Amongst the rugby lessons of 2023, a key one was that a strong scrum can win games. Conversely, a weak scrum can see a team’s hopes go up in smoke.
A run of injuries to some key props saw the Wallabies struggle to establish a consistent platform at scrum time in 2023.
The lack of options at Wallabies level is a product of a lack of development and nurturing at the Super Rugby Pacific and club competition levels.
Looking around the five SRP sides, three of them have had their front-row stocks bolstered heavily by overseas talent in recent years.
Most heavily reliant on overseas talent in 2024 are the Queensland Reds.
Former All Blacks duo Alex Hodgman and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen are joined by second-year Fijian Reds player Peni Ravai, with the international trio holding most of the quality and experience in the Queensland front-row.
Despite the recruitment by Les Kiss and former head coach Brad Thorn, along with the nabbing of ACT Brumbies academy product Massimo De Lutiis, the propping quality at the Reds is far from homegrown.
Similarly, the Western Force have had to rely heavily on Argentinian tighthead prop Santiago Medrano, who at times held up the Force’s scrum single-handedly in 2023.
To lighten the load head coach Simon Cron has recruited former All Black Atu Moli.
The five test All Black has played primarily at tight-head prop, garnering 53 caps for the Chiefs over the last eight seasons.
Moli’s ability to play tight-head and loose-head adds a layer of class and stability to a previously inexperienced and young roster.
The Force have also recruited Reds loosehead prop Harry Hoopert to replace long-term injury layoff and Wallaby Tom Robertson.
Between Hoopert, Angus Wagner (LHP) and Santiago Medrano along with Moli, the Force have a strong starting scrum, but the depth drops off quickly should injury strike.
This is where homegrown depth has a crucial role to play.
Young guns Marley Pearce and Siosifa Amone are very young props in both years and experience and are still finding their feet in the competition.
Back over on the east coast and the Waratahs have replaced Leicester Tiger Nephi Leatigaga with former Saracens loose-head prop Hayden Thompson-Stringer.
Head coach Darren Coleman has also bolstered his tight head propping stocks with ACT Brumbies recruit Tom Ross.
The Waratahs unearthed a rising talent in Tom Lambert in the wake of a devastating run of injuries to golden boy Angus Bell, but scrum time was still not a point of difference for the Tahs.
In 2024, the Waratahs are looking much healthier with a possible Wallabies front-row of Bell, Dave Porecki and Harry Johnson-Holmes.
Provided they all stay healthy, a front-row bench composed of Mahe Vailanu, either Lambert or Thompson-Stringer, and Ross looks like a roster which could be competitive with any team for 80 minutes.
The other two franchises, the Melbourne Rebels and ACT Brumbies have some of the strongest front-row rosters in the competition, both are stacked with Wallabies and Australia A representatives.
Australia’s Super sides are in a good position for 2024 thanks to the large overseas recruitment drives but therein lies the question of pathways and development for young Australian props.
After all, it didn’t help the Wallabies at the World Cup when Taniela Tupou missed three of their four pool matches. With Allan Alaalatoa already back home recovering from an Achilles injury, the Wallabies barely fired a shot.
In France, a tight-head prop is almost as valuable as a flying winger, and this is a mentality Australia must adopt throughout its systems.
Prop and arguably second row are the two positions which the player pools don’t face poaching pressures from rugby league.
They are positions which Australia should be able to find, nurture and secure bucket loads of talent, but the pathways are not churning out regular quality props.
There is a number of young props around the nation, of the youngsters, Jack Barrett at the Waratahs, De Lutiis at the Reds, and Pearce at the Force are the real standouts, and all are under the age of 21, with lots of time to grow.
However, props are like a fine wine, only getting better with age, it’s the crop that is nearing their late twenties that perhaps have not been given the love they need.
Retaining, training, growing and heralding props is something Australia must get right if it is to rise again to rugby’s highest heights.
It starts in the pathways, but it can also be argued Australian commentators could do a better job of explaining scrum tactics and hyping them up for the epic and unique battle that they are.
The scrum in Australia is safe for the moment, both at SRP and test level but come the 2027 World Cup, Australia must find its frontmen and pave their path, for that tournament and the many tournaments to come.