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 and today it’s the turn of the hookers.
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In alphabetical order:
Rory Best (Ireland)
Where else to start than the man who called time on his Ireland career at the end of 2019 after a remarkable decade and a half.
One of just two men to play in both Ireland Grand Slams in the 21st century, along with Rob Kearney, Rory Best captained his country to a clean sweep in 2018.
Winning 124 caps in total for his country, Best was part of four Championship-winning sides in all, and became the bedrock of the team under Joe Schmidt having spent his early years battling with Jerry Flannery for the starting role.
Gordon Bulloch (Scotland)
In the early part of the century, Gordon Bulloch was the go-to man in the No.2 jersey for Scotland, racking up 75 caps for his country over an eight-year spell.
As well as being part of the Scotland team that won the Championship in 1999, he played a key role under Ian McGeechan after Italy made five into six.
A two-time British & Irish Lion, he was for a time Scotland’s most capped hooker and even captained them in the 2005 Championship, his final campaign.
Ross Ford (Scotland)
The man who overtook Bulloch in terms of Scotland caps as a hooker, Ross Ford enjoyed remarkable longevity in the Scotland jersey.
The Edinburgh great called time on his playing career at the end of last season, but not before making 110 appearances for Scotland.
He was also a British & Irish Lion, helping the team to victory in the third Test in South Africa in 2009, and in 2012, led Scotland in the Championship.
By 2017 he had overtaken Chris Paterson as the most capped Scotland rugby player of all time, an accolade he still holds to this day.
Leonardo Ghiraldini (Italy)
A great of the Italian game, Leonardo Ghiraldini was denied a final farewell for the Azzurri at the World Cup by typhoon Hagibis.
The hooker, who was so highly-regarded that at one point he was preferred to Sergio Parisse as Italy captain, had recovered from a torn ACL only seven months earlier to be fit for that game, only for his hopes to be dashed.
Ghiraldini played his parts in some of the great Championship moments for Italy, including coming off the bench in the maiden win over France in 2011, and starting the first Championship win over Ireland two years later.
Guilhem Guirado (France)
Another man who called time on his Test career at the end of 2019, few have given more to their country’s cause than Guilhem Guirado for France over the past decade.
Chucked into the mix at 21 by Marc Lièvremont, he had to bide his time to become first choice for Les Bleus.
He did that under Philippe Saint-André before being named as the captain by Guy Novès and then his successor Jacques Brunel.
A leader by example rather than words, Guirado finished his career with 74 caps in all, and while he started just one Test in his first six years at international level, he ended up starting exactly 50 matches for France.
Dylan Hartley (England)
Another former skipper in this list, and not the last, Dylan Hartley saw his World Cup hopes ended by injury in 2019.
The Northampton Saints stalwart finished his career as the second-most capped England player of all time, behind only Jason Leonard, and led England to Grand Slam glory in 2016.
As well as that success, he was also part of the England sides that won the Championship in 2011 and 2017, winning the latter as captain.
Richard Hibbard (Wales)
Richard Hibbard’s Championship career might be shorter than a few other players on this list but he packed plenty into it.
While he made his first Test appearance in 2006, he had to wait until 2011 to make his Championship bow.
The following year he was part of the Wales team that won the Grand Slam in style, and then continued on that roll with another Championship success the following year.
A Test Lion in 2013, Hibbard remained part of the Wales team through to 2015, making his final appearance with a try in a World Cup warm-up clash.
Raphael Ibanez (France)
This year Raphael Ibanez will play his part in the Guinness Six Nations as France team manager, and prior to that he was a commentator on French TV.
But before all that, Ibanez was best known for his performances as the France skipper, both before and after Italy’s arrival in the Championship.
A Grand Slam winner in 1998 and then 2002, captaining Les Bleus for the entirety of the first and against Wales in the second, he then called time on his Test career.
Bernard Laporte convinced him to come out of retirement, and Ibanez was part of the France team that won the 2006 Championship and reclaimed the captaincy for another success the following year.
Ken Owens (Wales)
The only current player on this list, Ken Owens earned his second Grand Slam title in 2019, and has now established himself as a Wales great in the position.
The Scarlets skipper made his debut at the 2011 World Cup before helping Wales to a clean sweep the following year, including a first Test start in the win over England at Twickenham.
Often used off the bench early in his career, including in all five games of the 2013 Championship success, Owens has since established himself as first choice in the No.2 jersey.
With 75 caps and counting, and a British & Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand, his record stacks up with the very best to have played for Wales in the position.
William Servat (France)
The third Frenchman on this list, and the second who is part of the current coaching set-up. William Servat is the current France forwards coach, having fulfilled a similar role for club Toulouse since retirement.
At his best, Servat was among the very best in the world at his position, although his path at international level did not run smooth.
Servat broke onto the scene in 2004, winning the Grand Slam at the first attempt, only for a back injury to keep him out for an extended period and even lead to thoughts of a positional switch to No.8.
He decided against that, and worked his way back into the team, helping France to Grand Slam glory in 2010 and a World Cup final the following year.
Steve Thompson (England)
One of the few England players to be part of both their 2003 Grand Slam and the 2011 Championship title, Steve Thompson was England’s standout hooker for much of the 2000s.
The starter for their World Cup win in 2003, after playing every game of the Grand Slam victory, Thompson had made his debut the previous year as England had to settle for the runners-up spot.
Unlike many others in this selection, Thompson was first choice from the off, and it was not until later in his career that he was used more as a bench option behind Dylan Hartley.
Dynamic around the park, and a powerful ball carrier, he was part of the all-conquering England pack that did such damage in the early 2000s.
Keith Wood (Ireland)
The inaugural World Rugby Player of the Year, Keith Wood was a talisman as Ireland established themselves as a global force.
While he played much of his career before Italy’s arrival in the Championship, making his debut back in 1994, Wood enjoyed some of his finest moments in the 2000.
He was rewarded for his performances in 2001 by winning the Player of the Year award and was later inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
Wood had an all-round skillset and his 15 tries currently stand as the most by any hooker in the history of the game.