Rugby has often been described as a game for people of all shapes and sizes. There are positions like winger that were perfect for the tiny lads who look like they’re in need of a good meal and there are positions for people – like myself – who look like they have had a meal too many. As the modern game has evolved since rugby’s turn to professionalism in the nineties, we have seen changes in the way that professional players look. Backs are now often the size that forwards used to be, while the forwards could often get away with changing their name to Goliath. Though the size of players may have changed, the basic expectations of each position remain very similar, but there are now many more expectations towards a prop in the professional game or at higher amateur levels.
When I was first introduced to rugby at the age of 11, I weighed 10 stone. As one of the biggest lads in the year at school it was a simple decision for the teachers to place me in the front row. Around this time, props were still very much the big lumps of the team. There was no real expectation for the props to be heavily involved in loose play, provided they could jog their way from scrum to scrum and hit the occasional ruck with enough force to make a defender regret entering the breakdown. No disrespect to players like Rodrigo Roncero, but their job was to pretty much only to push in the scrum and mauls and put in a couple of big hits in their 30-50 minutes on the pitch. If they had the ball in hand it was likely to be from a pick-and-go or from a crash ball off one of the half backs.
While reliability in the set piece is still a must for a modern prop, they are also expected to be much more heavily involved in the whole game. In recent years set piece specialists like Marcos Ayerza and Adam Jones have found their game time being reduced in favour of young props who are more of a threat in open play like Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler. They don’t need to necessarily have the same handling skills as a centre but they need to be able to keep a passing move going if they pop up in the middle of a pitch. Just look back to Joe Moody in the 2015 Rugby World Cup: he was the third choice in his position for the All Blacks, yet he had the ability and confidence to keep an attack going with an offload out the back of his hand! Mako Vunipola often appears in the Saracens midfield during an attack and his combination of strength and handling skills causes defenders no end of issues as they know he could either run over them or just draw them in and pass the ball to the next man. If you need more evidence, just look at the Blues’ most recent Super Rugby match against the Stormers, 2 of the final passes were by the man-mountain that is Charlie Faumuina!
Props are also becoming a bigger weapon in an attack due to their improved fitness. These aren’t just players making up numbers while preparing for the next set piece, these are athletes in their own right! Ellis Genge was frequently given the ball in Leicester’s Premiership semi-final against Wasps as he has the pace and fitness to carry on an attack if he breaks through the tackle, which he has enough power to do on a regular basis. He is also sometimes kept out in the back line at a shortened line-out, something that would usually be expected of the back row rather than the front row. For a man as big as a professional prop, if they can get up a bit of speed, the force that they will be putting into a collision is huge! They aren’t just expected to run into the nearest defender anymore either, but instead to run attacking lines with a view to breaking through the defence. Possibly the best recent example of this would be London Irish’s Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi, who scored a beautiful try from about 25 metres out in the first leg of their Championship Final against Yorkshire Carnegie. A centre would have been happy with that line, instead it’s coming from a prop!
Not only are props now expected to have a good enough fitness to be heavily involved in a game, they are also being expected to be fit enough to last longer on the pitch. Though he was not one of the best performing in his position during the 6 Nations, Scotland’s Zander Fagerson managed to last the full 80 minutes in at least 2 of the games, a feat rarely seen in international rugby considering there must be a replacement for each front row position on the bench. We often see Mako Vunipola staying on the pitch for at least 70 minutes too, and you often get the feeling that he could play more but the coaches are instead just looking for fresher legs to finish off the game.
More than anything, the traits looked for in a modern prop are now more varied than they were in the past. Props are still not considered to reach their prime until much later in their careers once they have more experience. By this point, their impact in the loose may not be as big so they rely on their technical brilliance and dominance in the scrum. Meanwhile they younger props are almost extra back rows in the loose whilst still expected to be able to at least hold their own against more experienced scrummagers. As the game continues to evolve, I will be interested to see how the role of a prop continues to change…
What are your thoughts on how a player’s role has changed over time? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge