When the Five Nations became Six at the turn of the century, Ireland scrum-half Peter Stringer made his international debut.
18 years later and Stringer called time on his career at the age of 40 – the final player involved in that 2000 Championship to do so.
In a retirement statement on Tuesday, he paid tribute to those who had supported him over the years.
From his time on the terraces at Lansdowne Road as a kid, to his debut against Scotland in 2000. From his crowning glory as Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009 to now watching the games on TV as a supporter – Stringer has experienced it all.
And after finally hanging up his boots after more than two decades of professional rugby, the legendary scrum-half took us on a trip down memory lane.
To celebrate the Six Nations’ 20th anniversary, you can form your Greatest XV on the Guinness Six Nations app and choose from more than 150 players, including Peter Stringer.
Born in 1977, the Ireland team of Stringer’s youth in the 1980s were packed full of stars like Brendan Mullin and Mike Kiernan.
But it was the homegrown men of Munster that always caught his eye.
“When I think of the Irish team, that Triple Crown in 1985 sticks with me,” he recalls.
“That try from Brendan Mullin, that drop goal from Mike Kiernan against England.
“Mike was a Cork lad. Michael Bradley played for Cork Constitution, my club. I would see them around the place the whole time.
“So to see them on the international stage performing and in front of great crowds – that was a real inspiration.
“You didn’t have many touring sides, you didn’t have the autumn internationals. It was all about the Five Nations back then.
“It still is; I regard it as the best competition in the world. There is that rivalry and heritage that goes with it. You still have that competitive edge with the different countries and that hasn’t dissipated at all over the years. If anything it’s got stronger.”
MAKING HIS DEBUT
After breaking through into the Munster first team in 1998, it was not until two years later that Ireland came calling.
The half-back partnership he had formed with Ronan O’Gara at provincial level was just too good to ignore.
An unused replacement for the first game of the 2000 Championship that saw Ireland put to the sword at Twickenham – his first appearance came the next weekend at home against Scotland.
“Five of us made our debuts against Scotland that day,” he added. “And people often refer to it as that transition, that turning point in Irish rugby, going from the fourth or third team in the Championship to really staking a claim over the next decade and being in the mix.
“The anthem is quite a surreal moment. The previous week, you’re sitting on the bench at Twickenham. In hindsight, it was probably no bad thing that they didn’t blood the younger guys off the bench that day!
“But when you know you get to take off that tracksuit top and you’ve got your No.9 jersey underneath, and you’re going to get the opportunity to be on the field for the first whistle is a pretty special.
“It’s always nice to get your first cap at home and to win as well was unforgettable – one of the proudest moments in a green jersey.”
TO THE TERRACES
There were special days to come for Ireland and Stringer – even before that famous 2009 Grand Slam.
Some of those were abroad, like the 2004 Triple Crown that included becoming the first team to beat England at Twickenham in almost five years.
But Lansdowne Road – now known as the Aviva Stadium – will always hold a special place in Stringer’s heart, right the way back to when, as a kid, he used to get the bus up from Munster on the day of an Ireland game to watch them.
“To get the Triple Crown again at home against Scotland in 2006 was a very special day, and for me to be able to get over for a try as well,” he said.
“I didn’t score many in a green jersey but to score on a day like that at that end, where I was always standing as a schoolboy watching the Irish team, was a particularly nice moment.#
“At Lansdowne, the terrace was the schoolboy end. There was a section up top where you would always go and to cross the ball over the line and throw the ball into the terraces, and look to where I used to stand as a kid; it’s just amazing looking back on it now.”
THE CROWNING GLORY
Ireland had missed a chance at the Grand Slam back in 2003, when England’s soon-to-be-World Cup winners came to Dublin and thrashed Stringer and co.
But six years later, the stage was set in Cardiff for Ireland to end 61 years of hurt.
“We’d been through a lot as a group without having that final trophy to show for it,” he added.
“It certainly made it that bit more special when there’s a build-up from so many years when you have come so close.”
The game against Wales was on a knife edge, Stephen Jones’ second-half drop goal moving Wales back in front after Tommy Bowe’s early try.
Stringer – on the bench that day, with Tomas O’Leary preferred to start – knew that his moment was coming.
Although, as his former Sale Sharks teammate Mike Phillips reminds him, it could have been a very different story.
“When you are on the bench all you want to do is be out there on the field. Then you come on and in the back of your mind you’re thinking: ‘don’t mess this up!’
“I remember coming straight on and Mike Phillips broke through a lineout, straight through me, and luckily, I scrambled back and got him by the boot-laces and brought him down.
“It was one of those heart-in-the-mouth moments. Mike always tells me he thought he was definitely going to score and I hadn’t quite got into the game yet, but it just comes down to those fine margins, I suppose.”
But there was never any doubt that O’Gara would nail the big occasion with a customary drop goal – fed, as always, by his partner-in-crime at No.9.
Then, Jones had a late penalty to break Irish spirits fall just short – and the celebrations could really begin.
“When I met up with my friends, my family, my brothers, my girlfriend – now wife – it was very special. They have been on that journey with you and to see them getting emotional and everyone crying makes it really hit home.
“Celebrating on the pitch afterwards; you just don’t want it to end. You see people in the stadium singing and you don’t want them ever to leave. You want a reason to just stay out there all day and all night.
“You get back into the changing room and time goes on, you sit down and reflect and soak it up. But you know that as soon as you leave that changing room you are not going to get that back.
“You take your time taking photos, sitting on the floor and just enjoying the smiles on guys’ faces.
“As soon as you get dressed and leave, each moment moves on and all you have is the memory of it.
“You want to live every second but the whole evening was great and you try and make the most of celebrating with teammates, friends and family.
“It certainly is the proudest moment. The first cap is a different feeling – this is the culmination of all your hard work. They are very different. Isolated but equally special.”