What makes a world class prop?
Rugby is hailed as the sport for all shapes and sizes. You can be big, small, short or tall. There is a position in the game that will suit anyone. Some positions are certainly more suited to certain physiques. It would be tough to be under six foot and play in the second row. However, in most cases, skill and technique outweigh the importance of size. We will look at a very niche position. The prop positions have often been reserved for the larger lads. Either as a gym monkey or the player renowned for finishing a yard of ale quicker than their 40 yard dash. Below, we will break down what makes a world class prop.
Without a doubt, size does play a factor in a world class prop. The best of the best have always been large, physical specimens. The ability to overpower and dominate your opposite number is key to success in the physical confrontations. However, the best do come in all shapes and sizes. Andrew Sheridan was 6ft 5 and over 20st in weight. Jason Leonard was 5ft 10 and around 18st. This shows that size wasn’t necessarily everything and isn’t defining of the best props around. The need to dominate and overpower your opponent relies on more than your size. It is more about how you use your size to your advantage.
This often leads to a difference maker between a good prop and a world class prop. Technique is vital to make it to the top. The often talked about dark arts of the position are very much real. Knowing how to twist and turn your opponent so that they lose all ability to drive power from their core is the key to this success. Knowing about your opponent is key, different sizes require different techniques.
Against a shorter prop, you will need to make sure they aren’t able to get underneath your crouched position and drive you upwards. Think along the lines of Tom Smith here, in his pomp he was able to negate props bigger than him with excellent technique. For taller props, you need to crouch to a lower point and shorten your leg extension to ensure you have a solid base and aren’t driven down into the dirt. In this case, picture Os Du Randt opposite you, he was an excellent prop who stood at 6ft 3 and was renowned for his ability to dominate a scrum.
How to spot the good technique
When watching replays of scrums you will often hear the talk around the binding and hinging props do at resets. What you are watching is effectively an arm wrestle. The props are trying to twist and turn their opposite number to fold inwards and ‘hinge’ first. Tight head props will often try to separate their opposite loose head from their bind with the hooker. This allows a tight head to isolate and attack the hooker.
Watch who is binding on the arm and is pulling their opposite number down. If they are then found to have collapsed the scrum it will likely be a penalty to the scrummager who was winning that upper body battle. French great Robert Paparemborde was a superb technician at the scrum. He was able to scrum so low it was said an opposition hooker would only able to use his head in an attempt to strike the ball.
In the loose
It is worth noting that there are lots of excellent scrummaging props around the world. They focus so much on their main role in the squad and practice the technique every day until they retire. What makes a world class prop though is their ability around the park. The modern prop now needs to be able to provide a consistent link in a back line. They need to be able to pass off of both hands and be mobile enough to hit rucks and mauls all over the field. At his best, Owen Franks was one of the best at this. The All Black centurion was dependable in the defensive line and able to pass the ball. Along with being an excellent scrummager. Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola are England’s answer to this and becoming the blueprint of a modern prop.
Much like the rest of the sport, the focus on the science of a rugby player is at its peak. The nutrition and conditioning the best players go through make them athletic freaks. Props are no different to this. World class props will have a balance of stamina, strength, speed and technique. A modern prop needs to be able to defend with the same intensity as the other 13 players on the pitch. They also need to be able to attack and carry with power. Rugby is quite simple in its most basic form. The team that is better at getting the ball closer to the opposite try line will usually win. Being able to make dominant carries going beyond the gain line (oppositions defensive line) is another important piece of the world class props arsenal. Cian Healey for Ireland has filled that role for many years and Tadhg Furlong is carrying on that style now taking on the mantle of being the leading Irish prop.
Loose Head vs Tight Head
The difference between the two types of prop may seem non-existent on paper. However, there is a reason why referees ask if a prop has trained in their position if they are replacing an injured or sin binned prop. The roles may require the same characteristics but the nuances of the roles are specialised. There are very few players who are able to scrum on both sides of the pack at the top level.
The tight head is there to be an anchor for the scrum. The last player you want going backwards in your scrum. The loosehead is tasked with isolating the tight head to nullify how effective they are as an anchor. A common way to tell who has the upper hand is to see how the scrum is reacting. If the scrum is frequently standing up, the loose head will have the upper hand. When the scrums are frequently collapsing and driving down, it often suggests the prop has been able to overbear the loosehead.
Who are the best props in the world right now?
Taking into account all of the above, it gives us the tools to assess the best props in the world of rugby right now. Arguably Mako Vunipola is the best loosehead prop in the world when fit. Equally, Kyle Sinckler is thought to be redefining the role of the tighthead prop. Frans Malherbe of South Africa would say his exploits in the Rugby World Cup should spring him to the top of the list, Tadgh Furlong of Ireland would also be a contender for the best tight head in rugby. A rival to Vunipola for being the top loosehead could be Joe Moody who would be keen for the best props to be from the Southern Hemisphere.
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