Rugby Union: Wallace a technician for the hard place

David Llewellyn finds a dangerous professional lying in wait for England
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The Independent Online
IT IS still the one place television's all-intrusive high technology has failed to penetrate. It is a dark world of darker secrets. It is the front row. And it is where Paul Wallace resides, one of the masters of the black arts of the scrummage.

If you have ever wondered what lies between a rock and a hard place it has to be the tighthead prop. Wallace is presently fulfilling that role for Ireland and his club Saracens. He is widely regarded as one of the best in the Northern Hemisphere, certainly his coach Mark Evans has no doubts at all. "His record in the league and at international level justifies that claim," Evans said. "He is very durable, he plays a lot of games and rarely gets injured."

But indeed the entire Ireland tight five are unanimously regarded as the best in the Five Nations and would definitely be capable of giving their opposite numbers in the Southern Hemisphere a hard time, as England will find out on Saturday.

"We have been going quite well," said Wallace, who won his 24th cap in the victory against Wales at Wembley last week. "Our back five have been scrummaging particularly well, which is an important factor. And in the front row we have all played together for some time now. But scrummaging is very much a collective job and experience is a big thing."

As is scrummaging itself in the modern game. It is on the forward performance that the success of the whole team hinges. If the forwards cannot produce the possession, the team are rarely able to produce a result.

And there is a great deal of overall psychological advantage to be gained from a superior scrummaging unit. So they need to be on top from the outset.

Establishing superiority is crucial as Wallace, 27, explained: "The scrum is nearly over from the hit." That being the moment when any sane person watching not only sees, but hears and almost feels the impact as the two scrums engage in shuddering collision. "When you hit you need to hit through, taking a step forward on the hit. It is not getting easier and these days you will sometimes see a scrum go down because the other front row has got too close to allow you to hit through.

"You aim to hit before they settle so their footing is not as certain. In effect, you have to hit them before they hit you. And you want to move forward on your ball, so you would look to drive the right shoulder, through the tight-head prop, twisting the scrum so that you can set up a back- row move."

No opposition worth its salt is going to let that happen so they target the key player in this, the tight-head prop. Players like Wallace have to withstand the pressure that is being put on them by the opposition loosehead and hooker in concert. Two on one, it seems so unfair.

And when the scrum breaks up the poor fellow is then expected to get up and gallop off in support, possibly take the ball on, send out a perfect pass or set up a maul or a ruck, and generally to show up wherever the action is going down.

It calls for a collection of qualities; aerobic fitness, strength and stamina all of which add up to power as well as pace and a footballing brain. A collection Wallace appears to have in abundance. And of course, on top of all that a tight-head needs the technique. And there is only one way to acquire that.

"I must have had my ribs popped every second match when I first switched from the back row to tight-head prop," Wallace said. "You have to learn on the hoof. The hard way. You learn to appreciate the angles and positions you need to adopt. As I grew up I found different loose-heads did different things and I gradually learned how to handle each situation."

Evans again: "Paul has developed a technique that suits his body shape. A tight-head has to be very strong in the mid-range, from nipples to knees, which takes in stomach, lower back, hips and thighs."

It promises to be a shuddering collision when Wallace meets the English in Dublin on Saturday. Keep an eye on the scrum and see if any light can be shed on the shadowy figures who operate there.