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Everybody’s talking Thor, but should all eyes be on the Wallabies No.17 ?

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Roar Rookie
28th September, 2018
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1284 Reads

Yes, there has been much to talk about Taniela Tupou this week, and all year in fact. What is not to like about having a scrummaging, ball-running tighthead as your 917th Wallaby?

Since his signing by the Queensland Reds in 2014, Tupou has been a very well-managed, four-year example of how good things come to those who wait.

See Tupou was a prop and therefore a very long project, especially given he was still a schoolboy at Sacred Heart College in Auckland at the time.

The fact that he had eyes on the green and gold jersey raised many an eye brow, as signing with the Reds ruled him ineligible for the New Zealand Schoolboys.

Tupou is ready. Coming off the bench in the recent Brisbane Test he saw off this week’s opponents, two of the best loosehead props in the world in Spring Bok’s Steven Kitshoff and Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira.

Yes, the Wallabies No.3 jersey is one the Tongan Thor could hold a mortgage on for many years.

Taniela Tupou

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

However, after a few weeks of much navel gazing and plenty written about the form and selection of Wallabies wingers, fullbacks, flyhalves and openside flankers, one particular selection has gone under the radar.

No, I am not referring to the incumbent hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau pulling a hamstring. Do hookers even have hamstrings?

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Nor am I talking about the selection of re-born lock Rob Simmons as the reserve blind side flanker.

Given the lack of time in the Wallabies fold for Angus Cottrel or better still, Jed Holloway and with the absence of Sean McMahon and Jack Dempsey and one has to question the moving on of Scott Fardy.

You know your line out isn’t working when you pick a former lock Ned Hanigan as blind side flanker and his reserve is another lock. Perhaps 2 relatively new hookers and 5 locks is the answer.

Yes, the one topic that has gone relatively un-noticed is in the front row, but it is on the other side of the scrum from Tupou’s tighthead position.

Now, the front row is, apparently, a very complex place and to allow this starting debut to happen, there has been a delicate operation, game by game to shuffle the starting front rows around, piece by piece.

Now there may be more to all the loosehead/tighthead jargon but as this scribes’ knowledge of scrummaging is limited to this paragraph, let’s keep it simple.

In a well-spent youth of Saturday afternoons playing rugby, there was one thing that was certain, as night follows day.

Playing behind a dominant scrum meant victory and defeat was certain, if there was the lack there of.

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The rumblings from the back of the bus, always centred around the dark arts of combative scrummaging and the difference between the roles of tighthead and loosehead.

Unlike my primary school years in Rugby League, I noticed that in rugby the scrum-half always fed the ball standing with his pack on his right-hand side, so the bloke on his side with one visibly normal ear, was therefore the loosehead prop wearing the No.1, the hooker No.2 was in the middle and the most important player in the team was therefore 3, with no ears in sight and was aptly named the “tighthead” prop.

Then, when the opposition feeds the scrum, they would pack the same, with the half-back putting the ball in from the other side.

Logically the bloke with two cauliflowered ears seemed to be the tighthead and the bloke with one, was the loosehead.

That is the only light I can shine on the dark arts, but apparently it is the tip of an almighty iceberg.

The late and great, Jake Howard, was a man fondly remembered for many and diverse reasons, being a former Wallaby prop, assistant coach of the Wallabies, side show owner, rower of note and sire of a Wallaby fly half and inside centre in Patrick.

This latter fact can be explained by his marriage to Margariete, rugby tragic in her own right, and the daughter of former Wallabies captain and centre, Cyril Towers.

Jake Howard is credited with the famous adage that the most important position on a rugby field was without question, the tighthead prop. The next most important, Mr Howard? “The reserve tighthead prop!”

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So watch closely folks, because the most important player this week is in fact on the other side of the scrum and will be found, for the first half at least, sitting in the grand stand.

Yes, Sekope Kepu is in fact, the man all eyes should be on tonight. Kepu has been picked on the bench again, out of position on the loosehead side of the scrum.

Sekope Kepu

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

In earlier writings, I’ve suggested this move be made for starting tighthead, Alan Ala’atoa. The reasoning in that article was that career-best Super Rugby form Kepu and the rise of Taniela Tupou, mean that Australian rugby had Jake Howard’s two most important positions in the team covered.

During the recent ambush by Argentinian coach Mario Ledesma, the former Wallabies Scrum doctor, Kepu returned to the loosehead side of the scrum in the No.17 jersey.

This was not a safe bet, late-career re-call as reserve for his favoured position of tighthead prop. It was in fact a leap of faith, a risk, as deputy on the other side of the scrum, as loosehead prop. Deputy to his long-time partner, and tonight’s 50th cap recipient, Scott Sio.

So how can Kepu simply switch sides of the scrum?

Many readers will remember a youthful, 22-year-old Kepu making his debut on the spring tour of 2008. Where did Kepu play? He was not the tighthead prop we have come to appreciate as the most important player on the field but wore the No 1 jersey as loosehead prop.

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Dig a little deeper and you will find despite being born in Australia, Kepu’s family returned to New Zealand, he went on to Captain Wesley College from the No. 8 position. Kepu then made a bigger career change than this one, moving to the front row and on to junior All Blacks selection.

So, just as in 2013 when Scott Sio arrived on the scene, we saw Kepu defer and switch across to the tighthead side, we are now seeing the re-incarnation of the 96 test, 32-year old veteran, Sekope Kepu to allow Tupou to emerge.

Yes, what is old is new again. While Kepu may have started his Wallabies career as a loosehead prop, it is since changing to the tighthead side of the scrum in 2013, that the vast majority of Kepu’s 96 tests have been played. This re-invention should see Kepu make it the coveted 100 test cap.

Now in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup old front rowers will gather in a quiet corner of rugby club bars and barbeques leading up to the rugby world cup, just like they gathered at the back of the bus in the good old days.

Let’s hope they talk about Kepu’s successful move from one side of the scrum to the other at length and how it is far more complex than say than Pocock’s move to No.8, or Hanigan’s evolution from lock to blind side, or Tui, Simmons, Holloway. One thing is for certain is that Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale’s new backline roles will not get a mention nor Reece Hodge’s move to 13.

Perhaps Steven Larkham’s famous switch from fullback to fly half, will be mentioned, but only in passing.