Six Nations awards 2023: Plenty of praise for Ireland and France but not for Wales

Colin Newboult

Following the conclusion of the Six Nations, we take a look back at the Championship and hand out our awards – good and bad – to worthy recipients.

So without further ado, here are our winners and, in some cases, losers.

Best game: Ireland v France

There was plenty of hype leading into this contest and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The first 40 minutes, in particular, was some of the greatest rugby ever played, and the match remained in the balance until the latter stages. Although Ireland gradually took control and eventually ran out 32-19 winners, it was a stunning contest between the best two sides in the world.

Best individual try: Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland) v England

No contest here as the gargantuan wing scorched the Twickenham turf, leaving several Englishmen in his wake as he touched down for a stunning try. It wasn’t just the pace, the strength or the fact that he evaded five would-be tacklers, but his skill to readjust and move the ball into a different hand after stepping Jack van Poortvliet, so that he could fend off Alex Dombrandt, was utterly superb.

Best team try: Thomas Ramos (France) v England

There was some wonderful rugby played by the French throughout the Six Nations, and a few of their scores were in contention, but we’ve settled on their opener against England. It is one thing to put together a great team move against tired legs, but another thing to do it when your opponent is fresh. Their first-minute score, which saw Charles Ollivon, Thibaud Flament and Ethan Dumortier combine to set up Ramos, was absolutely spellbinding.

Best player: Caelan Doris (Ireland)

The tournament where the number eight went from very good international to one of the best in the world. Antoine Dupont ran him close, putting together a series of fine individual efforts despite France’s inconsistent start to the tournament, but Doris was a cut above from the first to the last game. The Leinster man consistently got over the gain line through his power and footwork, and was a talismanic presence during the Championship.

Biggest disappointment: Wales

Warren Gatland’s return was supposed to signal a change in fortunes, but the reality was anything but for the Welsh, who were probably worse than they were under Wayne Pivac. Although they didn’t finish bottom – a victory over Italy was their saving grace – they were abysmal in every other match, failing to get close in their defeats to Ireland, Scotland, England and France.

Best moment: Record-breaking Johnny Sexton

The Ireland fly-half equalled the Six Nations points record against Scotland at Murrayfield before heading to Dublin expecting to break it in their finale. It was not a great start from the Irish as England moved 6-0 in front, but the hosts gradually grew into the game and they earned a kickable three-pointer in the 18th minute. Sexton duly bisected the uprights and the Aviva Stadium erupted, giving him a standing ovation. Andy Farrell’s men would then go on to control the second period and effectively sealed the Grand Slam following Dan Sheehan’s brace and Robbie Henshaw’s try. In what is set to be his final Six Nations match, Sexton would then be taken off with seven minutes remaining, where he was given rapturous applause from the supporters. It was a wonderful moment as they got to celebrate a true Ireland legend.

Best newbie: Ethan Dumortier (France)

There were a few impressive Six Nations debutants. Despite making their first Test appearances in the Autumn Nations Series, Lorenzo Cannone (Italy) and Joe Hawkins (Wales) were making their competition bows and did a fine job, while the uncapped Edoardo Iachizzi shone in the second half of the tournament, but Dumortier takes this honour. Filling in for the injured Gabin Villiere, the Lyon star immediately looked at home at this level and will be a difficult man to shift from the left wing spot going into the Rugby World Cup.

Strange selection award: Warren Gatland’s Wales merry-go-round

People continually debate over the make-up of their respective teams’ 23s. No one is ever really happy but, for Welsh fans, this Six Nations must have been an odd experience. From game-to-game, Gatland made mass changes on every occasion, leaving the supporters unsure as to what to think about the squads selected. Either way, it did not work as Wales were hammered in most of their matches.

Best interview(s): Mack Hansen

The Ireland wing provided plenty of memorable moments on the field, so much so that he was nominated for Player of the Championship, but he also gave us lots of entertainment off it. With the game crying out for characters, it was refreshing to see Hansen come along. First of all, he accidentally swore live on TV after the win over Italy before giving a press conference ahead of the Six Nations finale, where he stated: “I think everybody hates England in general.” However, having perhaps forgotten that his head coach was English, following the Grand Slam triumph, Hansen said: “I don’t actually hate English people for anybody who saw that headline that was spread! I’m just putting that out there – just in case Andy saw it as well.” The Australian-born back was one of the stars of the tournament, on and off the pitch.

Best comeback: Dan Cole

England team-mate Ollie Lawrence deserves a mention after he was discarded by previous head coach Eddie Jones, while Rhys Webb impressed on his return from a two-and-a-half-year international exile, but Cole came back into the Red Rose reckoning after missing the best part of this World Cup cycle. Axed after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Cole re-found his form at Leicester Tigers, winning the 2022 Premiership under Steve Borthwick, and was deservedly recalled to the Test squad. Against Ireland last Saturday, he won his 100th cap for England – a special achievement for an English rugby stalwart.

Brain fade award: Mohamed Haouas’ headbutt

Who else? Three years after the tighthead was red-carded for punching Jamie Ritchie, the Montpellier man decided to once again make a bad decision against Scotland and get himself sent off. This time, Haouas decided to headbutt Ben White when there was no chance of counter-rucking and getting the ball back. He unsurprisingly received his marching orders and potentially ended his chances of making the French World Cup squad in the process. Staggeringly, the prop looked shocked when the red card was brandished, which probably tells you why he continues to make stupid choices.

Biggest frustration: ITV’s commentary issues

Throughout the tournament, the UK channel had issues with its commentary matching up to the pictures, with the action coming a couple of seconds after the commentators had spoken. It meant the viewer knew what had happened before it had been shown on the screen. The problem failed to get sorted, and as a result, it left the supporters frustrated. For it to happen on multiple occasions was simply not acceptable.

Best tackle: Antoine Dupont on Mack Hansen

Everyone marvels over the France scrum-half’s skill set and his attacking game, but Dupont is also incredible without the ball, as he showed in the second game of the tournament. France’s huge encounter with Ireland was finely poised heading towards the break when Farrell’s men produced one last attack. Hugo Keenan kicked ahead, and Hansen picked up the loose ball. He appeared set to score, only for Dupont to somehow halt his momentum and send him backwards and stop the try. It was incredible strength and technique.

Biggest controversies: WRU’s contract saga and Dublin TMO calls

As ever, there were several moments during the Six Nations which left you scratching your head, and in the end, we couldn’t separate three of them. For the Welsh, their competition was disrupted by a dispute between the players and the governing body, which was eventually settled prior to the England game. Meanwhile, on the field, Ireland were the beneficiary of two contentious decisions – James Lowe’s try against France and Freddie Steward’s red card in the finale. The first saw the TMO not given access to a key camera angle which showed Lowe to be in touch, while for the second, Jaco Peyper and his officiating team simply applied the disciplinary framework wrongly.

Best individual performances: 10s for Doris and Dupont

We have already eulogised over these two players and during this tournament we handed both of them a rare perfect 10. Doris’ coincidently came against France as he dominated the gain line and carried for over 100 metres. The number eight also produced a superb off-load for Garry Ringrose’s decisive try and was similarly excellent without the ball. His overall displays exceeded that of the brilliant Dupont, but the scrum-half still matched him when France visited Twickenham. The 26-year-old put in one of the great Six Nations performances as Les Bleus ran rampant at the ‘home of rugby’ in Round Four.

Best team performance: France at Twickenham

Speaking of that game at Twickenham, it was by far the best display by a team in this tournament. Yes, Ireland were consistent and, overall, a cut above everyone else in Europe, but what the French did that day was simply magical. After a disappointing opening three matches, everything just seemed to click in Round Four as they ran in seven tries. From their movement of the ball to their defence and set-piece, it was close to perfection.

Feelgood moment: Grand Slam win in Dublin

Prior to this year’s Championship, Ireland had won two Six Nations Grand Slams, but both of their deciding matches were away from home. It arguably makes those triumphs even more impressive given that, under pressure, they were able to claim the title on enemy territory, but it is more special to do it in front of your own supporters. And finally, the Irish got that chance when they defeated England 29-16 at the Aviva Stadium on St Patrick’s weekend. It was a wonderful day in Dublin and one they thoroughly deserved.

Unsung hero: Federico Ruzza (Italy)

When discussing Italy’s improvement, all the talk centres around Ange Capuozzo and Paolo Garbisi, but there is a lock forward who puts in performance after performance. That’s right, Ruzza has been a key part of an improving Italian pack, with his set-piece work particularly important. He won more lineouts (39) than any other player, with the next best being England’s Ollie Chessum on 18. The Azzurri second-row was also impressive in the loose and regularly got his hands on the ball to drive his team forward.

Bizarre moment: Ireland hooker crisis v Scotland

One of Ireland’s biggest qualities is their ability to adapt and overcome challenges that come their way, and they certainly had to do that against Scotland. Going into the final half-hour of that clash, they had lost both of their hookers, meaning that prop Cian Healy came on to play in the middle of the front-row. At just 8-7 in front at that stage of the encounter, their Grand Slam chances were under threat, but they responded brilliantly. Healy did a great job of hooking in the scrum, while current World Rugby Player of the Year, flanker Josh van der Flier, successfully did the job of throwing into the lineout. It was an odd situation but one which the Irish handled superbly.

Sir Clive Woodward contradiction award: England’s fly-half debate

The World Cup-winning coach has long been an advocate of Marcus Smith, given his abilities on attack. It therefore shocked us prior to the French game to see Woodward call for Steve Borthwick to go for Owen Farrell, stating that the Red Rose can only win the 2023 World Cup with the Saracens man at pivot. Fast forward a few days and Smith has been, slightly surprisingly, selected ahead of Farrell for England’s game with France. You would expect, given Woodward’s comments 48 hours earlier, that he would be unhappy with Borthwick’s decision to pick the Harlequins playmaker over Farrell. But no, he was immediately and bemusingly praising the head coach for the call. Come on Clive, make your mind up.

Butchered anthem award: Rome’s rendition of Ireland’s Call

Dubbed “Ireland’s Crawl”, the Italians produced an excruciating version of Ireland’s anthem, leading to much mocking on social media. It was so bad that even the players found it amusing, with Peter O’Mahony’s face, who was trying desperately not to laugh, telling the whole story. To a degree, it was disrespectful towards the Irish, but the players and fans, to their credit, certainly saw the funny side of it.

Spirit of rugby: The Farrells

It wouldn’t have been easy for Andy and Owen Farrell, who faced off in the final round of the Six Nations, but there were some lovely moments both before and after the crucial match on Super Saturday. Firstly, Owen rather hilariously didn’t know that his son had watched Ireland’s training session over England’s, revealing in a press conference that Tommy was staying with his grandad. And then, following the heat of battle, Owen and Andy embraced after the final whistle, with the latter not gloating or rubbing it in his son’s face, instead saying, “are you okay?” It was a big moment for Andy to guide Ireland to a Grand Slam, but he understood the pain Owen would be going through having lost that match. It was genuinely touching.

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