And as we head into the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, it feels like the perfect time to reflect on those players who have had the biggest impact on the last two decades.
In the build-up to the opening match between Grand Slam champions Wales and Italy, we are counting down some of the best players to have graced the Championship and today it’s the turn of the flankers.
In alphabetical order:
At 54 per cent, Steve Borthwick’s Six Nations win percentage is surprisingly low considering he played across a nine-year period when England won the World Cup and a Grand Slam.
But such is the depth England boasted at lock during that period, it was not until three years after his first Championship appearance that Borthwick became such a permanent presence.
A reliable performer, Borthwick was a rock at the lineout and played 25 Championship matches for England between 2001-2010.
He captained England in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Championships, while as England forwards coach he helped them to the 2016 Grand Slam and 2017 title.
If there is one thing that encapsulates the quality of Marco Bortolami, it’s that Italy made him their captain at age 22.
The Padua bruiser eventually retired after 14 years, 112 Test appearances and seven international tries to take his place among the Azzurri elite.
His finest moment? Perhaps leading Italy to their first ever Championship away win when they upset Scotland at BT Murrayfield in 2007. That was also the first year Italy won more than game in a Six Nations.
He might be the youngest player on this list but there is no doubting Maro Itoje’s place among the Six Nations greats despite his young age.
The Saracens lock, 25, first burst onto the scene in 2016, helping England to the Grand Slam with a series of imperious displays against Ireland, Wales and France.
A year later, and a year better, Itoje was at the heart of England’s 2017 Championship success – although he played much of edition at flanker, highlighting his adaptability.
In 2018, he was restored to second row, where he is among the best in the world, and will be hoping to feature more in 2020 after missing much of last year’s Guinness Six Nations due to injury.
The debate over who is the greatest lock will rumble forever but Martin Johnson’s case is as strong as any.
The burly Leicester Tigers man made his Championship debut in 1993 against France and became a key part of England’s engine room for the next decade.
From 37 Championship matches, Johnson boasts an 84 per cent win ratio and won the Five Nations in 1995 and 1996 – plus the Triple Crown in 1997 and 1998.
But it’s his spell as captain which truly defines him. Johnson took over in 1999 and helped England to further Championship success in 2000, 2001 and 2003 – when England won the Grand Slam.
His final appearance was perhaps his most famous. As England walked out to face Ireland at Lansdowne Road in the Grand Slam decider, Johnson lined England up on the left-hand side – said to be Ireland’s lucky side – before steering them to victory.
ALUN WYN JONES
If Johnson is an all-time great, then so is Alun Wyn Jones – the second player on this list who is still active.
Jones is the reigning Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship after leading Wales to the Grand Slam last season, the third of his illustrious career.
Jones first broke through in 2006 and made his Championship bow a year later in a defeat to Ireland in Cardiff. His immense determination and textbook technique have kept him at the top of the game ever since.
With 134 Test matches for Wales, he has been a constant driving force, starring in Grand Slam successes in 2008, 2012 and 2019 – as well as a Championship-winning campaign in 2013.
Mr Consistent, Ben Kay played in 64 Test matches for England and was Martin Johnson’s second-row partner for the early part of his career.
Kay was part of the England side that won the Championship in 2002 and the Grand Slam in 2003, starting all ten games across a two-year spell.
After England won the World Cup, their Championship form suffered but Kay remained one of the finest locks in the world – starting every game in 2004 and 2005 before earning a recall in 2008.
The first of two Frenchmen on this list, Lionel Nallet was one of the best locks around at his pomp as he helped Les Bleus to the 2010 Grand Slam and 2006 and 2007 Championship titles.
Nallet made his first Championship appearance in 2001 against England and had to wait five years for another crack.
But as soon as he was restored against Ireland in 2006, he remained a model of consistency – starting 26 straight Championship matches for France.
He captained them to third in the 2008 Championship, while perhaps his finest moment came in 2011 as he scored two tries in a 28-9 win against Wales.
At the heart of Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam success was perhaps the northern hemisphere’s best lock combination in Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan.
Both strong as an ox, they were the driving force behind Ireland’s first Grand Slam in 61 years.
That remains O’Callaghan’s greatest Championship, although it is safe to say there were many special campaigns – including Triple Crown wins in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
O’Callaghan had to wait a while to get his chance, with eight of his first Championship appearances coming from the bench.
But once he edged ahead of Malcom O’Kelly in the pecking order, he blossomed into a bulldozing giant and went on to play 45 Championship matches between 2003 and 2013.
O’Callaghan’s partner in crime is perhaps one of the greatest Ireland players in any position.
Paul O’Connell was a colossus and finished with 108 Ireland appearances, three Championship titles, four Triple Crowns and of course that 2009 Grand Slam.
Of O’Connell’s 51 Championship matches – ranging from 2002 to 2015 – only four were from the replacements bench.
He also captained the Men in Green to their 2015 title, the first time they had gone back-to-back since the 1940s, and scored a try in their 40-10 success in Scotland – in what proved to be his final Championship match.
With 118, Fabien Pelous is France’s most-capped player and for longevity alone he deserves a place on this list.
But add a successful stint as captain and an incredible three Grand Slams, and he remains one of France’s all-time greats.
Pelous’ Championship debut came in 1995 and, while he dabbled at flanker and No.8, he quickly made his home at the heart of the pack.
He became captain in 2004 and led France to the Grand Slam that year, while his last Championship campaign came in 2006 – which France won.