Former Scotland captain Andy Nicol believes British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has a real job on his hands nailing down his final squad selection for the upcoming tour to South Africa.
Nicol, for whom Scotland’s dramatic win in Paris over France on Friday was a more than welcome belated 50th birthday present, admits he deliberated long and hard before settling on a team of the Six Nations 2021, let alone the Lions, such was the quality of rugby on show.
The bulk of Nicol’s final XV comes from champions Wales, who have six players included, while Scotland and Ireland have three apiece. France have two representatives while Tom Curry is the sole Englishman in the back row – an area Nicol feels Gatland will have sleepless nights over.
“Warren Gatland’s job of picking a back row out of all the possibilities is going to be really tight,” he said. “But on any given day, Tom Curry and Hamish Watson were either the best, or one of the best, performers, and that consistency is what gets them into my team alongside Taulupe Faletau at number eight.
“I don’t think Curry missed a single minute of the Championship and Watson wasn’t far off either.”
Former scrum-half Nicol, capped 23 times by his country, was full of praise for the efforts of the players and officials, in a Championship of more tries and red cards than ever before.
“I’ve been in a few empty stadiums and it is not an enjoyable experience, so fair play to the players for producing the rugby that they have produced, and the excitement and the tight finishes, against that backdrop. It has exceeded expectations; it has just had so much,” he added.
“There’s been a lot of red cards, I think five in total, which is remarkable because you never saw them in rugby for years but I think there are good reasons for them. It is about player welfare and taking foul play out of the game and changing behaviours and I think the officiating, on the whole, has been very good.
Here’s Andy Nicol’s Six Nations 2021 Team of the Championship.
1. Cyril Baille (France)
If it had have been a Lions XV, Wyn Jones from Wales would have been in. But Cyril Baille was outstanding. His scrummaging was powerful, and he was good around the loose as well.
2. Ken Owens (Wales)
You have to look at points of difference as to why Wales were so much better in the Six Nations than they were in the Autumn Nations Cup, and you can’t get away from the fact Ken Owens missed the Autumn. Wales’ set-piece was transformed.
3. Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
Came off the bench in the first two games but started the next three to confirm his status as the best tight-head in the world. Even taking his dancing feet against Scotland out of the equation, he is the personification of the modern-day prop: immensely solid in the set-piece but incredibly mobile.
4. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
He has to be in the team after leading his country to a Six Nations Championship when no-one gave Wales any credit. If you watch the last few minutes of the France v Wales game a week last Saturday, he is still making tackles in the 80th minute. He is the Peter Pan of rugby; he just keeps going. Iain Henderson came on well, I thought Jonny Gray had a very good Championship and Maro Itoje, undoubtedly, was up there even if he had some disciplinary issues, and the two French second-rows were good, too. But Alun Wyn stands toe-to-toe with all of them.
5. Tadhg Beirne (Ireland)
He’s like a fourth back-row when he plays in the second row. Outstanding over the ball and his work-rate is phenomenal. You might not have had him earmarked for this team pre-tournament, but on performances, he deserves to be in.
6. Tom Curry (England)
The only Englishman in my team and that’s a reflection of their fifth-place finish. In many ways, it was almost a case of having to select him because he has been a shining light for England with his consistently good performances.
7. Hamish Watson (Scotland)
Watson has proved that you don’t have to be pigeon-holed as a jackaler just because you have a seven on your back, you can carry as well. By doing that role, and doing it very well, it means Scotland don’t necessarily have to have a big ball-carrying number eight in the back-row.
8. Taulupe Faletau (Wales)
Such an intelligent player. We always think of the nine, 10 and 12 as the decision-makers, but the back-row has so many decisions to make as well: when to go into contact; when to come off your line; when to offer yourself as an attacking threat, whether that is behind or in front of the ball. He just makes the right decision all of the time.
Warren Gatland has got some decisions to make... 🤔 pic.twitter.com/nGbZGS7A2A— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) March 27, 2021
9. Antoine Dupont (France)
He probably petered off as the Championship went on but in the first two rounds he was everywhere and probably the best player in the world, not just the best scrum-half. He generates so much stuff for his team. He finishes off tries, scores tries, kicks well and is strong in contact.
10. Dan Biggar (Wales)
Matthieu Jalibert started the Championship well and Johnny Sexton got better as it went on but I’ve gone for Biggar because of his performance in the last game against France. He was subbed off a lot, and I like my stand-off to be there for most of the game, but he’s a test match animal who stepped up when needed. When your team wins the Championship, when no-one has really given you any chance, your stand-off has to have done a very good job.
11. Duhan van der Merwe (Scotland)
Had I picked this team on Friday morning, he probably wouldn’t have made it. However, two tries against France, in a game like that, just swayed it. He has scored some incredible tries and that’s what everyone notices. I would like him to improve his work-rate and get his hands on the ball a bit more but he’s a beast and his try-scoring record speaks for itself. I think he also beat Brian O’Driscoll’s Six Nations record for defenders beaten.
12. Robbie Henshaw (Ireland)
As Ireland got better, so did he. He’s got a nice balance to his game and was hugely impressive throughout. Gaël Fickou was outstanding, too.
13. George North (Wales)
At the start of the tournament, you wouldn’t have gone for George North to be a contender for one of the centre positions. I always question playing players out of position but, my god, did it work! Chris Harris put his hand up for selection, but I think George North drove the Welsh team forward.
14. Louis Rees-Zammit (Wales)
Simply electric. Sometimes match-ups in rugby don’t manifest themselves, so I loved it when Callum Sheedy intercepted against England and Rees-Zammit settled the debate about who has most gas, him or Jonny May? He put 10 yards on Jonny May. His finishing against Ireland was brilliant and he was only a few centimetres from winning the Grand Slam for Wales. He’s a real star for the future who’ll bring a whole new audience to rugby.
15. Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
When you play full-back you are so dependent on what happens in front of you to get the opportunities to shine, and Scotland for years weren’t giving Hogg those opportunities. But the improvement Scotland have made has allowed Hoggy to be that wide receiver and play with all that space in front of him. He has kicked well, led well and taken the high ball when required, and he’s been a massive attacking threat.