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Which tighthead props should the Wallabies take to the World Cup?

Wallabies' Ben Alexander (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Roar Guru
12th May, 2014
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1580 Reads

Invariably, when talk begins on who will be selected for the Wallabies, most of it revolves around the prima donnas and powder-puffs who have double digit numbers on their backs.

However, these guys can’t do what they do best if the piggies aren’t going well, in particular at the set piece, and there is no better place for backs to score tries than from a good solid scrum.

Of course, it’s not just the tighthead props who bear the responsibility for an effective scrum, but I’d say it starts there.

So the question that Ewen McKenzie needs to be asking is, who are my three best tighthead props?

Now, I’m no expert on the subtleties of the front row, nor on playing at Super Rugby or Test level, but I’ve come up with the following thoughts for the national coach.

Below are players currently playing as a tighthead prop, or have proven in the past they can play it at a professional level.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

PLAYER AGE WEIGHT SUPER WEIGHT SUPER TESTS GAMES STARTS
Ben Alexander 29 120 86 61 11 11
Greg Holmes 30 114 106 13 11 10
Sekope Kepu 28 118 71 38 10 6
Kieran Longbottom 28 113 50 0 10 10
Kevin Ryan 25 117 39 2 10 5
James Slipper 25 117 51 34 10 9
Laurie Weeks 28 117 70 0 9 8

Yes there are some omissions, but I don’t think those guys will be ready for next year’s Rugby World Cup. Let’s have a look at each of the stats before we look at the players.

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Age:
Increased age doesn’t necessarily mean increased skill or wisdom, so older is not necessarily better. However, you can only have learnt so much at a young age.

Weight:
Some guys at 115 kilograms are more effective than those at 125 kilograms, so increased weight is not an indicator in itself.

Super Rugby games:
Do some players play lots of games because they are really good, or because there is no one else?

Test matches:
Same as above. We all know of players who racked up many Tests for the Wallabies who should never have played that many.

Total games this year:
It’s hard to judge form on limited on-field time, even for proven Test players if they haven’t played much this year. More games played this year the better.

Total starts this year:
If you are always starting for your team, you’re probably the best at your province and you’re doing the harder yards early on, and generally for longer.

The Candidates

I’ve often thought Ben Alexander wasn’t up to Test scrummaging, even though he was good around the park. But that sort of mentality, brought on by Eddie Jones, did the Wallabies no end of harm. This year however, I think Alexander has done well in the scrums while maintaining his wider form.

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James Slipper is another who is not the best at scrum time, but he has a high work rate. I think he too has been pretty good at the set piece.

The disappointments for mine have been Sekope Kepu and Kevin Ryan. I just don’t see them as cutting it come World Cup time.

Greg Holmes has been a solid Reds player for years, but has never established himself as a serious Test-level tighthead prop.

From my table this leaves two candidates, Laurie Weeks and Kieran Longbottom. Both are in teams that are not seen as serious contenders, yet their scrums are doing well, and they are playing and starting virtually every game for their respective sides.

So who to pick?

Sometimes it seems as though Australian selectors feel that if a player hasn’t been picked by the time he is 24, then he’s over the hill. He’ll never play 100 Tests for Australia. I also think Australia often selects players on reputation, rather than on form.

To at least make the final of the World Cup we need to pick players in form, and if they have not yet played for the Wallabies then these future debutants need to be playing right now. Fortunately the Wallabies have some time to give a few debutants a decent run before things get serious next year.

We start with the series against France, where the Wallabies can afford to give one or two debutants an opportunity. For the Rugby Championship the Wallabies need to get some momentum and select the absolute best, with no room for experimentation. Hopefully some of those who have had a chance during the series against France will also be in contention for the Rugby Championship.

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Then the end-of-year rugby Tests are the final opportunity to blood some new players, because after that, what is done is done.

So which tighthead props should McKenzie pick for the series against the French? I suggest one proven at Test level, and one up-and-comer who should be peaking in just over one year from now.

Ben Alexander or James Slipper should be picked as the experienced pro, and either Kieran Longbottom or Laurie Weeks should be the newbie.

If they are still playing well come the end of the Super Rugby season, one or both might also go on the end-of-year Tests to confirm whether or not they are ready for the big league.