Former England fly-half Stuart Barnes turns selector to pick his ‘dream team’ of players since the championship expanded in 2000
The Greatest Six Nations XV
The greatest Six Nations team of the century? ‘Six’ is the key word. We are about to be in the 21st year of this brave new world where Italy joined the party. Forget the famous Five Nations, the focus is on what is essentially the modern professional code – with apologies to some of the lags who crossed between the epochs.
Indeed, some of those veterans made it from the last to this millennium, players who I played with have made the team. Only a few, and they were exceptional. In the main, excellence goes with longevity as the criteria for selection. Sympathy for countries which have struggled plays no part in the choices. So here we go.
15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
The Player of the Championship in both 2016 and 2017, the Glasgow Warrior has overtaken Gavin Hastings as the greatest Scottish full-back of them all. Never afraid to use his speed on the counter-attack, in the past three years he has added better decision-making to his physical attributes and his astonishing boot.
An inspiring presence in attack and defence, there have been few full-backs to stand comparison with this flying Scot. And unlike all bar one other in this XV, we can hope the best is still to come.
14 Jason Robinson (England)
If there was one player who could have ousted Hogg it was the league convert. Coming off the bench against Italy in 2001 he looked out of his depth, but it was one of Clive Woodward’s greatest decisions to make the premature introduction.
In no time he was repeating his Wigan wizardry in the Six Nations, first as a wing and then as a full-back. His try against France in 2002, one-against-one from a scrum, made the game look impossibly easy; if you possessed a Jason Robinson.
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)
This was the most straightforward of all the selections. The former Ireland centre is one of the greatest of all rugby players. He drove Ireland to their first Grand Slam since 1948, as adept at the short-range score as the dazzling hat-trick of tries which marked his arrival on the Test scene in Paris.
Scything in attack, he was equally accomplished in defence (a nod for his sidekick, Gordon D’Arcy, on this theme).
If he had a weakness, it was his long passing game, but with the arrival of Joe Schmidt as coach that relative fault was eradicated. The most complete player in this Six Nations composite.
12 Yannick Jauzion (France)
If O’Driscoll is the most complete 21st-century centre of the Six Nations elite, none approach the elegance that Jauzion brought to the game. Nothing seemed to happen in a hurry but the 6ft 4in former France centre had the knack of drawing defenders into his orbit and creating space for those players around him.
The most languid of movers, he played as if he had all the time in the world. He had a game of aesthetic beauty.
11 Shane Williams (Wales)
It took Wales a while to trust Williams but he didn’t hold it against them. The man of phenomenal footwork sidestepped off his wing and played a far from peripheral part in two Grand Slams.
Here was the quintessential Welshman, smaller than his opponent but so full of craft and guile that few could lay a hand on one of the 21st century’s great rugby entertainers.
In a nation famed for its wings, nobody is more revered in Welsh wing history than the fleet-footed Williams.
10 Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
This was arguably the toughest call to make. Sexton was supreme in the manner in which he guided Ireland to their 2018 Slam but all of England (or its vast majority) will be up in arms at the absence of a certain Jonny Wilkinson.
From 2000-03 Wilkinson was magnificent, especially his performance in the 2003 Grand Slam win in Dublin, but thereafter he was injured/average.
Sexton has been hugely consistent since filling the boots of Ronan O’Gara; a ten of iron will with the coolest of heads.
Sexton, frequently the torturer of the English, it is who gets the nod.
9 Dwayne Peel (Wales)
Often in the shadow of the more robust Mike Phillips, yet when Peel was running the show from the base of the scrum, Wales were a far more attractive team to watch and a tougher one to stop.
There was a fluidity to his pass and a sly ability to pick the gap around the fringes that made him a rare talent, if a somewhat underestimated one at times, despite this creature of beguiling instinct being a Lions Test player in NZ in 2005.
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1 Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
There were plenty who questioned his scrum technique but he found a way to survive in the tight, and that was good enough because Jenkins was one of the great footballing props of all time, up there in Wales with Graham Price.
He tackled like a tank yet had a softness of touch with the ball in hand that defied the bulk of the man all of Wales seemed to call ‘Melon’.
2 Raphaël Ibañez (France)
Famed this side of the Channel for his illustrious career at Wasps, Ibañez was an outstanding hooker in his France days, unforgiving in the set-piece and remarkably mobile in the loose.
He retired from the Test arena in 2003 but was good enough to force Bernard Laporte to court his return to the international game. He did more than merely return. Laporte selected him to captain his country in an extended swansong, which highlighted this exceptional hooker’s abilities.
3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
Forget the longevity rule, the Ireland tighthead’s exceptional form in the past few years makes him an automatic pick for this team – and one of the most exciting prospects for years to come.
Here is a front-row forward who approaches scrummaging with the relish of an old-style Five Nations prop whilst carrying and tackling like a modern Kiwi.
He has the technical abilities of Gethin Jenkins but without any of the question marks which swirled around the Welshman’s scrummaging.
He is the complete player who, like Stuart Hogg, has great things ahead.
4 Martin Johnson (England, captain)
The second row was as difficult a call as any when picking this team. Fabien Pelous and Alun Wyn Jones have not made the cut. That tells you something about the quality of the pair included.
This Tiger began his career as an uncomplicated hard man. He finished as England’s most garlanded player, captaining them to the World Cup.
Along with many of the Woodward team, he developed a running and handling game, a little like Jones these days. But it was as an unforgiving enforcer with immense leadership for which he will be remembered on the rugby battlefields of Europe.
5 Paul O’Connell (Ireland)
The ‘other’ totemic presence in Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam side. O’Connell gave what I would regard as the greatest display of second-row play when Ireland ‘welcomed’ England to Croke Park for the first time in 2007. He dominated the airways at lineout and restart like few, if any, have done before or since.
He’s a man of presence, someone you follow without asking questions. Willie John McBride is a legend but in the first decade of the 21st century, O’Connell eclipsed him as the greatest Irish lock.
6 Richard Hill (England)
Another of the World Cup contingent to make it. Hill was good enough to be a Lions Test seven, even as he set about quietly influencing every game he played as a blindside. ‘Unseen work’ is a phrase I dislike and distrust, so easy to justify the work of a favourite, but none have merited the sobriquet quite like Hill.
He was so good at doing so many things without fuss that it’s hard to recall one single moment. But he wasn’t a moment man, he was an 80 minutes perpetual motion sort of flanker.
7 Sam Warburton (Wales)
I am not sure whether the Wales openside was even the best Six Nations openside of his generation. When fit, Ireland’s Sean O’Brien is an equal menace as a jackler and a different class as a ball-carrier. However, endurance, if not everything, counts for plenty and while Warburton was brittle in club colours, for Wales he was a dauntless warrior and notable captain.
Not a natural in the Shane Williams Welsh way, but a man of passion, no small intelligence and integrity.
8 Lawrence Dallaglio (England)
There’s no Sergio Parisse, no Italian presence, so my old mate ‘Bruno’ will have to be the nearest thing in the team to an Italian representative.
One of four World Cup winners in the side, Dallaglio brought an indomitable will to every Six Nations game he played. ‘Remorseless’ is the right word for the Wasp who never died wondering on the field of play. Others were more skilful – Imanol Harinordoquy say – but none had the same drive and self-belief to lift those around him like ‘Big Lol’.
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