Jaco Van Der Merwe

By Jaco Van Der Merwe

Head of Motoring

Tighthead props more than slow fatties

I pity props. I really do.

It seems the only time rugby’s most unglamorous players are appreciated is when they, like Richard Bands, dart 50m down the touchline to score a memorable try against the All Blacks.

I was seriously miffed on Saturday when the guy who led the charge setting up the Lions’ win over the Sharks, loosehead prop Jacques van Rooyen, was snubbed for Man-of-the-Match honours.

Make no mistake, the winner Aphiwe Dyantyi made a memorable debut and scored a superb try that will easily make the shortlist for Try-of-the-Season, but he was rounding off after the big boys stoked the fire in the engine-room.

The big talking point was the way in which the Lions’ scrum outmuscled the Sharks in the first half, with Van Rooyen annihilating the highly-rated Thomas du Toit.

To be fair to Du Toit, he was only recently moved from loose to tighthead and his inexperience was not only badly exposed, but once again highlighted one of rugby’s traditional truths about the value of your tighthead.

One which has stood the test of time and still stands true in an era where front rowers carry less blubber around their waists and probably eat more veggies than they drink beer.

The legendary Doc Danie Craven’s famous old saying was that the first player on your team sheet should be that of the tighthead prop and the second name that of your replacement tighthead.

Du Toit might go on to become one of the best Springbok tighthead props in history, but he’s quite clearly not there yet.

It has been proven time and again that simply moving a promising prop from loose to tighthead does not guarantee overnight success.

And for those who argue “but a prop is a prop, what does it matter which side of the scrum he plays”, have I got news for you.

Packing down at tighthead requires a very specific skill, one you are either born with or have learned through blood and guts.

Most fans won’t say “ag but a bowler is a bowler, so why can’t Rabada send down off-spinners”, so why should props be treated any different?

There is a classic story about former Springbok prop – loosehead I should add – Ollie le Roux.

He was an up-and-coming hotshot sporting the No 1 jersey for Shimlas in Bloemfontein and one day came up against a seasoned campaigner in a club match. His opponent was none other than Piet Bester, a veteran provincial player and one of the craftiest tightheads in the business.

His welcome greeting to the young upstart during their faceoff before the first scrum? “Kom dat oom jou seermaak.”

And it’s said he did.

Bester, who weighed 78kg when he made his provincial debut, had the better of his plumper opponent who went on the play 54 Tests for the Boks.

Moral of the story?

Even though I will shamelessly guess that Bester wasn’t renowned to be one the cleanest of scrummagers, his sheer craft made up for his lack of traditional bulk.

This goes to show that props, and tightheads in particular, aren’t just the fatties too slow to play in the backline.

They are masters of their trade and deserve more respect.

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