Six Nations 2014: 10 Players Who Enhanced Their Reputations
There were plenty of brilliant individual displays in this year's Six Nations, with the 16-strong short list for official player of the tournament proving how many outstanding performances there were.
But these 10 are also about those who stepped it up a notch.
Those who have not made this final 10, while performing at a high level, merely confirmed how good we know they are rather than move the bar even higher.
Such men as Rob Kearney and Cian Healy both reaffirmed their status as world-class operators, as did Paul O’Connell.
England’s duo of flankers, Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood, both picked up where they left off from their autumn performances, while Yoann Huget of France cemented his reputation as a master poacher and finisher, and Louis Picamoles likewise as a bludgeoning ball-carrier.
In Wales, a curate’s egg of a championship saw some high notes from Sam Warburton against France at his scavenging best. George North still knows his way to the try line, but there was no evidence that anyone in a red jersey got better.
This list is about those who have boosted their status, elevated themselves to the next level and screwed their name plates above their dressing room seats just that bit tighter into the wall.
1. Owen Farrell
Farrell gets better with each block of England involvement.
Before the tournament, this columnist questioned whether the Saracens man had the style to unleash the England backs.
He was standing a little too deep and there didn’t seem much spark coming from England’s No. 10 in the autumn internationals.
But it seems he has worked on this aspect of his game and, in this Six Nations, firmly established himself as the man for the job.
The clamour for Bath’s George Ford to be thrown in seemed only to galvanise the incumbent fly-half, and it would seem now that Farrell is set fair for the starting spot—injury and a drastic loss of form notwithstanding.
2. Michele Campagnaro
After a tournament that brought five straight defeats for Italy, there will be little they’ll want to remember about the 2014 Six Nations.
But amidst the misery, there were performances from some young players that point to a brighter future.
While their pack proved as belligerent as ever, out wide we saw signs that there is more penetration to their back line, largely thanks to an impressive debut for their new outside centre.
Michele Campagnaro announced himself on the international stage with a brace of tries against Wales on opening weekend and played consistently well throughout the tournament.
It should not be long before the 21-year-old is moving on from Italian club side Treviso.
3. Andrew Trimble
The Ulsterman played ahead of Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden and proved one of the best wings in the competition.
He scored tries against Scotland, Italy and France, as well as making the decisive break in Paris that led to Jonny Sexton’s second try.
A player who has had plenty of chances to seal his spot in the side has always found himself dropped for other options considered to have more of an X-factor, but, as the Belfast Telegraph’s Michael Sadlier said: “The winger's form in this campaign has been revelatory and he has amply demonstrated that he can do so much more at this level than merely kick-chase with accuracy.”
4. Luther Burrell
There haven’t been many better first-time Six Nations campaigns than the one Burrell enjoyed.
The Northampton man looked ready to go from the first whistle, scoring tries against France and Scotland that confirmed his ability as a runner of brutal simplicity.
He also showed better distribution skills than many gave him credit for, and in defence North was solid as a rock.
We saw more of his finishing ability for his try against Wales, diving full stretch to ground Billy Twelvetrees’ deft grubber kick through the defence.
He was visibly despondent when replaced in England’s final game against Italy for the returning Manu Tuilagi, who promptly reminded everyone of his ability with a tackle-busting try.
Burrell knows he has tough competition for that No. 13 shirt, but he also knows he has deposited a sizeable chunk of credit in the bank of manager Stuart Lancaster.
5. Billy Twelvetrees
A mixed autumn bag left the jury out on Twelvetrees as an international inside centre. He was deposited on his backside by Australia’s Matt Toomua for a try in November, and his new partnership with Joel Tomkins looked about as successful as a union between oil and water.
He got better as the series progressed, however, and did not look out of place in England’s gallant performance against New Zealand. Come the Six Nations, injuries to Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt meant Twelvetrees would continue in the No. 12 shirt, and he continued on an upward curve.
Looking more confident in his distribution and as a second kicking option outside Owen Farrell, he forged a dangerous partnership with Luther Burrell and has given Lancaster a genuine dilemma once all his options are fit and firing.
With Burrell, Tuilagi, Barritt and the code-crossing Sam Burgess in the mix, the problem centre area suddenly looks like a department rich in options.
6. Danny Care
Care’s on-off relationship with the England No. 9 shirt finally looks like being the match made in rugby heaven his talent has always suggested it could be.
We have seen discipline issues on the field—remember the shove that caused Martin Johnson to do this—drinking problems off it, and the emergence of Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson, both of whom moved up the queue ahead of the Harlequins man.
In the autumn, Dickson was given the chance to stake his claim, but by the time the Six Nations rolled around, Care’s form for his club had been so good, Lancaster had to pick him. And how the former Leeds man has repaid his fellow Yorkshireman.
Care’s electric pace from the base caused loose defences no end of problems, and his penchant for tapping and going from penalties was used intelligently rather than as the default option he used to rely on.
His try for England against Wales was evidence of a player making the right call at the right time.
His pass has had a snap to it that used to be called into question, and there is less of the shuffle before delivery that used to send his backline crabbing across the field.
On this form, Care will take some shifting.
7. Brice Dulin
France had a miserable tournament for the second year running and still ended up with a chance to win it on the final day.
One of the reasons was their full-back, Brice Dulin.
The Castres man is something of a throwback to the counterattacking days of Serge Blanco. He ran the ball back with real menace in his angles and timed his run perfectly to accept Yoann Huget’s tip-down for his try against Ireland.
Dulin looked promising when brought into the side in the autumn and played under a coach who seems to apply little rhyme nor reason to his selection. He held down his berth throughout the tournament and got better as it went on.
France have found a gem in Dulin.
8. Joe Launchbury
One moment in a five-game tournament doesn’t make a stellar showing across the board, but it can sum up a player’s quality.
That moment for Joe Launchbury came against Ireland. England had battled their way into the lead, but Ireland were close to forcing a break in the white defensive wall.
Dave Kearney worked into space on England’s right flank and he sprinted into it. Launchbury, with the brains to sense the danger and the pace to do something about it, gobbled up the turf and launched his huge frame at the Leinster man, bringing him down by the ankle and stifling a probable try-scoring move.
It was the headline-grabbing moment for the Wasps second row in a tournament that saw him go from hugely promising youngster to Lion-in-waiting thanks to his tireless effort in defence, powerful running and solid set-piece work.
9. Courtney Lawes
Lawes came into the Six Nations having shown in the autumn that he was growing into a commander of men, not just one of the team’s battering rams.
He took on the lineout calling job and did it well, and Lawes continued to roam the field making hits and carrying the ball with a work rate approaching maniacal.
In the Six Nations, he proved that in tight games with points at stake, he had the ability to increase his work level further, equaling the stature and presence of Lions like Paul O’Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones.
The latter went as far as to say he believed if there were a Lions tour this year, right now, Lawes and his mate Joe Launchbury would both be on it.
10. Mike Brown
Having been picked by Stuart Lancaster out of position on the wing when the coach first selected him, Brown was shifted to full-back for the 2013 autumn internationals and played well there.
He displayed safety under the high ball, an ability to beat the first defender and showing a keen eye for a counter attack.
He retained his position for the 2014 Six Nations and continued to do all those things, but did them to an even higher standard. His stats in terms of defenders beaten and breaks made were impressive in their own right, but you have to go into the nuances a little more for a full picture of how well he performed.
He reached his zenith in the defeat of Ireland, when he also demonstrated an ability to innovate in defence with his Peter Schmeichel-style save of a Brian O’Driscoll hack.
And his scything run that created Danny Care’s try was reminiscent of Christian Cullen in his pomp.
The Harlequins man also added tries to his game, scoring against France, Scotland and Italy (twice).
Brown went in as a solid, improving international full-back and emerged as the player of the tournament—and the form rugby player in all of Europe.