There was a time, before rugby went professional, when the glamour positions rarely involved anyone wearing a shirt that had a number that was lower than 9 stitched on the back.
Public approbation and adulation was mainly reserved for side-stepping number 10s, darting scrum halves, flying wings, rampaging centres and jinking full backs.
The grunt up front was frequently seen merely as being necessary to provide quick ball for the ‘heroes’ behind. Of course there were exceptions to this – but they were primarily just that – exceptions. Willie John, Colin Meads, Michael Jones being three who were exceptional – and recognised as such. Unless you were being watched by those who knew rugby (and more than likely had played) you went largely unappreciated if you had a low number on your jersey.
This is no longer the case. Back rows like McCaw, Read, Hooper, Pocock, Dallaglio, Hill (Richard), Burger (both of them), Skinstaad, Phil Waugh, George Smith and Kaino have become as well known and lauded as George Gregan and Johnny Wilkinson – and in both hemispheres.
Equally, although they were never going to compete in a beauty parade – Martin Johnson, John Eales, Bakkies Botha and Ian Jones have emerged from the pack (sic) as players who are more than capable of dominating games and who can also bring the crowd to their feet from the second row.
And finally everyone eventually woke up to the importance and value of the lowly 1, 2 and 3 boys. Previously only appreciated by real rugby fans and those who had braved the darkest area of the scrum, suddenly terms like ‘cornerstone’ anchor’ and ‘foundation’ were being attributed to the least known members of the team.
They are still often not the prettiest (and consequently get fewer aftershave or gel sponsors) but their undoubted and vital importance is now a fact of professional rugby life. Crowds have been educated to understand the value of players like Oz Du Rant, Jason Leonard, Adam Jones, Phil Vickery, Karl Hayman, Willie Le Roux,The Beast, Marco Ayerza, Mako Vinupola, Nicolas Mas and many many more of the rocks who occupy that first line of resistance. They also now command the big bucks once reserved for the prettier boys.(although most have still to convert this to ads for Ralph Lauren).
It’s a truism that you can’t win without decent ball. As an aside, I once saw an after match TV interview with Steve Hansen (then coach of Wales and after they lost a match) where the facile BBC reporter asked him if he thought the game had been won up front. Hansen simply replied “every game is won up front – what’s your question!” What a brilliant putdown!
Anyway you will have noticed that none of the front rows mentioned above were Wallabies – Australia seems to be the only top side that doesn’t realise the importance of a combative, competitive and, to be honest, nasty front row. Despite this they have won two world cups and been in a third final – not bad since only eight that have been played. When it comes to running and exciting rugby they can hold their own with anyone on any day. But that isn’t always enough, as recent results have demonstrated.
The Wallabies have long suffered from being second best at scrum time – you can dismiss my view as being that of a smug Pom – although we currently have little to be that smug about frankly. I also should declare an interest – my son is now an Australian citizen and my granddaughter was born in Sydney (although she was ‘made in England’). And so I cheer loudly for the Wallabies against everyone except England.
The weakness at the scrum is not a new phenomenon for Australia – with respect to those who have tried valiantly and often Canute like to hold back the advancing enemy – it is many years since an Aussie front row struck fear into their opposite numbers.
But just consider for a moment – the rugby world at large is not short of young, capable, fast learning tough props and hookers. As an example, last week in the competitive Aviva premiership the Sale Sharks front row were all just 21 years old!
Maybe it’s me – but why doesn’t the Australian Rugby Union accept that they are still likely to be struggling in this area in 2015 and focus on getting it right for 2019. Ewen McKenzie has to look short term – a poor World Cup could see him on his bike – so his priority is the here and now and there is little sign that the answer to his front row problems will emerge in the next year or so.
But the ARU don’t have those handcuffs. There are grizzly front rows all over the place – France, Russia, England, Italy, Argentina, Georgia – to name a few – not all of them will yet be wedded to playing International rugby for the land where they were born.
I’d scour the rugby globe for young, aggressive front rows who would welcome a life in a place that has virtually unlimited potential and where, in a few years they would qualify via residency to pull on the Green and Gold of Australia. The Highlanders have just signed Puma Matias Diaz – there is room in the Australian Super 15 teams for tough props who have not yet been capped and who could be more than ready by 2019.
As I said earlier – from 4 to 15 the Wallabies can compete with anyone on the planet – they are three players and three or four subs short of going into 2019 as one of the favourites.
No other set of supporters or media is so hard on their team when they lose – solving that and mounting a serious challenge in Japan could simply be as easy as 1, 2, 3