In the first of a new series in which RugbyPass examines the prototypes of every position in the modern game and makes for the perfect player, we start with a look at the building blocks that make up the ideal loosehead and tighthead props.
Both positions ask slightly different demands of a player, although the desired attributes are more or less the same across the two roles, with the evolution in their influence on the pitch among the most significantly changed in recent years.
We break down the most important components in props below, with reference to the players at the position who are currently the gold standard in those areas.
First and foremost, the most basic need at prop is to be able to scrummage efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t necessarily decide games as frequently as it used to, particularly since the engagement sequence at the scrum was changed, though it can still be a difference-maker, as the Springboks relentlessly showed against England in the Rugby World Cup final last year.
As far as current players go, you’ll struggle to find a more adept scrummager than South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff, with the loosehead having breathed heavily down the neck of the iconic Tendai Mtawarira for a number of years now. Between his schooling in South Africa and the lessons he learned at Bordeaux-Bègles in the Top 14, without doubt the most testing club competition for scrummagers, Kitshoff’s set-piece ability has been honed into a potent weapon.
Another area where demands on props have been consistent is in the required work rate and stamina they are needed to show on the pitch. They may, almost universally, be replaced in the second half of games, but the amount of work they have to get through, given their sizeable frames, makes it an unenviable task for even the most gifted athletes.
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In the modern arena, no prop symbolises this as much as England’s Mako Vunipola. The skilful loosehead gets praise in all facets of his game, but his ability to play at a high level for an entire 80-minute shift, coupled with the amount of work he gets through in both attack and defence, ensures that he sets the standard at the position in this area.
Of course, rugby is a game all about getting over the gain-line and props play an important part in providing this front-foot ball. Props have always been required to carry, albeit that those carrying demands now extend a little further out from the ruck and in less orthodox situations.
Ireland’s Tadhg Furlong currently leads the way as a ball-carrying prop, whether that is bullocking his way over defenders as a first receiver and on the pick and go, or as a more mobile option running at space in the loose. The tighthead is all but impossible to stop before or on the gain-line without double teaming him in defence.
Where the game has changed significantly for props is in the expectation that they should be able to contribute as a ball-handler and playmaker in a way that was not commonplace in past eras of the game. If a prop can’t contribute in that way on a pitch, there’s a good chance they will not be in the starting XV.
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For a pacesetter in ball-handling, look no further than England’s Kyle Sinckler, with the abrasive tighthead more than capable of showing subtlety and skill, as well as ferocious physical ability. As a first receiver, Sinckler arguably has the best hands in the international arena, his catch-and-pass is reminiscent of most fly-halves, and his offloading regularly keeps phases alive for his side.
Finally, we come to the last attribute and that is athletic and physical ability. For years, props were expected to be mountainous in order to deal with their set-piece responsibilities and enforce themselves on the game, though now they are expected to add pace, mobility and general athletic ability to that necessary physical element.
In this area, no one quite compares to Wales’ Rhys Carré, where the 22-year-old’s top gear, and quickness with which he can move through them, is unsurpassed among his international colleagues and rivals. As explosive as they come, Carré is a fitting heir apparent to Gethin Jenkins in the Welsh pack.
Scrummaging – Steven Kitshoff
Work rate and stamina – Mako Vunipola
Ball-carrying – Tadhg Furlong
Ball-handling and playmaking – Kyle Sinckler
Mobility and explosion – Rhys Carré
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