Over the 20 years since Italy joined, the Championship 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 Saturday and Grand Slam champions Wales’ clash with Italy, we are counting down some of the best players to have graced the Championship.
Today we take a look at the wingers who have left their mark on the competition. With their fast feet on the flanks and tendency for game-changing magic, here are some of the wonderful wide men to grace the Championship stage.
Shane Williams (Wales)
We couldn’t start anywhere else could we?
There can’t be too many sights as synonymous with the Championship as Shane Williams darting down the touchline and crossing the line with a roaring Welsh crowd as a backdrop.
In fact, the former Ospreys man leads the way in try-scoring from the wing, with 22 scores in his 41 appearances in the competition, including a six-try haul in the 2008 Championship as Wales secured a tenth Grand Slam.
It was one to remember on a personal note for Williams as well, after being named Player of the Championship, with a slaloming run through the Italian defence to score one of the highlights of the tournament.
Since making his Championship bow in 2000 to his last appearance in 2011, Williams was a constant menace for the opposition, from Rome to Edinburgh and Twickenham to Paris, the Swansea-born wing could always be relied on to provide some magic.
Ben Cohen (England)
When it came to scoring in the Championship, Ben Cohen wasted no time in getting started.
The Northampton Saint came flying out the blocks on his England debut as a sprightly 21-year-old against Ireland in 2000, grabbing himself a pair of tries in the process, and there was no looking back after that.
Cohen’s contributions were pivotal in an era of dominance for the English side in the competition.
In his 29 matches he only tasted defeat eight times, as the Red Rose emerged victorious in three out of the four Championships to start the millennium, winning the Grand Slam in 2003.
And even in the one year they didn’t claim the title in 2002, Cohen still left his mark on the competition. The winger was on hand to finish off an extraordinary English move that saw them go the length of the pitch in 30 seconds, as they powered past Ireland 45-11 at Twickenham.
Tommy Bowe (Ireland)
If you were to search for the best Guinness Six Nations tries there is little doubt that Tommy Bowe will make the list, probably more than once.
The Irish winger was known for being able to produce magical moments throughout his glittering career, and he seemed to save his best for the Championship.
2009 is a prime example, where his collection of Ronan O’Gara’s chip against Wales saw him finish with aplomb, using his speed to devastating effect.
In 2012 he went one better against France; picking the ball up in his own half, the former Ospreys and Ulster man dinked a kick over the defender himself, before collecting and touching down.
These are just two examples of the quality Bowe possessed, he managed to cross 14 times in total in his Championship career, helping his country to lift the trophy twice in that time including a first Grand Slam in 61 years in 2009.
Vincent Clerc (France)
You could say Vincent Clerc was the man who won the 2007 Championship.
With the clock ticking down in the first match at Croke Park, it looked like a Ronan O’Gara kicking masterclass was going to edge Ireland to victory over France as they led by four points with 60 seconds remaining, but then the ball found its way to the winger on the Irish 22.
Utilising the poise and grace that became such a trademark of his game, the former Toulouse man danced past two defenders to touch down and give the visitors the victory in the most dramatic circumstances.
That proved to be crucial in the final standings, as the French topped the table by on points difference after five matches to secure back-to-back triumphs.
The Frenchman would go on to touch down 11 times in 31 Championship appearances, including a hat-trick against Ireland a year later in Paris. The winger, who also scored two tries against Ireland in the 2007 World Cup, saved his best performances for the men in green.
With four titles under his belt, including a fleeting appearance in France’s 2010 Grand Slam, Clerc remains one of the most successful Frenchman of the Six Nations era.
Sean Lamont (Scotland)
The 21st century not always been a successful era for Scottish rugby in this competition, but thanks to Sean Lamont, they certainly had a campaign to remember in 2006.
France entered the competition that year hoping for a Grand Slam, but were put firmly back in their place by the former Glasgow Warrior’s double as the two sides met on the opening weekend. A drop of the shoulder left the visitors’ defence for dead for his first, before touching down at the back of a remarkable rolling maul to secure a 20-16 victory.
Successes over England and Italy followed, as Scotland eventually finished third that year, but that France win is one that will live long in the memory for Scottish rugby fans.
In terms of outright longevity, no other wing comes close to the Perth man either. His 105 total appearances, with 45 of those coming in the Championship, is testament to the high standards he maintained throughout his career.
George North (Wales)
It’s hard to believe George North is still only 27. The Welsh wizard on the wing seems to have been tormenting defences for a lifetime, and could surpass Williams try-scoring record in the not too distant future.
Wales’ domination of the Championship near the start of the last decade was very much underpinned by some dazzling performances by the thrice-capped British and Irish Lion.
A last-minute score against Ireland in the 2012 opener gave Wales a crucial 23-21 win in Dublin, which paved the way for eventual Grand Slam success.
As the years have passed, North continues to deliver on the highest stage – with 11 tries in 17 appearances since 2016, including a crucial double in last year’s opener against France, arguably his favourite opponent.
The late, crucial tries seem to be something North specialises in, and we could be treated to more brilliance this time around, with Wales starting their campaign at home to Italy in two weeks’ time.
Keith Earls (Ireland)
We all know what we’re going to get when Keith Earls steps on to the pitch, but stopping him from dazzling his way to the try-line is another matter.
The hot-stepping, hard-running wing has bamboozled all-comers, with his powerful surges from the flanks often proving too much for his opponents.
Three tries in last year’s Championship prove that fact, with the 32-year-old chiming in with performances just as influential as when he made his bow in the competition nine years ago.
The Munster man isn’t afraid to do the dirty work for his country either, with his strong tackling and defensive capabilities part of the reason why he started his career in the midfield.
After being included in Andy Farrell’s 35-man squad for the upcoming campaign, the Aviva Stadium is just waiting for Earls to illuminate it once again.
Jonny May (England)
It took 12 Championship matches for Jonny May to get off the mark for England, but once he got his first he could not stop scoring.
The Leicester Tiger had endured three scoreless campaigns before 2018, but two tries in a 12-6 victory over Wales was a sliding doors moment for the winger, as he began to produce the sort of rugby we have come to expect from the 29-year-old these days.
Two more scores followed in 2018, before a six-try haul in 2019 cemented his status as one of the best around in his position.
The speed of the former Gloucester man is something that is feared throughout the rugby world, and he will be looking to extend that record this time around.
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