The return of fans to Six Nations stadiums has brought with it an onslaught of exceptional rugby.
The reliable regulars like Maro Itoje, Stuart Hogg, Liam Williams and Gael Fickou have been up to their old tricks, while new stars like Mack Hansen, Michele Lamaro and Taine Basham have burst onto the scene.
Sadly the end of the tournament is looming, with just two weeks of rugby left to play, which means we must turn our attention to the Player of the Championship award.
This gong gives Six Nations Rugby the tough job of singling out one stand-out performer from a selection pool full of phenomenal talent.
With two games left to play, here is the Planet Rugby shortlist for 2022 Six Nations Player of the Championship.
Cyril Baille (France, prop)
The cliche phrase “athletic freak” is banded around far too often when it is applicable to only a fraction of rugby players.
The players worthy of such praise have to be phenomenal backs with equally impressive forward-like traits or vice versa, and Baille fits that bill.
This tournament he has epitomized what it means to be a world-class prop in 2022 with his simply jaw-droppingly complete skill-set.
He may just be the best loosehead in the world after his dominance so far this year.
For France he has been a bully in the scrums, helping them to win key battles at the set-piece all tournament long.
As a ball carrier, there is not a metaphor powerful enough to describe his ability when he receives the ball.
His speed, immense strength and agility have helped him break the line, topple would-be tacklers and continue to redefine the prop position.
Baille also has deft hands and a switched on brain, versus Scotland he was able to thread a pass to take out six (yes, six) Scottish defenders to allow Yoram Moefana in for a try.
With some of the moves he’s pulled off so far, it’s no wonder that Kyle Sinckler (probably) has Cyril Baille pyjamas.
To sum up, Baille is thoroughly deserving of the award and will no doubt have a place in Team of the Championship as well.
Marcus Smith (England, fly-half)
At Planet Rugby, we have been banging the Marcus Smith drum long before the Championship began, anticipating the Harlequins 10 to excel the way he has.
With answers needed in the backs ahead of the World Cup next year in France, Eddie Jones has most certainly found one of the solutions.
Smith has had a stellar Championship so far, both as a distributer, carrier and kicker to edge himself closer to a ticket to France next year.
Despite a lack of continuity along the backline, Smith has managed to shine in all of his outings, even igniting online outrage among England fans when he was removed from the game early versus Scotland.
He is one of the top eight try scorers in the tournament, with two to his name and the top point scorer from the tee, with 10 penalty goals and four conversions.
The next two weeks will be by far the most testing of Smith’s rugby career as England face Ireland and France, the strongest two teams in the competition.
If the young fly-half can steer England to two consecutive victories, then surely he is a shoo-in for Player of the Championship?
Gregory Alldritt (France, number eight)
If there was an award for Most Bruised Player of the Championship, Alldritt would win, no question about it.
The loose-forward has carried the ball 41 times, the most among all players this Six Nations, and missed just 11 minutes of play, which is very impressive for a forward.
He is also one of the top tacklers (sixth overall) with 57.
Another fascinating statistic regarding the back-rower is the number of rucks he’s hit so far this tournament. Alldritt has hit 43 opposition rucks over the three games – nine more than any other player.
Julien Marchand and Alldritt have been fantastic at slowing down the opposition ball by making themselves a nuisance at the breakdown, with the number eight only liable for three penalties all Championship so far.
This shows how a controlled body position, exceptional technique and a good relationship with referees and the laws of rugby are vital in this day and age where the rucks have become more of a gray area than ever.
Alldritt’s consistent class across the tournament so far is more than enough to justify him winning the award.
Tadhg Furlong (Ireland, prop)
The Mayor of Wexford has given us, once again, a tighthead master class this Six Nations Championship.
Whether that be in the scrum, where he is the best in the world, or in open play, where he shows off Baille-esque skill, Furlong has executed perfectly.
Even in their loss to France, Furlong was able to take the team on his back and run himself into the ground when no-one else could thanks to his impressive fitness.
He has been the backbone for Ireland, ever reliable, ever switched on and ever world-class.
As mentioned earlier with Baille, Furlong’s skill-set demonstrates what is expected from props in this age of rugby, it allows him to be the first name on the team sheet every week due to the plethora of ways he can impact a game.
Despite him being most proud of his scrummaging, that is just one of the many levels of play that Furlong leads his team on.
If a prop were to win this award, Baille would be the likely candidate, but that is not to say Furlong isn’t worthy.
Josh van der Flier (Ireland, flanker)
The Irish back-row duo of Caelen Doris and Van der Flier have been sensational so far, but it is the latter who gets the nod for our shortlist.
He reckons that being ignored by Warren Galtand when selecting for the 2021 Lions tour has helped him transform into the attacking monster that he has been ever since.
Since his omission, Van der Flier has played 18 games for province (Leinster) and for country, winning a staggering six Player of the Match awards over the stretch.
The evidence for his dominance?
Van der Flier has an impressive 25 carries to his name so far this Six Nations with 156 meters to go along with it – not shabby at all for a forward.
Defensively he’s also been sublime, missing just 6.1% of tackles he attempts.
With Doris and co. he’s been a troublemaker at the breakdown, able to wreak havoc at every available option.
Furthermore, in the absence of CJ Stander, Van der Flier has stood up, mitigating the loss of the fantastic loose-forward.
For his consistency, sky-high work rate and relentless controlled violence on the field, we nominate Van der Flier as our final star for the Player of the Tournament.