With eight Ulstermen in Andy Farrell’s squad for this year’s Six Nations, Jonathan Bradley and Michael Sadlier look back at those from the province who have made the biggest and most telling contributions to the competition since Italy joined the traditional five at the turn of the millennium...
Six Nations debut: Italy (h) 2006
Championship appearances/points: 30/70
Made a try-scoring start to life in the Six Nations, crossing the whitewash against Italy for the first of 14 tries in the championship. Think Bowe and this competition, though, and it is one thing that comes to mind. Close your eyes and you can still hear the cry of ‘Tommy Booooooooowe’ as the then-Ospreys winger gathered the ball on the bounce against Wales in 2009 to set Ireland on their way to a first Grand Slam title since 1948. Two tries in Twickenham the next year provided another memorable day. Scored five times in 2012 and played every game of the 2015 triumph too.
Six Nations debut: Wales (h) 2006
Championship appearances/points: 64/25
Four winners’ medals with two Grand Slams is a tally matched only by Rob Kearney in Irish rugby. The most capped Ulsterman of all time had already had a fine run in the Six Nations before captaining the 2018 vintage to a clean sweep that included victories in Twickenham and at the Stade de France with that feat ensuring the Poyntzpass man etched his name forever into his side’s history in this competition. An absolute model of consistency, from round three in 2010 through to his last game in the competition in 2019, Best started all but two of the Six Nations games Ireland played. In all he featured 64 times in the competition, a tally bettered only by his long-time team-mate Brian O’Driscoll and Italian legend Sergio Parisse.
Six Nations debut: France (a) 2018
Championship appearances/points: 16/50
How many players can claim to have had the impact on a single championship season the way that Jacob Stockdale did in his maiden Six Nations campaign of 2018? His first outing in the competition didn’t go too smoothly away to France but from there he didn’t look back. For as long as this historic championship is played, seven scores in four games will be a tough feat to match while his score at Twickenham in the concluding game will be on the Irish rugby highlight reels long after Stockdale has hung up the boots. Not to mention that the stunning individual display came in a season his side won what was just their third ever Grand Slam. Injuries will ultimately limit him to just one outing across 2021 and ‘22 but the 25-year-old still has plenty of time to add to an already stellar resume.
Six Nations debut: France (a) 2006
Championship appearances/points: 32/35
Came off the bench to score in Paris on his first championship appearance in 2006 before starting all three legs of that year’s Triple Crown and played his part in the Irish side that repeated the feat the next season. His biggest contribution, though, would come in 2014, the first of the back-to-back championships won by Joe Schmidt’s squad. Scored in the crucial win in Paris that sealed the title and his form through the season would see him voted Irish Player of the Year.
Six Nations debut: Scotland (a) 2013
Championship appearances/points: 29/10
Currently a part of Andy Farrell’s squad for the 2022 edition, Henderson already has three winners’ medals to his name, the first two yielded from only his first ten outings in the competition. Played in four games during the 2018 Grand Slam and has already tasted victory 40 times in this championship. Perhaps his two best years, though, were ones that didn’t end in Irish silverware. It was his brilliant showings against England in 2017 that sealed his place on the Lions tour to New Zealand that summer while he defied injury last season to be one of his side’s top performers.
Six Nations debut: v France (h) 2009
Championship appearances/points: 14/0
Had eight Test appearances behind him, and had witnessed the meltdown of the 2007 World Cup without getting game-time, when, two years later, he arrived at the Six Nations. It was an opportune moment and Ferris didn’t waste his chance, playing a central role in Ireland’s second ever Grand Slam triumph. From there he was selected for the Lions tour to South Africa and looked a shoo-in for the Tests only for injury to end everything early. His battles with fitness continued and after a memorable World Cup in 2011, he played one more Six Nations campaign, the last appearance being a heavy defeat to England on St Patrick’s Day 2012.
Six Nations debut: v France (a) 1996
Championship appearances/points: 34/270
Not the easiest time to begin wearing the green shirt, Humphreys had the misfortune to be around as Ireland lurched through the depressed 1990s and, as such, was a participant in the national side’s lowest moment when being knocked out of the 1999 World Cup by Argentina in the grim surroundings of Lens. He was, at least, present at the revival, though, memorably kicking the winning points at Stade de France in 2000, the day of Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick, and being part of the more successful 2003 World Cup squad. He battled coming man Ronan O’Gara for the 10 shirt but gradually, and inevitably, lost out to the young pretender.
Position: Utility back
Six Nations debut: England (h) 2007
Championship appearances/points: 12/10
A hugely talented and versatile player who could shine at either out-half, centre or full-back, Wallace had the misfortune to be around firstly when David Humphreys and Ronan O’Gara were dominating the scene at 10 and then when Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy were in their pomp in the Irish midfield. Wallace was also bedevilled by injury though bounced back many times. He did, though, manage a run of games alongside O’Driscoll for the start of Ireland’s Grand Slam season of 2009. A member of three World Cup squads he finally got a start in his last tournament against Russia in 2011.
From New Zealand
Six Nations debut: Italy (a) 2015
Championship appearances/points: 10/10
Had the unenviable task of filling the number 13 shirt in the wake of Brian O’Driscoll’s much fabled career – though he also featured at full-back – the Kiwi brought his own type of game to Test rugby with timing, skill and vision in both attack and defence all being notable attributes. In his first season, Ireland secured back to back Six Nations titles after a dramatic final day of action, Payne having earlier scored against Scotland at Murrayfield. Was also at Soldier Field in November 2016 when Ireland, finally, got the better of the All Blacks. Was selected for the Lions in 2017 where his career came to an abrupt halt due to a head injury.
Six Nations debut: Wales (a) 2013
Championship appearances/points: 5/20
Announced himself at Test level with what he does best, scoring tries as he jinked and swerved his way over against Argentina in November 2012 after just 10 minutes in an Ireland shirt. His finest moment though came in what turned out to be Gilroy’s final Test when he scampered his way to a hat-trick of tries in Rome in 2017 in the last 13 minutes of game after coming off the bench. Perhaps a clue that he wasn’t quite what Joe Schmidt was looking for, going forward, then emerged when the coach pointed out that his performance had been “a mixed bag” despite his stirring hat-trick.