Return To Specificity

Jeff Probyn: maybe he doesn't look like much, but this guy was fêted as one of the most technically accomplished tightheads in the world during the late 80s and early 90s.

Amid all the palaver spilt over the outsized Welsh three-quarters, The Mole has been reassured by a number of small developments in forward play over the last six months.

Perhaps development is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s a wider recognition amongst press and fans alike of the specific roles that each man in the pack has to perform, or perhaps it’s a return to the balance of attributes that the amateur game had settled into after a hundred years, a balance that was upset by professionalism and the enormous increase in player size, collision force, fitness and all that brought about.

A Tighthead’s Role Pinned Down

Emmet Byrne’s excellent Irish Times article about the intricacies of tighthead play was published in the fallout of England’s destruction of a Mike Ross-less Irish scrummage. Times rugby correspondent Gavin Cummiskey had dished out some low marks and bad-tempered comments in his ‘How They Rated’ side bar, with Mike Ross being referred to as something like an ‘ordinary’ or ‘average’ tighthead. A former international tighthead himself, Byrne was able to outline the enormous and varied demands put on tightheads at the highest level of the game, and how their job has become even harder in light of different protocols and interpretations at scrum time.

It was interesting that his definition of the ideal build for a tighthead chimed in so well with Kobus Visagie’s in this piece : narrow shoulders and a barrel chest is an odd sort of build, and The Mole was pretty sure that Kobus was just describing his own physique in a typically South African gesture of self-regard!

Emmet Byrne himself was a ‘blown up’ prop: he didn’t look like many peoples’ idea of a natural front rower, and had to work like an animal in the weights room to stay big enough to play – much the same as the recently retired Jerry Flannery. He had quite a big rep as a gym-monster back in the 1990s in Dublin rugby circles, and was far more keyed into the benefits of weight training than the likes of fellow Leinster representatives Angus McKeen, Henry Hurley, Peter Bruce and Reggie Corrigan, guys who were more of the ‘old school’ and against whom he would have spent a good deal of time scrummaging in the AIL. Byrne was at his heaviest at 106kg [16st 9lbs], which is pretty light for 183cm [6’0”] tall prop, and the weight has just dropped off him since he’s retired – you’d actually never guess that he was a prop to look at him [which is a very rare thing to say about a guy who played in the front row at a high level until he was 34!]

It’s often those smaller guys who have the best technique: they can’t get by on strength alone compared to the big boys, and there are natural advantages to being short and stocky in both the weight room [to build sufficient strength to compete with bigger men] and the scrum. It stands to reason that short legs means your scrummaging height will be relatively low, and a short square back doesn’t have much opportunity to buckle compared to a long ‘un.

The Mole remembers the old school of scrummaging that Byrne refers to, when it was the loosehead’s job to keep his left elbow up and the tighthead’s job to get his right elbow down. J.A. Probyn – weighing in at considerably less than 16 stone – would go up against N.J. Popplewell and there’d be enough twisting to keep Bucks going until 5am. Old hookers will tell of nodding the ball back with their heads rather than striking with their feet, and up until 1995 Robin Brooke was still throwing punches through his tighthead’s leg at the opposition loosehead. What larks! As they’d say on Twitter, “Hashtag, Glory Days”.

The Pros And Cons Of Groundhog Day

The performance of Brumbies openside Michael Hooper against the then-unbeaten Otago Highlanders at the weekend provided more food for thought regarding specificity in the pack. In Irish rugby circles, certain well-known pundits have been keening for a ‘natural openside’ to be integrated into the team [despite the lack of a stand-out candidate], and the recent World Cup was full of cracking performers – Richie McCaw, the winning captain of the All Blacks, Thierry Dusautoir, the IRB International Player of the Year [yes, he’s an openside], Wales’ captain Sam Warburton and Australia’s David Pocock.

Michael Hooper breaks away against the Sharks in a game from last year's edition of Super Rugby. The guy is only twenty, but has already been tipped as a Wallaby by Aussie legend George Smith ... and there's a fellah who knows all there is to know about what it takes to be an international openside. Now, there's the not insignificant barrier of David Pocock to surpass, but with the way these guys play the game, injury is pretty much guaranteed. Pocock's absence against Ireland might have cost Australia the match ... a backup like Hooper could make all the difference.

The twenty year old Hooper brought a feral attitude to the breakdown, scrapping over every ball like a hungry dog. His work-rate, attitude and technique at the breakdown couldn’t be faulted – at every single breakdown, it took two or three Highlanders to tear him off.

The breakdown has rarely been more important in the game, and things which are important in any field of endeavour promote attention to detail. This demand in turn breeds specialists. Again, as in any field, people who specialise in some specific element of a subject tend to fall behind or neglect other elements.

Ireland have played with a tackle-breaking, hard-carrying No7 since David Wallace came back into the team in 2006; previous to that, Eddie O’Sullivan picked a ‘balanced’ – even prototypical – backrow of Easterby/Gleeson/Foley. Easterby was an exceptional lineout option, a teak-tough player who would take the hits, lie on opposition ball and put in tackles all day; Gleeson was a linking openside with genuine pace who was capable of keeping up with the three-quarters to win ruck ball wide out or take a supporting pass, and Foley was an on-pitch general with great hands, a thinker, a leader and just a very good rugby player.

The problem was that there were no truly exceptional athletes, open-field runners or tackle-breakers in that lineup. Easterby lacked top-end pace and bulk, Foley lacked speed and fitness and Gleeson was simply too light to break tackles.

The turnaround to the Easterby/Wallace/Leamy backrow that was selected by O’Sullivan in 2006 was brought to its logical conclusion under Declan Kidney, with his Ferris/Wallace/Heaslip [and latterly Ferris/O’Brien/Heaslip] backrow selections. Now every single member of the backrow is a ball-carrier par excellence, but some of the specifics have been lost. While a far superior athlete and a player who has earned numerous international plaudits, Heaslip doesn’t play with the same intelligence as Foley, and while Wallace and O’Brien are exceptional flankers, what they bring to the table is a long way removed from those skills typically associated with opensides.

O'Brien and Warburton go head-to-head in the RWC11 quarter-final. The Tullow Tank can play anywhere across the backrow, but as an out-and-out openside, he had to take a backseat to Eagle Sam on the day. Warburton couldn't hold a candle to O'Brien as a close-in ball carrier or a tackle-breaker out in the backline, but his engine, tenacity and tackling technique are of the first order.

People raved about Sam Warburton’s performance against O’Brien in the RWC11 quarter-final, and it’s a performance which highlighted the pros and cons of the specialist versus the generalist. Warburton did very, very little with the ball in hand, while O’Brien was used as an attacking weapon again and again [the NZ Herald credited him as the top ball-carrier in the game, with 23 runs for 81m]. However, Warburton was able to do his job [tackle, slow Irish ball, effect turnovers when there’s a chance] to a very, very high standard.

Warburton isn’t a particularly good handler or linkman [certainly not in comparison to his immediate predecessor for both Cardiff and Wales, Martyn Williams] but he’s an absolute trojan at the breakdown, and there are line-breakers and slick-handlers aplenty in that big backline. It’s part of the beauty of rugby, in that a guy with an incomplete skillset can still be a vital part of the team: be that the salad-dodging tighthead Adam Jones, who’s not going to be able to run away from anybody, or Warburton, who’s not really a big carrying threat.

Something that The Mole has come to realise more and more as the years have passed is that Richie McCaw has set the bar too high for opensides; he’s the Sergey Bubka of No7s. I’d go so far as to say that he has spoiled rugby fans on the position. He can do it all at a ridiculous level – a ground-hog, a linkman, a spectacular athlete, a consummate footballer, an indefatigable tackler, a hard-yard-gaining ball carrier, an inspirational captain and a regular try-scorer [19 tries in 103 tests]. He’s one of the greatest players ever to play the game – right up there in the conversation as the greatest player of all time with Gareth Edwards and Colin Earl Meads.

From Tighthead To … Tighthead Lock

The ‘phenomenon’ of tighthead locks received a fair degree of coverage when the news broke that Leinster had signed All Black legend Brad Thorn on a short-term contract.

Up until the French [in combination with Paddy O’Brien’s dictats] revolutionised scrummaging as a destructive art in the 09-10 season, the defining characteristic of second rows to the fan in the stands was as a front or middle jumper, rather than a loosehead or tighthead scrummager. Fancier lineouts with the use of far more movement and deceptive ploys made these tags less meaningful – some would say redundant – at the same time as the scrum became more important.

There had always been heavier-set second rows and lighter second rows, but during the World Cup of 2007, the destruction of French scrums featuring Sébastien Chabal in the second row – the real icon of the entire RWC07 tournament, and especially to the hosting French –  reinforced in French minds the onus on heavyweight scrummagers. Every time they started with a combination of Pelous and Thion in the engine room, the scrum was dominant; when Chabal came in, the scrum went backwards.

Nallet laboured in Fabien Pelous' enormous shadow for much of his international career, but emerged as a leader and the power of the French scrum under Mark Lievremont in his 30s. Romain Millo-Chluksi looked set to take over from him, but a series of unfortunate injuries has opened the door for Yoann Maestri, Millo-Chluski's Toulouse team0mate.

Having largely been seen as a second-string lock under Bernie le Fou [with the weak-scrummaging but hard-running Chabal regularly preferred] Lionel Nallet was the rock on which Marc Lievremont’s teams were built. He picked up just seventeen starts in seven years under Laporte, but would start thirty-six games in four years under Lievremont, and was appointed to the captaincy. Toulouse were busy grooming his replacement in Romain Millo-Chluski, but he in turn seems to have been overtaken by enormous nipper Yoann Maestri.

Lievremont was a forward as a player, and recognised the value of a strong scrummage. He promoted Fabien Barcella and Tomas Domingo, and rediscovered Nico Mas and Jean-Baptiste Poux [one of The Mole’s uncriticizable figures]; he started Millo-Chluksi and Nallet together in the second row against South Africa in November 2009, and absolutely tore their heart out with a nuclear-powered scrum.

The Mole has said it before, and he’ll say it again: had Mushy been born French, they’d never have  moved him forward from the second row. The big fellah has always been an outstanding handler, and was a rampant lock-forward in his days at Newbridge College. Boarding schools have a tight budget for fodder, so that might have been the only thing keeping the weight down for him, but imagine that big unit powering your scrum, rather than trying to pin it down …

The Lamper

The last couple of years has also seen the re-emergence of the lamper in the form of Wales’ Luke Charteris [208cm, or 6’9”], South Africa’s Andries Bekker [the same height] and to a lesser extent – at least in terms of international accomplishment – Devin Toner [210cm, or 6’10”].

Luke Charteris was almost a figure of fun to opposition fans for a number of years, a big lanky fellah with a real beak of a nose. Then he turned 28, went to Spala for the summer and came back an absolute monster with a tremendous work-ethic. Revenge of the lamper!

There’ve always been exceptionally tall second rows: Martin Bayfield stretched the measuring tape to 6’10” back in the 1990s for England [before he ended up doubling for Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies], and Wales’ Derwyn Jones was even bigger. However, for well over a decade the beanpoles went out of fashion entirely. Once lifting became legal and the lineouts became less of a war-zone where you’d be wise to stay earth-bound, players who had a good natural jump became a more valuable commodity than the extremely tall – you could get them into the air quickly and hold them up there, and they were better around the pitch in any case – and it seemed like the days of the beanpole were numbered.

For much of their early careers, both Charteris and Bekker were regarded as simply too tall and too gangly to succeed in international rugby. However, as all the years of weight-lifting and prescribed eating kicked in, and their metabolisms began to slow a little with the natural aging process, they have emerged as genuinely excellent internationals. Both Bekker and Charteris had their breakthrough years as 27/28 year olds in 2011. Every dog has its day, and for members of the front five, it’s often half a decade after their more glamourous colleagues in the threequarterline have made their mark.

 The Bigger They Are … Something Something

Eben Etzebeth was an imposing figure for the SA U20s in last year's Junior World Championships, and looks like a natural long-term successor to the great Victor Matfield. At 203cm and 120kg, he's incredibly athletic for somebody that size – Victor in a Bakkies frame. This lad is going to be big news: that's The Mole's Patented Lock Of The Week.

There’s no doubt that players are getting bigger. On both sides of the equator, there are a number of freakish athletes rising to prominence in the second row. Scotland’s 22-year old giant Richie Gray, England’s 23 year old Courtney Lawes and South Africa’s 20 year old Eben Etzebeth combine NBA-type athleticism with the bullish strength needed to play international rugby.

It’s a trend that’s not going to stop anytime soon. However, the very real fear of a decade ago was that rugby was turning into a league-esque game with teams composed entirely of 190cm [6’3″] and 105kg [16st 7lbs] blokes crashing into each other, with the emphasis on set-pieces diminished to an irrelevance. This hasn’t happened, and as players and coaches delve deeper into every part of the game to seek advantage, specialists are returning to the game at the highest level.

And if you see any narrow-shouldered, barrel-chested lads with short legs and big heads, point them in the direction of Lansdowne Road.

8 thoughts on “Return To Specificity

  1. Good article, although I had to read it twice- my first reaction to seeing a Mole post is to scan it for the obligatory Simpsons quote/ reference (and it’s a pretty big lock) and then go back and read the content.

  2. I recall a Premiership pro (Big Bad Bob maybe) saying a few years ago players had peaked in terms of sheer mass and that we would see a return to more traditional proportions. Look at BOD in the 03 WC and compare him to now.

    I believe most of the AB’s physical training now is based on cardio, though I presume they have to reach and maintain a minimal level of power and strength.

    On an unrelated note, did anyone read Flah’s [interview]( with the Limerick Leader and his absolute slaying of Mick Galwey (apparently). He does not hold back.

    • I just read it there, but had heard about it before. Mick Galwey really seems to split opinion, alright. I think a good few people took serious umbrage to his acting as a character witness for Eddie Halvey during the latter’s trial.

    • I don’t see any slaying of Galwey in that article and a Google search didn’t throw up any results. Can you post another link? I’d be very interested in reading more.

  3. A post after my own heart, this! I’ve always had a natural leniency towards players who are competent at their primary role. Any time I hear a prop or hooker being described as ‘good in the loose’ I’m instantly suspicious that the appropriate translation is ‘he can’t scrummage / throw (delete as appropriate)’.

    Whatever next – scrum-halves who can pass and aren’t just converted flankers? It’s so crazy it just might work.

  4. Comprehensive as always, Mole. Bravo.

    We’ve been watching Michael Hooper here in Manly for the past couple of seasons and the kid is a phenomenon. If he isn’t a Wallaby in the next couple of seasons I’ll eat my hat. Last season he was released by the Brumbies one weekend to come back and play Shute Shield. Given Manly were going pretty well and the opposition was weak, Hooper was left on the bench until the last 15 minutes. When he did come on he didn’t have much to do but link some play and slow the ball. At the end of the game, when the rest of the players were wandering off to the sheds, he came out on the pitch and proceeded to do 25 minutes of shuttles, sprints and jogs and all manner of stretches. With professionalism like that, bravery in spades and an 85 minute engine he’s going to be some player. It’s just a shame that Pocock is such a freak. Maybe in a couple of years we’ll see an Eddie Jones-style 2 fetchers experiment.

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