential former captain Sam Warburton to forced early retirement last summer, as well as Taulupe Faletau on the eve of the Six Nations.
Ironically, Warburton was a massive reason why a four-year gap existed between Navidi’s Wales debut in 2013 and his second cap in 2017 – he’s 28 yet has just played just 16 times for his nation.
Injury wiped out most of 2018 but he’s certainly making up for lost time, having only truly established himself in his late 20s. He is a beast at the breakdown, his four turnovers was joint fourth in the championship, while only England’s Tom Curry made more tackles than Navidi’s monstrous 83. Speaking of Curry…
7 TOM CURRY (ENGLAND)
England’s best player by some distance. Played with a confidence and maturity that belied his 20 years.
Played every game for England and scored two tries, including an ingenious bit of play to give the Red Rose the lead in Cardiff and in the rollercoaster finale against Scotland.
A tackling machine, the taped-headed warrior made 86 in total – three more than Navidi – which has led to a place on the shortlist for the Six Nations Player of the Championship accolade.
In 2017, Curry became the youngest forward to play for England in more than a century. It hasn’t taken long for him to come of age.
8 BILLY VUNIPOLA (ENGLAND)
Curry, Jonny May and Henry Slade will perhaps get more of the attention due to their try-scoring, but English fans and staff will have been delighted to see the big man back, staying injury free throughout the tournament and looking back to his blistering best.
It’s been hard enough keeping the 26-year-old Brisbane-born behemoth out of the physio’s room in recent years, but there’s no doubt why so much persistence and faith is shown in the Saracens man as he a destructive force when fit and on the field.
Led the tournament in carries (71) and made 231 metres – 10th most but the highest figure of any forward.
9 ANTOINE DUPONT (FRANCE)
In a position where there are several talents but no-one really stood out, Dupont gets the nod – mainly for how mature he was when taking the reins after Jaques Brunel dispensed with the tried and tested partnership of Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez in the opener against Wales.
True, Les Bleus did enough for victory and would have won but for two horrendous blunders. But the veteran duo hardly covered themselves in glory with missed kicks also costing them, and after replacing them with Toulouse tandem Dupont and Romain N’tamack, France belatedly looked more threatening.
The 22-year-old has had to wait in line for his chance behind the likes of Parra, Maxime Machenaud and Baptiste Serin.
After the lethal runner was named starter he repaid the faith by figuring prominently among stats for clean breaks (eight), defenders beaten (17), offloads (seven) and even turnovers won (seven), as well as scoring in the final day victory over Italy.
10 FINN RUSSELL (SCOTLAND)
The box of tricks has long been admired for his array of skills and shrewd, at times scintillating, orchestral control of a game. But his immaturity and lack of patience has led to a stuttering career.
And yet, he grew in stature and leadership throughout this year’s tournament, able to showcase his packed arsenal of playmaking abilities, while displaying a more measured, calm and rhythmic dictating of proceedings.
Was arguably the tournament’s most-entertaining player and had the most try-scoring assists with four, his pass for Darcy Graham’s try against Wales was a thing of beauty.
Still makes a risky play too often. But when his gambles come off, they are usually spectacular.
11 JOHNNY MAY (ENGLAND)
Simply electric, the best in his position on the planet and capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.
The 28-year-old has always been blessed with great pace, but in the last 12 months we have really seen him harnessing his frightening speed and marrying it with game intelligence to launch himself into the realms of the game’s modern greats.
Before the 2018 Six Nations, May had 10 England tries in 29 Red Rose appearances. The Leicester Tigers tyro has since roared over the whitewash for 14 in his next 16 appearances to truly establish himself on the world stage.
12 HADLEIGH PARKES (WALES)
An unsung hero. He’s an eye-catching player in his own right and while he brings grit and ballast to the inside centre role, he also possesses ingenuity and insight.
Parkes gets through a mountain of work and is often a game-changer, scoring four tries in a fledgling Wales career from which he has amassed 15 caps.
Much more than a battering ram like predecessor Jamie Roberts, Parkes consistently generates momentum over the gainline.
His transition into the Welsh set-up has been seamless, considering he only made his Wales bow a little over a year ago, yet now he’s arguably the first name on Gatland’s teamsheet.
13 HENRY SLADE (ENGLAND)
Faded a little after a blistering performance in the rousing opening day victory over Ireland, but an emerging force capable of brilliance in open space and also able to ghost through gaps.
This was arguably the toughest call as Wales lynchpin Jonathan Davies was also brilliant on his return to the fold, but the Exeter Chiefs pivot edges it with perhaps a slightly sharper cutting edge.
He scored three tries and showed brilliant pace and fantastic hands for his double against Ireland, while his two try assists placed him joint third, only seven players made more metres – and they were all three-quarters.
14 JOSH ADAMS (WALES)
Wales have unearthed a star. Outshining George North is not an easy feat for a Welsh winger and while he has had his injury concerns in recent years, the north Walian has remained his nation’s shining light in the back line.
That was until this tournament, with the 23-year-old Worcester Warriors wing wizard putting in some incredible performances – scoring three tries, with his England and Scotland scores standing out for poise and sheer pace.
It’s hard to believe he has gone from being dropped halfway through last year’s championship by Gatland, to earning a spot on the six-man shortlist for the Player of the Championship a year later.
With a shade of the Shane Williams about him, Wales certainly haven’t had an elusive threat out wide since the heady days of the fourth highest tryscorer in international rugby, who retired from international rugby eight years ago.
15 LIAM WILLIAMS (WALES)
Another player who has had to play second fiddle during the early throes of his career, Williams is often cursed by his versatility, capable of slotting in anywhere along the back three.
And with Wales and British & Irish Lions legend Leigh Halfpenny said to be nearing a return to the fold on the eve of the tournament following his concussion in the autumn, Williams was deemed to be in a dogfight for a starting berth.
And yet Halfpenny did not play a minute, while Williams is the fourth Welshman to make the shortlist for the tournament’s best player.
A showman and a warrior, Williams is part beast, part entertainer. He put in a man of the match performance in against England where he not only carried with his usual class, but relieved pressure under the high ball to nullify England’s kicking game – his technique under the high ball is unrivalled.
Forwards: Braam Steyn (Italy), Justin Tipuric (Wales), George Kruis (England), Cian Healy (Ireland)
Backs: Darcy Graham (Scotland), Dan Biggar (Wales), Ben Youngs (England)
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