World Rugby

2024 Six Nations: Five Of The Best Backs Through The Opening Three Rounds

2024 Six Nations: Five Of The Best Backs Through The Opening Three Rounds

From Duhan van der Merwe's freakish tries for Scotland to Bundee Aki's classic bruising runs for Ireland, these Six Nations backs have made their marks.

Feb 29, 2024 by Briar Napier
2024 Six Nations: Five Of The Best Backs Through The Opening Three Rounds

The electricity of the Six Nations usually sees more than a few players strut their stuff on a big stage each year.

And with no positions in rugby more electric than the backs, some names, in particular, are ensuring that people never forget them.

As we’re more than halfway through the 2024 Six Nations, Ireland leads, as Andy Farrell’s men are on track for a second straight Grand Slam, which would be the first time for back-to-back sweeps of the rest of the field in the Six Nations era. 

Unsurprisingly, the Irish have had plenty of firepower coming from their backs, too.

However, the competition leaders aren’t the only ones who have had backs who have impressed, and with two rounds still left to play, there’s plenty of time for more breakout stars to emerge through the cracks and leave their marks.

Here are five of the top backs through three matches in this year’s Six Nations, with Round 4 scheduled to kick off next weekend.

NOTE: Players are not listed in any particular order.

Duhan van der Merwe, Scotland

One of the biggest freaks of nature in the sport today, the 6-foot-4 (yet still pacey and agile) van der Merwe leads all Six Nations players with five tries after three rounds, and the wing’s most recent performance for Scotland in its Calcutta Cup win against England this past weekend was special. 

The South Africa-born van der Merwe scored a brilliant hat trick against the English - becoming the first Scottish player ever to do so against its biggest rival - to make it 26 career tries in 37 tests, a remarkable rate that could see him break Stuart Hogg’s all-time try-scoring record for Scotland (27 tries) by the end of the tournament. 

With Scotland being a controversial finish against France in Round 2 away from being on a Grand Slam pace with two matches remaining, van der Merwe has been a major piece in Scotland’s push, with his second try against England, in particular, being a 60-meter sprint down the left touchline, in which he utilized his pace to leave English defenders in the dust. 

Oh, and his brace in Scotland’s opener against Wales showcased his elite positioning, as he was at the right place at the right time for crucial offloads that led to tries - scores that became especially important once Wales almost came back in the second half from 27-0 down. 

James Lowe, Ireland

The flash for a Grand Slam-chasing Ireland side who frequently has brought down the hammer through brute force, Lowe has been special all tournament, and the Irish have another Six Nations title in their sights partly because of him. 

Against France, in a performance in which it was hard to find much fault with Ireland as a whole, Lowe was a bit of an underrated name in his side’s statement 38-17 win to kick off the competition, as his kicking was superb and helped set Ireland on the front foot and in good attacking position for much of the match. 

No one who watched Lowe against Italy in the next round was underrating him, however; he took advantage of a poor Italy all afternoon in Dublin and got on the scoresheet in the second half during a busy outing, being a consistent thorn in the Azzurri’s side and continuing to impact the game through his boot as he earned the man-of-the-match award. 

Lowe then added a first-half try in his side’s dismantling of Wales in Round 3, as well, gaining the most meters of any Ireland player in a match where the Irish more so ground the Welsh down for a dominant win, instead of going on rampant runs. He’s an integral piece in the Irish XV.

Bundee Aki, Ireland

Aki hasn’t slowed down at all since being one of the best players at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, where he arguably was Ireland’s most important player on one of the best squads in the country's history. 

Instead of a well-deserved break or a slip in form in the Six Nations, the New Zealand-born, 33-year-old wrecking ball has gotten right back to work with Ireland and continued to do what he does best — barrel into opposing defenders and make his presence felt in matches. 

He was at his usual, impactful self in Ireland’s statement win over France in Marseille in Round 1 (showing off a smooth offload to help set up the opening try, too), and though he wasn’t needed against Italy in Round 2 as Ireland stormed to a 36-0 rout at the Aviva Stadium without him, Aki returned in Round 3 against Wales with a roar. 

He put up a man-of-the-match performance as a sturdy Welsh defense felt his wrath as, at times, he looked untraceable by consistently winning collisions and driving Ireland forward to a bonus-point 31-7 victory — and one step closer to another Grand Slam. 

He is one of the finest centers in the world today, and few players in the world are more terrifying to bring down than Aki. If you do bring him down, you may not leave the match without some sort of bruise or bump, either.

Tommaso Menoncello, Italy

An Italian player making any sort of Six Nations “top players” list is a rarity, but it’s fully deserved for Menoncello, who was the spark plug behind the Azzurri being centimeters away from one of their most famous wins this past weekend. 

The versatile 21-year-old and Benetton man impressed at center alongside Juan Ignacio Brex in the Italians’ bonus-point loss on the opening weekend against England, giving the English defense fits and even denying Tommy Freeman (more on him later) a first-half try, but it was his performance at right-wing against France that helped put him on the radar as an emerging star to watch both for the rest of the Six Nations and beyond. 

A fearless ball-carrier with a seemingly endless engine against Les Bleus, he was a deserved official man-of-the-match shout after being integral to some of Italy’s biggest plays of the night in Lille — including his part in the setup of what would be the Azzurri’s match-tying try from fellow young star back Ange Capuozzo. 

Late drama denied Italy a famous win, as Paolo Garbisi’s last-gasp penalty rattled off of the upright, but without mighty Menoncello, Italy may not have been sniffing a draw in the first place. 

Tommy Freeman, England

England’s growing pains definitely are there, but if the 22-year-old Freeman keeps building off of the potential he’s showing in parts in this year’s Six Nations, it’ll be in good hands in the back line for years to come. 

Succeeding the now-retired Jonny May on the right wing is no easy feat, but when Freeman — who has been in white-hot form with Northampton at club level — got the start at No. 14 against Italy in Round 1, he took his chance by showing some free-flowing creativity away from his usual spot near and around the right touchline to help set up his team’s first try through Elliot Daly. 

He was a keen attacking threat for the entire match in Rome, though Freeman has been much quieter in that regard since then against Wales and Scotland — matches in which England needed a second-half comeback and was defeated rather handily, respectively. 

Perhaps the key for England the rest of the way may be needing to find ways to get Freeman more involved and more of a threat like he was in the Italy match; his ability to make things happen against the Azzurri was crucial to an English win. And with powerful Ireland next on the docket in Round 4, England needs all the help that it can get. 

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