And the winner is...
March 22, 2012
Wales were undoubtedly the class act of this year's Six Nations © Getty Images
The Six Nations came to a another thrilling conclusion in Cardiff at the weekend after a month and a half of action. So this week's Scrum Sevens doles out the coveted annual Six Nations awards.
Best player: Dan Lydiate (Wales)
The song of the unsung hero has seldom been so deafening. Lydiate has long been appreciated within the Welsh ranks and by close observers, but by the end of the Six Nations even the most casual watchers had joined the chorus of praise. And deservedly so. He missed Wales' opening win over Ireland in Dublin but started every other games, picking up man of the match awards against Scotland and France. His destructive tackling, huge workload and aggressive rucking were all central to Wales' game plan and ultimate Grand Slam triumph. Rob Kearney, David Denton, Tom Croft and Leigh Halfpenny all deserve a tip of the cap.
Best try: Jonathan Davies (Wales v Ireland)
This was by no means a vintage year for attacking flair - but the tournament threw up some terrific individual tries. Scott Williams ripped the ball from the giant claws of Courtney Lawes before chipping and chasing and diving under the Twickenham posts. Richie Gray thundered through the Irish defence before fooling Rob Kearney with a suggestive glance to the wing. While Croft and Alex Cuthbert both cut through the French defences with true class. However, Davies' score against Ireland had the lot: accuracy at the lineout, neat handling in midfield and a devastating injection of power and pace from George North before he slipped a sublime pass to Davies, who finished the move with aplomb.
Best newcomer: Owen Farrell (England)
The quadrennial clear-out following the Rugby World Cup created many chances for new talent to take centre stage. And how they responded. No.8 Denton showed the power and skill, especially in the opening games, to suggest he could one of those rare beasts - a Scottish Lion. France's Fofana proved he will be a star in spite of the French management (mis-management if you like). Cuthbert's emergence almost left fellow winger North in the shadows while Ben Morgan was a revelation in the England back-row. However, it has to be Owen Farrell. It's easy to forget the England fly-half is only 20; he looks like he's 15 and plays like's he's 28. But over the course of five matches he went from a fledgling debutant to an essential leader in Stuart Lancaster's side, exemplifying the coach's call for players to take ownership of the team.
Best match: Ireland v Wales
The quality of rugby varied significantly throughout the tournament but it never suffered for a lack of drama or passion. In Paris England raced into a strong lead thanks to barnstorming tries from Manu Tuilagi and Ben Foden. France reacted before Croft scorched through the French lines. France responded. But Francois Trinh-Duc's last-ditch bid for glory fell short. At Twickenham Owen Farrell kicked England into a 12-6 lead in a terrific contest. Leigh Halfpenny leveled the scores with nine minutes remaining and Scott Williams's try put Wales on the brink of a Triple Crown. Then in the final act David Strettle scored in the corner - only he didn't. The television match official deliberated for ever and ultimately Wales celebrated for longer.
But Wales' dramatic victory in Dublin gave the championships an explosive opening and set a standard that was never quite matched. Ireland led 13-5 with half an hour remaining and were on course for their anticipated tilt at the title. But Wales, bursting with resolve, fitness and belief, roared back with great scores from Jonathan Davies and George North despite the sin-binning of Bradley Davies. Leigh Halfpenny eventually stood up to kick the match-winning penalty in the final minute after Stepehn Ferris's dangerous tackle.
Best tackle: Owen Farrell (on Imanol Harinordoquy)
Lydaite was the best tackler throughout the tournament and pulled off a couple of crackers on Fofana and Thierry Dusautoir in particular. Chris Ashton also enjoyed flooring a Frenchman when he smashed Dimitri Szarzewski on the Stade de France half way line - halting a France attack and leading to a try for Manu Tuilagi.
But Farrell's hit on Harinordoquy in the same game was huge. France were flooding forward, consistently bursting through England's barricades, as they swept towards their opponent's line with a seemingly unstoppable momentum. And then Farrell stepped forward, threw his shoulder into the mid-rift of the rampaging No.8 and sent a shudder down the spine of the French team. It killed France's momentum and spirit, in the move and the match.
Worst decision: Dave Pearson (Bradley Davies yellow card)
Coaches always say all they want from referees is consistency. That, and the decision in their favour of course. But the officials' failure to react to similar incidents with similar responses was a real blight on this Six Nations, especially when it was the same referee, in the same match, and sometimes in the same half. A few Alain Rolland gaffes spring to mind. The sin-binning of Scotland's Jim Hamilton in Rome followed minutes later by Italy conceding just a penalty for the same offence at a lineout in their 22. Then there was Rolland's ridiculous decision to yellow card Charlie Sharples for a deliberate knock-on in Paris before failing to dish out the same punishment for the same crime to Fofana.
However, there is no question about the winner: the yellow card for Bradley Davies' off-the-ball tip tackle on Donnacha Ryan. Referee Wayne Barnes copped the immediate criticism but it was his assistant Pearson's call. And a shocking one, which further clouded the murky waters of how referees react to dangerous tackles. Davies' eventual seven-week went some way to underlining the severity of the incident. Also, a mention for Dan Parks and his choice to answer Scotland's SOS and appear in one last international appearance. It ended in him conceding a charge-down try that cost Scotland victory over England and led to another truck-load of abuse for the fly-half.
Biggest flop: France
There's a strong argument here for Scotland to pick up their first silverware of the Six Nations (wooden spoons obviously excluded). Andy Robinson's men showed some promise against England and France but they got worse as the tournament went on, ending with a pitiful performance in Rome. Five defeats from five says it all.
However, expectations should be factored in. Did anyone real expect Scotland not to flatter to deceive? While so much was expected from France. They possessed all the ammunition to blow away the opposition and set up a Grand Slam showdown in Cardiff on the final weekend. If they could reach the World Cup final on player power alone, what could they do when they had a credible coach in charge? Nothing, as it turned out. Their defence was utterly shambolic until their final game against Wales; their attack was blunt bar the individual skill of Fofana; and their appetite for a battle was entirely absent for much of the tournament.
Worthy mentions also go to Ireland scrum against England, all of Italy's half-backs, Aurelien Rougerie, Lionel Beauxis, Philippe Saint Andre, Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Parks - but it would be unfair to mention him again so we won't.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The Monday Maul turns its attention to drunken nights out, a blunt-talking coach, hidden agendas and crooked feeds
He teed up Obolensky's try, fought in Burma and played cricket for Warwickshire - we Rewind to look at the story of Peter Cranmer
With the World Cup just a year away, Tom Hamilton picks out five matches to ensure you have tickets for
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game