The Mole had a right little outburst of smug chuckling when Will Greenwood described kick-offs as ‘almost like a new set-piece’ in his analysis of the Munster vs Northampton HEC Round 6 tie. And he is moved to a similarly snide smirk at Gavin Cummiskey’s article in yesterday’s Irish Times.
“The recent injury crux has made the description “tighthead” and “loosehead” locks very popular of late. It turns out they are very particular positions – though Paul O’Connell, for one, can perform both.”
Did you ever hear the like? Next thing you’ll be telling me there are ‘openside’ and ‘blindside’ flankers … g’way.
It’d be nice to avoid hitting Darragh Moloney levels of obvious smugnitude, but for f*ck’s sake: it’s not demanding much of your observation skills as a journalist to notice that the big lumpy front-jumping second row who gets in fights almost invariably packs down on the right-hand side of the scrum, while the spring-heeled athlete of the two is on the left. Robin Brooke and Ian Jones? Rod McCall and John Eales? Bakkies and Victor? Did you think that they bound like that because they preferred to sleep on that side of the bed?
Just like there’s the propensity to blame hookers for all lineouts that go amiss, it’s always the props who are at fault when a scrum goes arseways, right? Wrong. In the first test of the 2009 Lions series, the Beast had an absolute field day against Phil Vickery. In the second test, he didn’t get much change out of Adam Jones, and in the third test, Vickery actually had him in all sorts of bother, although that’s often forgotten. What was the story there?
Well, aside from Mtawarira’s scrummaging technique coming under much closer scrutiny [as elements of it had been illegal in the first test, notably his stepping around to the left and driving up], Vickery had Alun-Wyn Jones scrummaging behind him in the first test. Guess who was in the engine room for the second and third tests? That’s right: Simon “Give Us A Hug, Shawsy” Shaw, one of the best scrummagers of the professional era.
It’s also the reason why the French will pick very solid stumps like Lionel Nallet and Romain Millo-Chluski in their pack – they even picked them together in November 2009, to counteract the enormous Springbok pack. Nallet and Millo-Chluski claim 195/196cm [which is about 6’5″, or the same height as Tony Buckley] and neither of them are outrageously spring heeled. Millo-Chluski tips the scales at 121kg [19st1lb] and Nallet at 115kg [18st2lbs], and you’ll often find them lifting in the lineout rather than jumping. Look at French lineout statistics under Lievremont – their primary targets were always Bonnaire and Harinordoquy. Nallet and Millo-Chluski [and their ilk] are there for their scrummaging and lifting grunt rather than their aerial prowess.
It’s one of the reasons why Damien Browne was contracted by Leinster. Browne has prototypical size for the position at 196cm [6’5″] and 127kg [20st], and has extensive experience in two leagues which put an emphasis on scrummaging. He played for four seasons with Northampton, and a further three seasons with Brive in the Top 14, and there’s every chance that he was 6’6″ when he started*. Schmidt was familiar with him from the latter stint, having regularly coached Clermont teams against him. Browne is no Baron von Richthofen in the sky, but he’s an absolute tank in the scrum.
That’s quite an interesting point, because Browne is almost exactly the same size as Tony Buckley. There’s a chance that, had Browne stayed in Ireland, he’d have found himself asked to sign up to the front row union; conversely, had Buckley been born down near Perpignan, he’d never have been asked to move forward to tighthead.
Big Man On Campus
Guys like Shaw , Thorn , Hines  and Botha  are absolute physical freaks, which is one of the reasons you see them playing for so long – Bakkies’ contract with Toulon is for three years, which will take him up to 35 or so, a birthday the others have already passed. The stature, athleticism and the physical strength required to be a world-class tighthead scrummager are extremely rare [crazily, England had Martin Johnson and Simon Shaw for an extended period, which goes someway to show their enormous squad depth at the time], and through a combination of natural maturity and years spent in the weight-room, at the dining-table and against scrummaging machines, they’re only really entering their physical prime as second rows in their late twenties … when you’ve got a guy who can come into international rugby as a second row in his early twenties and compete, you’re looking at a 100-capper.
Big men with lengthy careers are not a phenomenon unique to rugby. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neill – some of the most famous big men of basketball – had careers that lasted 20, 14, 13 and 19 seasons respectively.
Size is a skill. Actually, that’s a very questionable statement; normally, practice will improve a skill, but there’s f*ck-all you can to to ‘improve’ your height. Still, there are elements of size in rugby which have many of the attributes of a skill. Just like you need to be fast to be a good winger, you need to be tall to be a good second row. Therefore, when you get people who have the physical gifts to play certain positions – and especially gifts that don’t deteriorate significantly over time – then they can get a lot of mileage out of their stature. Brian O’Driscoll will be slower over 50m at the end of his career than he was at the start of it but Paul O’Connell won’t be any shorter.
Big Chief Winning-Game
There’s also something to be said for the natural authority of the big man. Guys who were always big [athleticus grandus], but were never crazy-tall [lamperus domesticus] tend to have a confidence that has become ingrained through their youth and finds a natural home giving orders and pretending to listen to referees on the rugby pitch. Maybe that’s cod-psychology – captains come in all shapes and sizes, and you could argue that hooker has provided some of the recent greats [Fitzpatrick, Smit, Ibanez, Wood] – but there’s no doubt that some of the great captains of the modern era have been second-rows: Eales, Johnson, Pelous.
Big Joh-ohn … Big Bad John
Paul O’Connell’s tremendous versatility is another reason why so many articles bemoaning the last lost chance of the Golden Generation may yet prove to be ill-founded. For much of the first half of his international career, O’Connell was used in partnership with Mal O’Kelly; O’Connell was the more usual front-jumper of the two in an era when there was less deception and trickery involved out of touch.
His technical excellence as a jumper, when added to his previous experiences of the role, make this a viable reversion for him as age takes its toll and he becomes a little less nimble, a little slower and maybe even a little stronger. Combined with his ability to scrummage on either side, this means that – injury permitting – there’s every chance that O’Connell will see the next World Cup.
There’s also the fact that even though O’Connell doesn’t advertise, he’s a decent enforcer. Jamie Cudmore has a big rep as Clermont’s equivalent of a hockey-goon, but O’Connell cut him down to size in Thomond Park in a rare loss of temper. O’Callaghan is all bark and no bite, and while you can make the argument that modern international rugby doesn’t have room for enforcers because of all the cameras, there’s always going to be room for the happy warrior, the lad who loves being in the thick of confrontation: Bakkies, Big Bad Brad, Steve ‘Thomo’ Thompson. It makes sense if he’s the biggest guy on your team!
In his most recent column, Alan Quinlan makes the point that there wasn’t enough of a hard-edge or enough intensity in Ireland’s loss to Wales, and The Mole agrees. Obviously I can’t speak with the same authority as Quinlan – whose columns to date have been a revelation – and it’s classic hurler on the ditch stuff to give out about players ‘lacking intensity’, but that’s what it looked like.
The kicker is that it just takes a few incidents to ramp it up. Donnacha Ryan smashing Adam Jones backwards with a text-book counter-ruck was a real statement of intent [although obviously you don’t want to see your hard-man getting rag-dolled by their enforcer, even if you get the penalty out of it], as were the pick-and-goes up the middle of the park. You’ve simply got to look for those confrontations for 80 mins. You can’t win them all, but you can’t stop looking for them either.
* A reference to Martin Johnson’s reply to a journalist after England had beaten New Zealand in Wellington in the summer of 2003.