Props become the star turns

Jonathan Davies examines the shift in power towards the leaders of the pack
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The Independent Online
I've always had a soft spot for props. They've long been saddled with the least glamorous job in rugby and regarded as an oddly shaped breed who occupy a tough and mysterious world all of their own. As an outside-half, I've not often had the pleasure of meeting them face to face on the pitch, thank God, but I've appreciated their contribution.

All of a sudden, that contribution has increased dramatically and the new season has already done more to advance the prop's value than it has for any other position.

You would have thought that the arrival of professionalism and the new binding laws in the the scrum would have given an even higher profile to the sprinters and the jinkers among the backs. But from what I've seen of the season so far it is the props who are carving out an extra importance for themselves.

Perhaps we at Cardiff are more conscious of how vital they've become because of our bad start to the season. Injuries and an outbreak of scrum- pox sidelined nearly every experienced prop we had and we lost the first three games.

Our excuses about our front-row weaknesses were laughed off but one of the reasons Cardiff's performances since then have dramatically improved is the return to fitness of some of our props, particularly the tight- head Lyndon Mustoe who has the power to do the two jobs that have become so essential - turning the scrum and lifting our main line-out jumper Derwyn Jones.

The new binding laws require the back-row forwards to stay bound until the ball emerges. Obviously, this is aimed at giving the half-backs more time to work the ball before the wing- forwards can come flying at them. But a good set of props can get even more time by wheeling the scrum away from the side they plan their attack to take place. If, for example, they decide to launch a move down the right, the tight-head prop will push his opposite number and attempt to start a wheel anti-clockwise to the left. This would turn the opposing back-row away from the ball and give them a few more yards to have to run. The extra seconds this gives to the attacking side makes all the difference.

The new rule has also brought more emphasis to the scrum and to the art and power of scrummaging. With the back-row not allowed to peel off, we are seeing an eight-man shove and, here again, the props come into their own. The strength and technique of an efficient front-row is more of an advantage than ever and as a result the push-over try is becoming increasingly common-place.

Once a pack has got the upper hand in the scrum, the opposing forwards can do very little about it apart from collapsing - that's why we've been seeing more penalty tries in the game recently.

Apart from getting themselves about the pitch to do some rampaging in the loose, the other area where a prop can shine is in the line-out. Since supporting the jumper is now legal, a strong prop can keep him airborne much longer. What has happened to my colleague Derwyn this season proves that.

When Lyndon is supporting him, Derwyn can outjump anyone but with Lyndon out of action he didn't have such a good start to the season and lost his place in the Welsh team last week. Now he is back among the clouds again and looking his old self.

Of course, the tasks I've been describing can only be performed by the very best of props and that's why they are worth their weight in gold these day. I'm delighted for them. When they run on to the pitch all greased up, with their headbands and their scowls, props can frighten you to death. But when they're brushed up afterwards some of them can look quite tidy.

And whatever else you say about them, props are always good mates and have an excellent sense of humour. But doing what they do, they'd have to, wouldn't they?