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)
New Zealander Gatland will leave his post after the World Cup in Japan later this year, ending a reign highlighted by a Six Nations record three Grand Slams.
He has already been linked with succeeding Eddie Jones as England boss, possibly moving to France and heading up the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa.
Asked if he could see Gatland coaching England or France, Jones said: “I think we have got him on residency now haven’t we, so he can’t.
“In professional sport, you never say never.
“I am sure he will have a little bit of time off and take a break away from it, I should imagine, and then decide what he wants to do. If he does, we wish him well.”
Jones, Gatland and Wales’ Six Nations title and Grand Slam-winning players were greeted by about 1,000 fans on the Senedd steps in Cardiff Bay during a reception hosted by the National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Government on Monday.
It came just 48 hours after Wales claimed their first Grand Slam for seven years and first Six Nations title since 2013 by beating Ireland 25-7 in Cardiff.
Asked about Gatland and the 2021 Lions, Jones added: “If you are asking if his hand is up for the running, it is going to be, isn’t it?
“When you have the experiences he has had in the last campaigns, in particular with the Lions, his name is going to be bandied about in those realms.
“There are other coaches’ names that are going to be in the ring as well, but it is easy as a player – you can just sit back and watch that sort of stuff.
“There will be a few people with even bigger selection headaches than the coaches do.”
Wales’ Six Nations triumph means they will head to the World Cup as major title contenders, and they are already being tipped by many pundits to at least match their semi-final achievement of 2011.
Josh Adams, Alun Wyn Jones, Hadleigh Parkes and Liam Williams are four of our #GrandSlam heroes up for #GuinnessSixNations Player of the Championship! Full story: https://t.co/2RrIGu79wE— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) 18 March 2019
VOTE HERE 🗳️ https://t.co/gKIpOTWTP4 pic.twitter.com/0Mf8aAxyN0
“It is very easy for other teams now to say we are going to be putting our hands up, to take the pressure off themselves,” Jones said.
“People will pick apart the deficiencies we still have in our game. If we didn’t have that, there would be no point in us being here.
“We are well aware of that, and Gats is always a coach who puts us under pressure and challenges us, irrelevant of games.
“Everyone dreams – we all dream – but there is work still to do. We are comfortable with the deficiencies we have, and we will work on them. We will see what happens.
“We have had a bit of luck (in the Six Nations) – whether it was a bounce of the ball or a decision a referee has made.
“We are not going to bemoan the fact that we did have a bit of luck in the competition, but a lot of graft went into our performances, even though at times we were unconvincing and let opportunities slip.
“We have been very real about that for the entire campaign. I said in the post-match (after Ireland) there is a lot you can do with a bit of hard work and luck. In its simplest form, that is what we showed.”
Gatland, meanwhile, told supporters: “I promise you that these guys will give 100 per cent in every game at the World Cup, and if we play as well as we have for the last year, then we can bring home the World Cup.
“I know that these guys won’t go down in any match without a fight. You need a little bit of luck and hopefully we don’t pick up too many injuries.
“I assure you that we will go there with some confidence and belief that we can have a great tournament.”
And when a supporter in the crowd advised Gatland not to go to England, he replied: “I would never be allowed back across the Severn Bridge.
“I’ve loved it here and there are no plans at the moment. I am going to finish the World Cup and take a break. Then maybe, with a bit of luck, somebody offers me a job.”
The dust is just about settling on a pulsating Six Nations championship, with Wales earning their first title in six years and an unprecedented third Grand Slam under Warren Gatland.
The tournament served as a tasty appetiser to the main course to come later in the year – the World Cup in Japan. With New Zealand far from unbeatable, the northern hemisphere sides will feel they have a better chance than in any of the previous two tournaments to prevent an All Blacks’ three-peat.
Even though England and Ireland need to head back to the drawing board after a puzzling tournament, they are still powerhouses, while Scotland once again showed their exciting attacking prowess and are making strides forward.
We take a look back at the last six weeks of action and hand out our Six Nations awards.
He may be 33 but the Welsh second row doesn’t appear to be slowing down as he celebrated matching Gethin Jenkins’ overall Wales and British & Irish Lions caps record (134) by leading his side to a monumental Grand Slam. It was a historic third under Warren Gatland and the Ospreys stalwart has been around for all three.
Despite in the twilight of his career and making his Wales bow 13 years ago, Jones shows no signs of slowing down and, if anything, looks like he has years left in the tank.
He was immense for Wales and among the top performers in several categories. He recorded the fifth most tackles (71) and joint sixth most offloads (three) in the championship.
He played the fourth most minutes (350) for Wales, had the fourth highest amount of carries, and beat more defenders (two) than any other man in red on Saturday.
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.
Named as a replacement to rest his weary bones against Italy, it was the veteran lock Gatland summoned from the bench in the 63rd minute to restore order and calm in an error-strewn performance in Rome which was threatening to get out of the Dragons’ grip.
First given the captaincy in 2017 by interim coach Rob Howley, Jones is revelling in the role.
Who else? Although the New Zealander will be hoping to bring the curtain down on his Wales tenure in perfect fashion with a maiden World Cup triumph for the Dragons, this was a fitting way to close the Six Nations chapter of his reign.
Billed as title challengers but coming into the tournament under the radar as third favourites behind Ireland and England, Wales stormed into contention with a gritty 21-13 victory over old enemy England in Cardiff in round three.
The Dragons did it the hard way with three away games and the Irish and English at home was bound to be pivotal. Despite being far from marauding in narrow wins over Scotland, Italy and France, Wales were mighty in both of their toughest tests.
Resisting everything England could throw at them while clinically scoring twice, before simply having too much for the vanquished Irish, who were kept scoreless for 80 minutes.
JONNY MAY (6)
Tipped by many to pick up this accolade before the tournament and the England flyer didn’t disappoint – wrestling the award away from Ireland speedster Jacob Stockdale.
The clinical Leicester Tigers man roared to six scores and went over the whitewash in every game bar a cagey affair in Cardiff – the highlight a devastating hat-trick bagged against hapless France in round two.
At their best, England possess a deadly finisher capable of contributing to or finishing off classy moves. At their worst, magical May is capable of creating something from nothing.
OWEN FARRELL (59)
His tournament ended in acrimony as he was taken off by head coach Eddie Jones with 10 minutes to go against Scotland as his erratic play and lack of discipline had contributed to Scotland’s remarkable comeback.
He could have left the field earlier had a shoulder charge on Scotland’s Darcy Graham not gone unpunished. But there is no doubting the quality and leadership England’s No10 possesses.
For the most part it was his dazzling array of skills and kicking prowess that was on show throughout the six weeks – highlighted by him scoring 59 points (16 more than anyone else).
ENGLAND 38 SCOTLAND 38
Easiest choice of the lot. Little was riding on this game – apart from the Calcutta Cup and the fact neither set of fans really like one another. But after Wales had blitzed Ireland to secure the title and Grand Slam earlier in the day, it was feared there would be a flat atmosphere inside Twickenham.
But the hosts – determined perhaps to put on a spectacle for their deserving fans – stormed out of the blocks with the bonus point fourth try secured 12 minutes before half-time.
Game over, right? Oh, how wrong could we be. Stuart McInally’s lung-busting effort lit the blue touch paper and from there a sea of dark blue washed over Rugby HQ as the Red Rose were washed away by the most brilliant Scottish fightback.
Two for Graham and one try each for Magnus Bradbury, Finn Russell and Sam Johnson unfathomably saw Scotland erase a 31-0 deficit after 29 minutes. Thirty minutes later Russell’s converted score made it 31-31 before they took the lead with four minutes to go.
George Ford sniped over to break Scottish hearts but it only served to cap the craziest of games.
DARCY GRAHAM (SCOTLAND)
Scotland could have had legitimate argument for a top five tries of the tournament on their own – with hooker McInally outstripping both Farrell and lightning winger May to sprint 70 metres for a breathtaking score after charging down Farrell’s kick well inside his own half.
But for sheer aesthetics we’re giving it to the Dark Blues for their second try in a mesmeric comeback at Twickenham. String-puller Russell sparked the move, which involved lightning hands from Johnson, Ali Price, Sean Maitland and Price once more, before determination and strength from Graham saw him power past three would-be tacklers to dive over the whitewash. Amazing.
WALES BEAT ENGLAND TO MAKE HISTORY
In a championship that was, as usual, full of highlights, the award goes to champions Wales for their record-setting run to 14 wins.
They smashed a 109-year-old record in the process and had to beat England in order to re-write history. The run began in last year’s tournament – a 38-14 triumph over Italy at the Millennium Stadium – and has since gathered more eye-catching victories over Australia, South Africa and Argentina (both twice), England and Ireland.
The fact that a new record was set in front of their own fans, against their fiercest rivals, England, in round three, was all the more special.
HADLEIGH PARKES (WALES)
The 31-year-old Kiwi is a late bloomer in terms of international rugby – earning his Dragons’ debut only in the autumn internationals of 2017, aged 30.
In 15 caps since though he has become an integral component of the Welsh squad – forming a rock solid partnership in midfield with Jonathan Davies.
He has slotted seamlessly into the No12 jersey vacated by battering ram Jamie Roberts, matching his intensity and appetite for hard work, as well as inputting a fair bit of flair and skill.
He saved his best performance for last, setting the tone against Ireland in attack by getting on the end of Gareth Anscombe’s clever chip to put Wales in the ascendancy. In defence, meanwhile, his gallant chase and sublime tackle to deny Jacob Stockdale a certain try, will live long in the memory of Welsh fans.
DARCY GRAHAM (SCOTLAND)
Blair Kinghorn pushed him close – scoring a hat-trick on debut against Italy (Scotland’s first in the championship for 30 years) – but the diminutive Edinburgh wing came into his own in the latter stages of the tournament.
The 21-year-old would have been a complete unknown outside Scotland before the tournament kicked off and didn’t even feature in the first two games – getting his second cap off the bench against France, a 15-minute cameo.
He starred as a replacement in the next game, giving everyone a glimpse of his explosive speed and fearlessness with a darting run in the first half that almost led to a try against Wales. He did score in the second half as he finished off a stunning passing move orchestrated by Russell before being forced off injured.
He recovered to feature against England on the final day and shone in a stunning second half comeback with his trademark speed and toughness again on show in his brace of tries, as Scotland came back from the dead to secure a memorable 38-38 draw.