Don’t mess with the tighthead

One simply cannot underestimate the value of a good tighthead prop to a team, says Tank Lanning in his column, and for reinforcement of this, see the Crusaders without Owen Franks.

If there are any amongst you that remain uncertain as to the value of a tighthead prop to a rugby team, please get hold of a recording of the Crusaders loss to the Chiefs on the weekend.

It’s bloody tough, and perhaps a little over the top, to blame the Crusaders loss on one guy, but poor old replacement tighthead prop Nepo Laulala, who had not played for the Crusaders this season got taken to the cleaners by the Chiefs front row of human wrecking ball Ben Tameifuna, Hika Elliot, and in particular, loosehead prop Pauliasi Manu.

And to my mind, that set the tone for the game. It really is very difficult for a side to contemplate any form of serious attack from a set piece that is being mangled, both from a practical point of view as you get poor ball, under pressure, while going backwards, and from a mental point of view, given the doubts that creep into the mind of the team taking the hammering up front.

And it is not only in the heads of the forwards that the doubts appear, it is also amongst those peacocks out back tasked with creating scoring opportunities from the ball delivered by the heavies. Instead of a planned training ground move like the kick of Elton Jantjies to Bryan Habana against the Reds, or a simple 8 pickup and pass to 9 who flips it back inside to 15 with a cheeky no-look pass, it is scrambling to prevent the turnover by setting up a defensive maul, or flipping the ball wide in the face of a flat defence. Both fairly untidy scenarios.

With the Sharks and Stormers injury lists longer than a Kate Moss tapeworm, it was interesting to see the Crusaders suffer an injury to a key player like Owen Franks, who would be right up there with Carl Hayman and Dan Cole in terms of the best tighthead props on the planet.

Their solutions? Starting greenhorn Laulala and then moving Wyatt Crockett from loosehead, where he competes for an All Black jersey, to the completely different number 3 jersey for the last 20 minutes. Neither of which worked particularly well.

World class tighthead props do not fall from trees, though, and when available, are sold at Harrods prices rather than those seen at the Pound shop. And given how physically demanding this bloated Super Rugby tournament is, it is a very fine balancing act trying to put together a squad with enough depth to get you through the season, using only a finite budget.

Perhaps the Crusaders erred in putting too much faith in Franks not getting injured?

And that switching of props, especially moving the loosehead to tighthead, for the last 20 minutes of a game can cause this chubby ex tighthead some extreme heartburn! The Stormers loved doing it with Brok Harris, and currently the Cheetahs are giving it a go with Coenie Oosthuizen.

Oosthuizen is currently enjoying a seriously impressive season that should see him pushing Beast Mtawarira hard for that Bok number 1 jersey. But as much as the player, his provincial and national coaches want to see him as the bench prop who can play both sides, it is not happening. For good reason, Heyneke Meyer is keen to utilise Oosthuizen’s barnstorming ability with ball in hand as an impact player, and one can understand that.

But just ask Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder how his world class side performed without a tighthead prop robust enough to steady the ship up front.