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Great full-backs of the Six Nations era

Great full-backs of the Six Nations era

Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny battle for a high ball. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Over the 20 years since Italy joined the Championship, the Guinness Six Nations has provided countless magical moments, stunning tries and special players.

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.

We begin at the back and the full-backs who have combined for five Player of the Championship awards, the most of any position.

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In alphabetical order:

Mike Brown (England)

Mike Brown’s Test debut came in a record England defeat in South Africa in 2007 that might have ended his career before it started. Despite competition from Ben Foden, Alex Goode and Delon Armitage, the Harlequins stalwart established himself as England’s No.1.

Mike Brown was named Player of the Championship in 2014. ©Inpho

In 2014, his hard running style and uncanny ability to break tackles led to him earning the Player of the Championship award, while two years later he was a key figure in the Grand Slam success in Eddie Jones’ first season in charge. From a Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland in 2012 to a final game against Ireland at Twickenham in 2018, Brown has made 32 Championship appearances, starting 25 and contributing five tries.

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He won two Championships in 2016 and 2017, the first being a Slam, while he also won a Triple Crown in 2014.

Lee Byrne (Wales)

Between 2008 and 2011, Lee Byrne played 1451 of a possible 1600 Championship minutes as he helped Wales to a Grand Slam and a record winning streak.

In fact, Byrne can lay claim to starting a decade of success under Warren Gatland. After all, it was the full-back’s try at Twickenham that sparked the ‘six minutes of madness’ as Wales opened the Championship with a rare win in London.

Lee Byrne was a key figure in Wales’ 2008 Grand Slam. ©Inpho

He played every minute of that campaign as Wales won a first Slam under Gatland, and Byrne’s scything breaks coming into the line became a trademark of those teams.

Assured under the high ball and a natural counter-attacker, he started 23 of his 26 Championship appearances over a six-year period.

Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)

Byrne’s successor in the Wales full-back jersey was a teammate of his on the 2009 Lions Tour. Originally a winger, Leigh Halfpenny made the switch to full-back and thrived immediately. No full-back has scored more points in the Championship than the Scarlets man, and in 2013 he was named Player of the Championship for his role in helping Wales to the title.

No full-back has scored more points in the Championship since 2000 than Leigh Halfpenny. ©Inpho

A prodigious goal-kicker, Halfpenny’s ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over from virtually anywhere in the opposition half has been a crucial part of Wales’ success under Gatland.

His ability under the high ball is up there with any of his peers, while his ability to cover the backfield has been crucial to Shaun Edwards’ defensive game plan.

Stuart Hogg (Scotland)

Only two men have won the Player of the Championship award on more than one occasion. Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll did it three times in four years between 2006 and 2009.

The other is Stuart Hogg, who was recognised in successive years for his performances for Scotland in 2016 and 2017.

Stuart Hogg was named Player of the Championship two years running. ©Inpho

Still only 27 years old, Hogg has made the second most Championship appearances at full-back over the past two decades, with 35, in addition to a debut off the bench against Wales.

In that time he has established himself as one of the most dangerous counter-attacking threats of his generation and he is second only to the great Ian Smith in the 1920s and 1930s for Championship tries for Scotland with 12.

That is five more than any other full-back and with his best days still to come, Hogg still has plenty of time to extend that record.

Rob Kearney (Ireland)

Hogg is second in terms of Championship appearances at full-back, trailing only Rob Kearney, Ireland’s go-to man at the back for the past decade.

His Championship debut came against Wales in 2008, and the following year he started every game as Ireland won their first Grand Slam in 61 years.

Rob Kearney is well-known for his ability under the high ball. ©Inpho

In all he has played 43 games at full-back in the Championship, starting 42 of them, over the course of more than a decade.

Coming from a Gaelic football background, Kearney is best known for his ability under the high ball and has been a fixture in the Ireland team under both Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt.

With the exception of the 2011 Championship, he has featured in every edition since 2008, winning his second Grand Slam in 2018, in addition to further titles.

Andrea Masi (Italy)

Possibly the most versatile player in the last two decades of the Championship, Andrea Masi has started every position from 10-15, but it is at full-back that he had probably his greatest impact.

The only Italian to be named Player of the Championship, he was recognised for his efforts in 2011 when he notably scored a crucial try in Italy’s first Championship success against France.

Andrea Masi is one of the most versatile players in the Championship’s history. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

First capped by Italy as a teenager, Masi made 45 appearances for the Azzurri in the Championship, 16 coming at full-back.

As well as wearing the No.15 jersey for another win over France in 2013, Masi also played his part in the Azzurri’s first Championship victory over Ireland the same year.

Clément Poitrenaud (France)

Nicolas Brusque was France’s first-choice full-back early in the 2000s, while Maxime Médard has switched between wing and the No.15 jersey in the last ten years.

But Clément Poitrenaud is perhaps the iconic French full-back of the era, and the man who wore the jersey in France’s last Grand Slam in 2010.

Clément Poitrenaud started every game in France’s 2010 Grand Slam. ©Inpho

His Test debut came at just 19, with a try-scoring Championship bow against England two years later in 2003.

While he was not always first choice over more than a decade on the international scene, few could match his ability to produce magic from nowhere.

His standout moment came in 2010 when he played all but 19 minutes of France’s Grand Slam campaign, delivering the decisive blow in the round four win over Ireland.

Jason Robinson (England)

A contender on the wing or at full-back, Jason Robinson gets in as the latter, as the owner of perhaps the fastest feet the Championship has seen.

One of, if not the greatest rugby league convert of recent times, Robinson was the X-factor in the all-conquering England teams of the early 2000s.

Jason Robinson made an immediate impact after switching from rugby league. ©Inpho

By the time he made his first Championship start at full-back, he had already been on a Lions Tour to Australia, such was the immediacy of the impression he made.

That first match in the No.15 shirt was a revelation, a two-try effort in victory over Scotland. Two rounds later he finished on the losing side in Paris, but not before producing one of the most devastating sidesteps on the way to the try-line.

A Championship winner in 2001 and 2003, the latter being a Grand Slam, he went on to score the only England try in their World Cup final victory later that year.

Billy Whizz later captained England and remains one of the most iconic members of Sir Clive Woodward’s side.

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