March 17, 2011
Posted on 03/17/2011
The shortlist for the Six Nations Player of the Championship was announced earlier this week and threatens to plunge the competition back into the mire just a few short days after the Cardiff blunder that made the game a laughing stock.
In a change from previous years, where a panel of experts selected the shortlist, the 12 names in the mix this time around earned their place by being named Man of the Match during the first four rounds of the Championship.
As a result we have the following vying for the public votes that will decide the winner:
I am sure the change in selection criteria was well-intentioned and I can see how the idea of pooling the Man of the Match winners will have attracted the support of the title sponsors, but it ignores the consistency of others who warrant recognition - as well as those who may produce a dazzling display in this weekend's final round of matches.
Looking at the shortlist, there can be little argument about the inclusion of O'Brien, Ashton, Warburton, Palmer, O'Gara and Haskell but the rest can count themselves very lucky. The England trio of Flood, Palmer and Haskell loom large as likely winners of the honour should they complete a clean sweep with victory in Dublin, but that depends on their ability to wield some influence in what is sure to be a tough and tense encounter.
So who is missing from this list? Any selection criteria that ignores Italy's Sergio Parisse is fatally flawed. His ability to consistently excel is astounding and time and time again he is the driving force behind his side - most recently in their historic victory over France. Ask coach Nick Mallett to name his most valuable player and there will be little hesitation in his answer. One of Italy's two truly world-class performers (prop Martin Castrogiovanni is another who sadly misses out), Parisse can feel a little hard done by while his countrymen Semenzato and Masi can thank him personally for every vote they receive.
Another name that warrants inclusion was Scotland lock Richie Gray. The youngest player in the Scotland squad is fast-becoming their best player, and with just 21 years on the clock there is evidently more improvement to come. But we are talking about the here and now and his three performances (injury denied him an appearance against Wales) underlined his value to the Scots with lung-busting efforts in defence and attack ensuring he was a central figure on each occasion. If the Scots do pick up the Wooden Spoon it will not have Gray's finger prints on it.
Who else? England No.8 Nick Easter may not attract the same kind of plaudits as Parisse but he certainly rivals his Italian counterpart in terms of consistency while Wales' Craig Mitchell also deserves a mention, having filled the significant void left by Adam Jones when many had questioned his ability to do so.
Knowing how these public votes tend to work, Ashton is likely to pick up the award due to his scoring exploits. His current tally of six tries (two against Wales and four more versus Italy) leave him level with England's Will Greenwood and Wales' Shane Williams in the race for the single season record while he is two tries short of the Championship record held by England's Cyril Lowe and Scotland's Ian Smith. Even if he doesn't eclipse these records the honour looks destined to go the headline-grabbing winger's way.
Personally, I would like to see one of the back-row trio of O'Brien, Warburton or Haskell take the prize, but I will not annoint anyone just yet. With a Grand Slam, the Championship title and the Wooden Spoon on the line who is to say another name will not cry out for inclusion this weekend?
UPDATE - As of March 18, Italy's Andrea Masi is leading the race for the honour with 21% of the vote. Oh dear.
SECOND UPDATE - March 23, Masi scoops the award with 30% of the vote - just ahead of his team-mate Fabio Semenzato. Congrats to Masi but the organisers can hang their heads.