Rugby Union: Peerless Pagel exposes fault-line in the frontline

David Llewellyn hears the best prop in England bemoan a national weakness
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The Independent Online
IF there is one player in the English league who might have made a telling difference in the destruction in Paris last weekend, it is Northampton's prop Garry Pagel.

There are few more fearsome sights than his 6ft 1in, 18st frame cutting swathes through defences, except perhaps when he becomes a rock in the hard place of the front row. Pagel is the definitive prop of the present and the future. He is also, unfortunately for Clive Woodward, South African.

England's front-row shortcomings were ruthlessly exposed by the French, especially Christian Califano, who caused mayhem and misery as he tossed defenders aside in charging upfield like some Camargue bull on the rampage.

Pagel, who has five South African caps, is cast from the same mould, and has been causing much the same havoc in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, which puts him in a good position to comment on the English and their scrummaging problems. He joined Saints when they beat Saracens to his signature last autumn. From a dodgy position in the table, with just one win to their name, Ian McGeechan's side have climbed steadily since his arrival, winning five of seven games - a stark indication of the importance of a prop.

Whatever he is being paid (rumoured to be pounds 110,000 a year for three years) he seems worth it. The younger players can only benefit from his experience, and the same is true of those who play against him.

The Southern Hemisphere seem to have the edge when it comes to the scrum. In general the players seem to be bigger yet, incredibly, more mobile. "It's difficult to know why that is," Pagel said. "What I do know is that the demand and expectation is a lot higher on scrummaging in the southern hemisphere. In England historically the scrummage has been used merely as a mechanism to restart the game, whereas in South Africa and New Zealand we have always said if you have a good scrummaging side then you will do relatively well out wide."

And among those eight players Pagel feels the prop is one of the most important components. "It is a key position," he said. "The prop's role at first phase - line-out and scrum - is vital. A team has to pick a prop on his technical ability. It is pointless selecting someone who can run around in the loose, but who cannot scrummage, because then you are going to struggle in the scrums and at the line-out."

Pagel plays down his mobility and his handling skills, although he feels the latter have improved under McGeechan's training methods. He insists that the prop has to get the basics right. "When I go into a match," he said, "I always look to the basics first, I concentrate on getting my technique right and worry about the rest later."

With the odd honourable exception (including Califano who is in his mid- 20s) it is widely accepted that props, like good wood, tend to harden and improve with age. At 31, Pagel does not dispute that. "I think I am at my peak right now," he said.

In the few months he has been here Pagel has spotted a couple of youngsters for whom he sees a bright future, provided they keep working at their game. "I was very impressed with Will Green of Wasps. I thought he was technically one of the better scrummagers around; he just needs a bit more weight on him. I've also played against Phil Vickery of Gloucester and he also has the potential to make it, but he has a lot to learn. He needs people to help him with a few basic things. In time he will be a lot better player."

He has also locked horns with Victor Ubogu, being much touted at the moment, at Bath. "We struggled a little bit in the scrum against Bath that day," he admitted. "And Victor didn't just fold up. You don't really mess him around much. He has obviously been about for a while. But I was not that impressed with him. I had expected a lot more from Victor."

Ultimately, though, there is hope for England, Pagel said. "The northern hemisphere props are not really a long way behind us. I think it is already changing in England."