Hugh Godwin: A new elite: Vickery and the props of big wages

Top dollar goes not to fancy-dans but the coalface worker
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The Independent Online

Cast your eye over your favourite rugby team and who do you think is the best paid? Maybe that wing, with the dazzling sidestep and a kit bag full of hair gel? How about the fly-half with the boot of gold and a smile to melt your mother's heart? Think again. Think the tighthead prop, the best of whom are earning a cool quarter of a million pounds a year.

Based on their rarity value and specialist skills, props - and particularly tightheads - have been the subject of almost every significant tug of war in this year's transfer market. And when the player on the end of the rope is, say, the 6ft, 19st tighthead Kees Meeuws, it takes quite a tug. Meeuws quit his French club Castres in June after a fall-out with the coach and Harlequins, desperate to sign big in the front five on their return to the Premiership, offered £130,000 a year for the 32-year-old veteran of 42 All Black Tests. They were not even close. Meeuws could name his price at more than £200,000 a year, including a house and a car, and another French side, Agen, paid it.

"There's no doubt a tighthead prop is more valuable than any other player because there's fewer of them of the right quality," says Mike Burton, a leading player agent and veteran of England's front row of the 1970s when men were men and referees let them get on with it. "A prop of the right credentials starts at £150,000, going up to £250,000."

Quins were also interested in two Italy internationals - Carlos Nieto and Martin Castrogiovanni - but the latter ended up with Leicester, even though Tigers already have the England tighthead, Julian White. "A top quality tighthead is so scarce, it's frightening," says Quins' team manager, Mike Scott. "The best are getting £180,000 or £190,000 a year, which is more than a top fly-half." The England No 10, Charlie Hodgson, is reckoned to be on a basic £160,000 a year at Sale.

Nieto, 30, was snapped up by Gloucester, who also signed the 34-year-old Christian Califano from Agen, while allowing England's World Cup-winning but injury-troubled tighthead Phil Vickery to go to Wasps.

"We're taking no gamble at all with Phil," says Wasps' forwards coach, Craig Dowd, another ex-New Zealand prop. "He's going to be back playing soon, better than he's ever been." Dowd concurs, nevertheless, with the word at every other Premiership club that a good prop is hard to find. "Before we got Phil we'd turned over every rock in world rugby to try and find a decent tighthead. Whenever we found one he'd be gone before we had a chance. I'd never call them glamour boys but the tighthead is the cornerstone of your pack and you build a team around him. He's the plug: take him out and everything else goes gushing down the hole."

The rule applies even in cash-strapped South Africa. Natal Sharks paid a record R1.2million (£94,200) to sign the pin-up Springbok full-back Percy Montgomery. They topped that in May by forking out R1.5m (£117,800) for the Namibia prop Kees Lensing from the Bulls.

"There are lots of boys between 6ft and 6ft 6in who are not squat enough to be props and not tall enough to be locks," says Burton, "so there is a surfeit of back rows. If you're in the backs, with a few tweaks you can play in any position. But if you want a prop there are fewer men around of the required size and durability. And then there's the mental approach. You need someone who's a gunslinger. If I've got a young prop I rate highly I'll make sure he's not on a long contract. Because as soon as he goes in and holds his own in a big game his value will shoot up." And therein lies the downside for this newly rich breed formerly known as stomachus rotundus: they have to wait until their mid-20s before they can cash in.

"Props are like fine wines, they take time to mature," says Dowd. "I played for New Zealand with Olo Brown, one of the great tightheads. He only came into his own at 23 or 24 and got better."

It's a game of patience in a sport which demands results today, not tomorrow. Of course the answer for the English clubs is to grow their own, and they all have props in their academies. But faced with hours of scrum machine punishment and the occasional A-league run-out, a junior starting out on £20,000 may think better of it. "They're often bright boys who can earn double the money in the city," says Nick Maytum, another leading agent. Bath and Northampton have gone for the South African-reared Matt Stevens and Pat Barnard, and although Quins have got two promising English 21-year-olds in Alex Rogers and Mark Lambert, both of them are currently injured.

So Quins' search for the best goes on, and their lowly Premiership position reflects it. Their London rivals Saracens have secured the Samoa tighthead, Census Johnson, who is due to arrive in November after completing commitments with Taranaki in New Zealand and the composite Pacific Islands team. Johnson played for super-rich Biarritz last season and gave them a verbal promise that he'd be back, until Saracens made him an offer he didn't care to refuse. "We're very fortunate," said Alan Gaffney, Saracens' director of rugby. Very generous, too, in all likelihood, although Johnson's exact deal is undisclosed. For their pains, the front-row monsters are having a ball.

Most Wanted: Four in demand the world over

Carlos Nieto (Age: 30, Gloucester and Italy): Gave best of Six Nations, including Andy Sheridan, the hurry-up last year. Injured since he joined Gloucester so Premiership props yet to have the pleasure.

Pieter De Villiers (36, Stade Français and France): Epitome of modern prop: durable, mobile and hard as nails. Western Province tried to bring him home to South Africa until they realised they could afford barely half his £250,000 wages at Stade.

Census Johnson (25, Taranaki, Samoa and Pacific Islands, soon to be Saracens): Made reputation on tour with Samoa last season, and helped Biarritz to the Heineken Cup final. At 6ft 2 1/2in and 21st 3lb, he carries ball at a remarkable pace.

Carl Hayman (26, Otago, Highlanders and New Zealand): Rated by compatriot Craig Dowd as world's top tighthead. Could command £250,000-plus in Europe already were it not for his desire to win the World Cup with the All Blacks, which bears a modest £33,000 bonus.