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 props.
In alphabetical order:
Martin Castrogiovanni (ITALY)
Martin Castrogiovanni was a giant of the Italian side in many a Championship campaign.
For example, he played every game of a particularly strong 2004 Championship for the prop where was named man of the match in the victory over Scotland.
He also made his mark away from the scrum during the 2008 Championship where he was the Azzurri’s top try-scorer with three scores.
A cult figure in the sport, Castrogiovanni won 119 caps for Italy and provided the bite and beating heart of Italy sides as they made their mark after joining the Six Nations.
Pieter de Villiers (FRANCE)
South African-born French prop de Villiers was well known for his phenomenal scrummaging ability.
And it showed as he used it to great effect as he played in all of the French sides to win Championships in the 2000s – in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007. The first two of those were Grand Slams with De Villiers playing a crucial role for Les Bleus.
His influence will be felt during this year’s Championship as he is now a part of Scotland’s coaching staff, serving as scrum coach where his great knowledge will be extremely useful.
John Hayes (IRELAND)
Few Ireland players were more well-loved John Hayes, the towering tighthead who was the foundation of the Ireland and Munster pack for a decade.
Between 2000 and 2010, Hayes played in 54 of 55 possible Championship matches, starting every single one after missing their opening game of the Six Nations era against England.
In that time he helped Ireland win Triple Crowns in 2004, 2006 and 2007, before playing an integral part in their Grand Slam in 2009.
Nicknamed the Bull, Hayes came to the sport late from GAA, only taking up rugby at 18, and while he was unusually tall for a prop at 6ft4, Hayes used that to his advantage as one of the premier lineout lifters in the game.
Cian Healy (IRELAND)
At 32 years of age, loosehead prop Cian Healy is still going strong after over a decade at the top level for Ireland.
One of Ireland’s most decorated players, with three Championship titles to his name, Healy is one of Ireland’s best.
His shining moments came when serving as a key member of Ireland’s all-conquering Grand Slam winning team in the 2018 Championship as Rory Best’s side followed in the footsteps of Irish heroes in times gone by of 1948 and 2009.
Possessing destructive ability with the ball in hand and at the scrum, during the 2011 Championship Healy made more metres with the ball in hand than any other prop forward.
Gethin Jenkins (WALES)
The sixth most-capped player in rugby union history and the most capped front row forward, as well as a three-time Grand Slam winner – Gethin Jenkins stamped his mark on the Six Nations in more ways than one.
Jenkins won four Six Nations in total, serving as a key pillar of the sides that helped establish Welsh dominance over the Championship at the turn of the decade.
One of the best loosehead operators to ever grace both the Six Nations and the game of rugby itself, Jenkins was a force to be reckoned with from the very beginning.
And he started as he meant to go on, bulldozing his way through the 2005 Championship as he started every game for Wales and scored the first try of the Grand Slam clinching win over Ireland at the Millennium Stadium.
Adam Jones (WALES)
Following several successful seasons at club level, Adam Jones received his call up to the Wales squad in 2003, where he made his debut as a replacement against England during the Championship.
From there on he would make 95 appearances for his country and become one of only a small group of Welsh players to win three Grand Slams – a list which also includes the likes of Jenkins, Ryan Jones and Gareth Edwards – and more recently, Alun Wyn Jones.
Jones played a starring role in Wales’ historic 2005, alongside Jenkins, as Mike Ruddock’s men became the first team ever to win a Grand Slam when playing more games away than at home.
That is also not to mention the fourth Championship Jones claimed – in 2013.
Jason Leonard (ENGLAND)
Retiring as (and still being) the only English player to rack up a century of Test appearances and, for a time the world’s most capped player, Leonard was a behemoth of the sport.
And while he first made his mark on the Five Nations, Leonard’s remarkable longevity meant to he played a part in guiding England to trophies in 2000 and 2001 and the Grand Slam in 2003.
His 100th England cap came in the 2003 Championship opener against France at Twickenham.
Leonard possessed the unusual skill of being adept at playing in both the loosehead and tighthead positions making him the perfect prop and a true legend of the game.
Andrea Lo Cicero (ITALY)
A powerful scrummager and mightily effective when the ball was loose too, Andrea Lo Cicero is one of Italy’s best-ever forwards.
Perhaps his most memorable ever day has to be when he received his 50th cap, and then proceeded help see his nation to their first away win in the Six Nations – as they beat Scotland at Murrayfield in 2007.
Lo Cicero would later mark further achievements in the Six Nations, winning his 100th cap for Italy against Scotland in the 2013 Championship and his 101st against Wales, equalling Alessandro Troncon’s record as Italy’s most-capped player.
He then broke that record against England.
And in his final game in 2013 he received a standing ovation as he came off the bench to help secure Italy’s first ever Six Nations win over Ireland.
Nicolas Mas (FRANCE)
For more than a decade, Nicolas Mas was the anchor around which France built their pack, racking up 85 caps for his country.
While he was hampered by injuries early in his Test career after making his debut in 2003, he established himself as a fixture in the side, culminating in playing a starring role in France’s 2010 Grand Slam.
In that campaign, Les Bleus were dominant at scrum-time, with Mas starting every game and being named man of the match in the final win over England which allowed them to clinch the clean sweep.
The Perpignan tighthead continued in the national team until 2015 when he called time on his Test career. As well as the 2010 slam, he also was part of the France team that won the 2007 Championship.
Tom Smith (SCOTLAND)
Simply put, Tom Smith is renowned as one of the best loosehead props of the modern era.
In a career spanning nearly 15 years and 61 appearances over eight years for Scotland, Smith became known for his especially strong scrummaging and good hands.
Few could forget Smith’s superb dummy and run from 25 metres out as Scotland rescued a dramatic 28-28 draw from 25-6 down against Wales at Murrayfield in 2001 – a campaign in which Smith starred as Scotland finished an impressive third.
His final match for his country finished where it all began, as he bowed out against England at Twickenham during the 2005 Championship.
Since retirement, Smith has revealed that he is suffering from cancer, with a 500 mile cycle ride having been organised to support Smith and former Scotland teammate Doddie Weir ahead of this year’s Championship.
Phil Vickery (ENGLAND)
If John Hayes was the Bull, Phil Vickery was his English equivalent with his nickname of the Raging Bull.
Born in Devon to a Cornish dairy farmer, Vickery started playing at the age of just 12, and made his debut for England on the Tour of Hell in 1998.
While some of his teammates never added to their Test caps after that tour, Vickery was able to establish himself as the key cog in the England team that won Championship titles in 2000 and 2001 although he missed the 2003 Grand Slam through injury.
He returned after that to help England to World Cup glory, before going on to captain his country in the 2007 Championship.
Mako Vunipola (ENGLAND)
One of three players on this list who is still playing, Mako Vunipola has been part of the England set-up for eight seasons now having made his debut in 2012.
The Saracens loosehead broke through at the age of 21, making his Championship bow the following year.
Vunipola has featured in every Championship since 2013, including being part of the England sides that won the Grand Slam in 2016 and the Championship the following year.
Last year he was exceptional in England’s win away to Ireland before starring against France until his Guinness Six Nations was cut short by injury. He is set to feature again for England in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.