<![CDATA[After three rounds of the 2017 Six Nations a handful of players are shining out. Some are old hands, some are relatively new to this stage but, regardless of their pedigrees, one of the great pleasures of watching this tournament is observing pure class winning out. And with British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland watching on there is the added interest of who will be making the flight to New Zealand in the summer. But let's park that for a few minutes and relish the five players who have excelled thus far:
Joe Launchbury, England, second row. The Wasps man is still only 25 years old, but he has always had the one skill coaches can’t teach, the ability to read the game and act on his interpretation. One of the greatest exponents of this skill in modern times was Leicester and England Number 8 Dean Richards, and it was his innate understanding of the game which allowed him to influence the outcome so often. He was probably one of the slowest back row forwards of his era but sometimes pace isn’t everything. Launchbury reminds many of Richards in his ability to read the game, but in fact he offers more than the great Tiger. He is a line-out jumper, a tackler who never stops, a runner and a calming presence. He’s not much of an attention seeker, more of a quiet and dependable hub, and it’s obvious his England team mates have come to rely on him to do the right thing at the right time, every time. Which is probably why he was man of the match in the Wales and Italy games. Just think about that; a second row forward winning man of the match two internationals running for England.
Alun Wyn Jones, Wales, second row. The Six Nations is blessed in this department but, even amid the sea of giants, Jones is still standing tall, after 108 caps for his nation and six already for the British Lions. He’s like Launchbury, but more vocal and more effective in the maul. He also hits harder in the tackle. Sometimes you have to sit back and appreciate the sheer athleticism of these big men, who one minute are pushing in the scrum and jumping in the line out, and then seconds later are making tackles on the wing, off-loading into the inside channel and leading the defensive maul. It seems ridiculous and unfair on us mere mortals that they can be good at all these things, and Jones remains the leader of the pack. His incredible career is showing no sign of waning and yes, he and his kickers did make a mess of that decision against Scotland, but he gets almost everything else right.
Sergio Parisse, Italy, Number 8. We didn’t think he could keep going did we? But he has, and his wonderful performance against England last weekend will live long in the memory. His understanding and implementation of their unusual tactics, along with his brave scrum half Edoardo Gori, was fascinating to watch and an example of the Number 8’s ability to adapt, even at the age of 33 and with 124 caps under his belt. He loves the ball in hand and in the modern international game it is almost farcical that one player could make so much space and time for himself every time he is on the ball. But he uses a blend of power, balance, instinct and plenty of cunning to ensure each time he does something it has an impact on the game. You might argue it has often been easy to shine in mediocre company but that’s doing Parisse a disservice. He’s a modern great and no rugby fan should take that for granted.
Elliot Daly, England, winger. When the Wasps man was sent off for that terribly timed mid-air tackle on Argentina Number 8 Leonardo Senatore at Twickenham in November, you could see in his face that he was wondering if he had just red-carded his England career. The obvious question was ‘Could Eddie Jones afford to pick players who make this sort of misjudgement?’ But even then there was something stylish about Daly’s demeanour. He knew he’d got it wrong and he looked horrified at himself. And this man is no Chris Ashton; show-boating is not his style and he lets his rugby do all the talking. Just ask Wales. When Dan Biggar made that interception and break in Cardiff the whole tournament was in the balance. But Daly was there to force him to kick and then easily outsprint him to clear the loose ball. And of course he was there to make a fool of Alex Cuthbert and win the game with that try (pictured above) in the corner. He was at it again against Italy. He has a wonderful left boot, bags of pace and a certain old fashioned understatement which is magnetically appealing. It seems Eddie Jones can trust him after all.
Stuart Hogg, Scotland, full back. In Scotland there is a special place for heroes of the past; David Sole, John Jeffrey, Finlay Calder, Gary Armstrong, Gaving Hastings… The names bring a tear to the eye of the Murrayfield faithful, but now they have a new hero. It’s far, far from a one man team, but his name is the first which springs to mind. The boy from the borders has come to represent everything good about rugby. He has pace, flair, strength, dancing feet, beautiful timing, a massive boot and an even bigger grin when it all goes well. He even seems to have ironed out his impetuosity, possibly realising he really does have the whole world in his hands and the only person who can muck that up is himself. There is only one regret in all of this; Bill McLaren, the greatest commentator of them all, is no longer with us to enhance the moment and share the joy.
No front row forwards, no flankers, no half backs, no centres? Yes there’s plenty of them but these five will do for now…]]>