Former Wallabies prop and ACT rugby identity Geoff ‘The Duke’ Didier once said that pre-season training of prop forwards should consist of nothing but lifting weights, pushing in scrums and fighting one another.
Didier also declared that Rugby Australia’s recruitment policy for props was catastrophically wrong.
“We need to scour the meanest haunts of biker gangs, find the biggest, meanest pricks we can in Boggo Road jail, and for six months feed them meat and beer and teach them to scrum.
“And that’s all they should do. Scrummaging should be their sole purpose in life. They shouldn’t even see the ball until March,” Didier said.
The Duke has mellowed a touch today – these quotes were garnered after the Rugby World Cup quarter-final in 2007 after the Wallabies scrum had been destroyed by Andy Sheridan in Marseille.
Yet Didier would still hold today that front-rowers should have a certain ‘look’ – beefy, burly, thick-necked; cast members of the goon squad on The Princess Bride.
And he still cares for their ball skills not a jot.
Taniela Tupou, however, is testing the Didier dissertation. Because Tupou is that rarest of front-liners in the 900-kilogram, 8-headed hydra called the scrum – the outlier.
For on top of his sterling work at tight-head, his go-forward at ruck and at maul, Tupou can play. There are no look passes. There’s footwork. There’s tries.
He’s got a chip-and-chase in him but one assumes Reds coach Brad Thorn has ‘advised’ he holster that action, at least in these pro leagues.
Has there been one like ‘Tongan Thor’?
Matt Dunning had his moments of free-running action and field goals. Peter ‘Fats’ Fatialofa was nimble and brutal for Western Samoa. There were hookers who could scoot – Keith Wood, Dane Coles.
Tupou, though, reminds most of William ‘The Fridge’ Perry, a defensive lineman who played for Chicago Bears in the 1980s.
Perry’s only job was getting in the way of on-rushing bouncers who sought to brutalise his quarterback.
One day at training, however, they found that Perry, all 152 kilograms of him (his team-mates called him ‘Biscuit’ because he was a biscuit shy of 350 pounds), was pretty nimble on his feet.
And because it wasn’t like he was getting tired from all the running about one does in American football, coach Mike Ditka developed a cunning plan: when his team was close to goal they would give Perry the ball with a run-up and he would smash through like a fast Brahman bull and score a touchdown.
And Tupou has more game than that guy and does it for longer.
Such is his standing that Morgan Turinui said on this very site that Tupou is the most influential player in the Super Rugby competition.
Such is his standing that Tupou was only half-joking when he advised Rugby Australia to “show me the money”.
Such is his standing that his battle up front with Waratahs’ loose-head bruiser Angus Bell, 21, will go a long way to deciding tonight’s Super Rugby round 2 fixture between Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs at Leichhardt Oval.
Bell is 192cm (6-3) and weighs in at 120kg. He’s not without athletic ability around the ground. A son of Mark Bell and the northern beaches, he debuted for the Wallabies a month after his 20th birthday against the All Blacks. No-one does that.
Yet it’s Bell’s work in the scrum versus the squat, 130kg Tupou that will fascinate scrum-watching beard-tuggers.
And one assumes they will get plenty of time for examination given it has rained on Sydney like it were the Kakadu.
Leichhardt Oval drains better than it once did, so there won’t be 30 mud-covered zombies running about.
But there will be many, many, greased-up, slippery and super-physical scrums. Long studs only. Both benches will empty from the 50th minute.
Join our experts Brett McKay, Harry Jones and Jim Tucker as they look ahead to the Super Rugby round 2 in The Roar Rugby podcast.
It will be interesting when former Reds front-rower Ruan Smith joins the maelstrom and packs down at tight-head.
In refreshing comments to the Waratahs’ website, Smith said he’d be “throwing a few cheeky elbows at a few people and maybe rub some dirt in their face.”
“I know how they think, and their coaching staff will tell them to step it up and get in our faces and be physical as that’s probably where they want to beat us,” Smith said.
Not the science that launched Sputnik, perhaps. But brutally effective.
Indeed one could surmise that the Bob Templeton Cup will be won by the team that holds the ball, carts it up and kicks to the other guys to bash them.
One could further surmise, if one was in a mood for surmising, that everyone will be bashing everyone.
Reds No.8 Harry Wilson is purpose built for bashing. And if he has half the game he had last week he’ll be a handful for the Tahs’ 6-7-8 of Jeremy Williams, Charles Gamble and Will Harris.
Halfbacks Tate McDermott (Reds) and Jake Gordon (Waratahs), fresh off a man-of-the-match performance against Fiji Drua, will seek to physically and emotionally dominate their opponent.
Five-eighths Ben Donaldson, 21, of NSW and 30-year-old James O’Connor of the Reds will be a study in contrasts.
Both men will be kicking high and long, and feeding their hard-chargers in the centres, Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese (Tahs), Hamish Stewart and Josh Flook (Reds).
If either back-three has greater influence that not dropping high balls, it would surprise. For this match will be won up front. And the Reds have the greater influence there.
The Reds have an outlier.
Reds by 6.