Rugby Union: Evolution of a tight-head Neanderthal

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The Independent Online
WHEN describing a troglodyte front-row forward of the distant past, Norman Mair, that incomparable rugby writer and essayist, wrote that he would not have looked out of place on page three of Darwin's The Origin of Species.

Alas, such graphic imagery for the scrum's primordial pillars no longer applies. As it has evolved, the game has propelled front-row forwards from the Neanderthal to the neoteric in double-quick time and in any update of Darwin's magnum opus the breed would have to be located closer to the index than to the foreword.

The truth is that the death knell of front-row play, as it was originally conceived, sounded on the day that hookers and scrum-halves came up with a system of inter- communication more reliable than extra-sensory perception. Up to that point, the onus was on the hooker to get into a position from which he could see the ball in his scrum-half's hands, while it was the avowed intent of the opposing props to ensure that he could not.

Immovable and implacable objects like the London Scot Robin Challis and Blackheath's Tony Horton were therefore priceless assets in any side and, to poach again from Norman Mair, it mattered not a jot that the only distinguishing feature between a prop's walk and his sprint was the expression on his face.

But with a single flap of the hooker's hand everything changed. A reasonable analogy would be to put Brian Moore up against Linford Christie over a distance of five yards with an independent starter. Christie would win every time, but not if Moore were to call the start.

And so it was in the scrum. The speed of the hooker's strike was almost an irrelevance. The advantage lay so overwhelmingly with the side putting the ball in that the further depowering of the scrummage and the erosion of its influence on the game was only a matter of time. That time has now come.

Under the laws in operation this season the minimum requirement for the modern hooker is that he should either be a third prop or a fourth back-row forward. Preferably, like the South African Uli Schmidt, he should be both, which makes the selection of Victor Ubogu on England's tight-head, all the more intriguing. If England's scrummage has held up satisfactorily against the Canadians then there will be a number of options open to the selectors, including the consideration of Ubogu as a future international hooker.

It is a remarkable tribute to the reliability and durability of the three players that, since 1966, England have so seldom had to look beyond John Pullin, Peter Wheeler and Brian Moore, who have won 123 caps between them.

Moore is unarguably England's first choice in the position at the moment and should, form and fitness permitting, be in pole position for the World Cup three years hence. But, as the season progresses, the clearer it becomes that some fundamental tenets of the game have been radically altered. Sides can no longer play with the same certainty, as England did to great effect, for scrummage positions from which to mount their attacks. The scrummage, although not entirely neutered, is principally now a vehicle for restarting play.

Crooked feeds from the scrum- half are no longer the exception but the rule, if not yet the law, and the paltry few strikes against the head are the result either of a careless ricochet or a well co-ordinated surge from the opposition.

The hooker must therefore be strong enough to push his weight in the scrums and, as one of the last to arrive at the rucks and mauls from the midst of the scrum or the front of the line-out, he must now be as skilful a manipulator of recycled possession as any of his backs.

If ever there was a time for undervalued flank forwards to find honest and perhaps more rewarding employment in the front row, this is it. Alex Brewster, who was capped for Scotland on the flank in 1977, also gained some distinction as a prop although he might well have been an even better hooker.

There has long been a body of opinion at Nottingham which believes that Gary Rees, who came to the pack via scrum-half and full-back, would have enjoyed much more success as a hooker than he ever achieved as a flanker. The same might be said today of another young Nottingham hopeful, Martin Pepper, a good little 'un who perfectly fits the bill as a hooker but who could find his path to fame as a flanker blocked by an ever-increasing number of good big 'uns.

The other prerequisite for the hooker is, of course, that he can throw into the line-out. Of far greater significance than the decrease in the number of tries scored so far this season was last week's statistic from Webb Ellis Road where, in the second half of the game between Rugby and Wasps, there were 21 line-outs and only eight scrums. The time has come for linear as well as lateral thinking.

(Photograph omitted)