Australian Super Rugby front row review
When Al Baxter and Matt Dunning played for the Wallabies, our scrum was an international laughing stock. It hurts but it is true.
At that time there were few alternatives, the Waratahs had the strongest scrum in Australia by a huge margin and no one else was knocking on the door for selection.
You cannot fault the players who are the best in their position in the country for not matching it with the best from elsewhere. Rather, the underlying structures needed to be reviewed to see why stronger alternatives are not being produced.
Currently we have some very obvious options in Dan Palmer, Sitaleki Timani and Kane Douglas who can improve the Wallaby scrum if they join Benn Robinson, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Stephen Moore.
Beyond this group the likes of James Slipper, Ben Alexander and Rob Simmons are involved in the national side and are showing some of the same issues this year that we have seen in previous years. Right this minute, they look unlikely to significantly strengthen the Wallaby scrum.
Slipper and Simmons in particular are very young for tight forwards and along with the likes of Luke Jones, Caderyn Neville and Hugh Pyle look likely to develop in the coming years.
While there are a large range of second rowers coming through, where are the other props? When I look at Australia’s Super Rugby sides, there are concentrations of props meaning players are played out of position.
Let’s review each Super squad.
The Reds have too many looseheads and no genuine tightheads.
James Slipper is the main tighthead but his best ever scrummaging performance was a 2010 performance at loosehead where he held the Wallaby scrum together against Martin Castrogiovanni.
Slipper would benefit from being in a Super squad where he could play loosehead more often. It was rather unfair to switch him across against Scotland when he hadn’t had recent LHP match time.
Greg Holmes is the only real Wallaby contender for LHP, behind Benn Robinson. He has also been switching over and playing THP for the Reds but in my mind is an out and out LHP. I’m baffled why Deans did not bring him into the current Wallaby squad.
Ben Daley is a LHP but needs to improve his scrummaging significantly if he desires to make the Wallabies again.
The Reds three main props are all looseheads, with one playing out of position. Slipper is a prodigious talent performing at a high level, about eight years earlier than most props hit their peak. I’m concerned that we won’t see the best of him unless he is given an extended period at LHP and that is unlikely to occur with the makeup of the current Reds squad.
Here we have the opposite issue at the Brumbies, with an abundance of tightheads cruelling each other’s opportunities.
Dan Palmer is the Wallaby heir apparent at THP and in his second year as a starter he is putting together some impressive performances for the Brumbies and now the Wallabies. He is suffering from having a light second rower behind him but his technique is shining through. He is one of our success stories – he was getting ignored on the bench at the Waratahs and he has moved and now seen higher honours.
Ben Alexander is the current problem child of the Wallabies. He was part of the scrum penalty at the end of the Scotland game at THP. Alexander was on the other side at LHP in the Wales disintegration this weekend. He plays predominantly as a LHP at the Brumbies only moving to THP when Palmer subs off.
Alexander’s best scrummaging performances were at THP on the northern tour of 2009. He hadn’t had a great Tri-Nations despite being stronger than Baxter who he replaced in that series. During the break between the domestic and northern internationals, he adjusted his foot position forward by about six inches and subsequently scrummed the house down.
Since then Alexander has had limited opportunities at THP. Given Palmer has the starting spot at the Brumbies sewn up, perhaps Alexander and Slipper should look at a swap? Or maybe Holmes should swap with Alexander with the understanding that Alexander would go to THP for the Reds?
This would mean Palmer would play more minutes and his fitness would have to improve while allowing Alexander to see if he can find that 2009 scrummaging form again. Whichever players swapped, Slipper would get more time at LHP to see if he can find his scrummaging form.
Ruaidhri Murphy is the other prop at the Brumbies. He is a developing loosehead and coming on nicely off the bench in his first year and looks promising.
In Sydney it is different situation. Benn Robinson and Sekope Kepu are two of the first picked props in the Wallabies. Each has a very able understudy who isn’t getting enough game time.
Jeremy Tilse has been in the Waratahs system for five years. I’ve not seen any radical improvement in the last two. He is a good young prop who at 26 is about to enter his prime. Indeed, this season he has gone backwards as he has developed a movement of his left foot on impact which is weakening his hit and leaving his feet too far forward.
Tilse’s best scrummaging performance was two years ago against the Hurricanes where he came off the bench and stopped the damage that Nemia Tialata had been doing to the scrum.
Tilse’s only opportunities come after injury, usually to Robinson, this year to Paddy Ryan. The chance that he overtakes Robinson is currently unlikely and for the good of his rugby he should be looking at another side so he can become a starting player.
Paddy Ryan is younger and was getting some good minutes off the bench as a THP for the Waratahs. Before he got injured his performances looked good enough to earn him a start at another team. Should he continue sitting behind Kepu or should he be looking at moving?
The Waratahs scrum is rightly lauded as the best in Australia and I believe the best in Super Rugby this year. However with a Wallaby hat on, this is partly due to the strength of the bench and may not be in the nation’s best interest.
The Rebels scrum has been the weakest of the Australian teams this year. Laurie Weekes, Rodney Blake and Nic Henderson have been the main culprits. Jono Owen has joined the side more recently but ultimately I think the solution is the Waratah bench props.
There are a number of young props on their books in Paul Alo-Emile and Eddie Aholelei but I have not seen these young guys play. The mid-season recruitment of Owen suggests that the Rebels coaches don’t feel they are going to be ready soon.
The Waratahs bench props look significantly better than the Rebels starting props. It is hard to gauge the set piece work of the Rebels promising second rowers in Hugh Pyle and Caderyn Neville without seeing them pack down with some other props. Is a real shame there isn’t a Wallabies A team running around to see how this group would perform with different combinations.
I think the Force are actually very well balanced in their propping stakes.
Pekahou Cowan has plenty of Wallaby experience and is a very competent prop at Super level. His LHP play is superior to his THP but both are capable.
Salesi Ma’afu has the potential to be a very good THP but ultimately needs to fix his conditioning. Hopefully he spends the off season with Cowan, as Pek (who did the same) turned out for the Force in terrific nick this year.
Kieran Longbottom doesn’t get the plaudits of Slipper and Palmer but is an excellent young prospect and being 26/27 is hitting his prime period. There is a lot of upside to be seen with this young guy as long as he can avoid injuries such as the one he is currently suffering.
Salesi Manu is the Force’s young prop. The injury to Longbottom has seen him have a few runs this year and he certainly looks up to the task.
All in all I think the Reds have too many looseheads and it is ruining Slipper, the Brumbies too many tightheads and Alexander is suffering.
The Waratahs have too much experience on their bench and Tilse and Ryan are being held back because of it, the Rebels have not got strong enough starting props and their entire team is suffering for it.
The Force have the most balanced set of props on their playing roster out of all the squads in the country.
If market forces do not cause these imbalances to square up, then the ARU needs to look at the process. The movement of established stars between franchises has been disruptive recently but even more damaging is players being held back through warehousing or being forced to play out of position.
I think that Australian scrummaging as a whole is suffering as Alexander, Slipper, Tilse and Ryan are not being well served under their current situations.
What do you think Roarers? Shouldn’t the Wallabies be the ultimate priority? Should we have central contracting or a player protection system that prevents warehousing?
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