Tighthead props, we are told, are no longer the most important players on a rugby field.
In fact, judging by recent figures for players’ average salaries in the English Premiership, those who anchor scrums are not even among the top five most valued groups, with fly-halves, centres, locks, full-backs and back rowers all paid more than the stolid citizens who operate at the game’s sharpest end.
Well, there have been changes to the scrum in recent years.
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But no professor of binding, shoving and the associated dark arts is needed to confirm that if a team’s set-piece is sending out distress signals whenever two groups of forwards pack down it’s going to be mighty difficult for the one coming off second best to walk off the field as winners.
Penalties are coughed up and points and territory handed to the opposition. Psychologically, the effect can be ruinous for a team with a collapsible No. 3. “I would always be worried if there was a question mark over my tighthead,” said Graham Price, cornerstone of Wales’ scrum during the golden era of the 1970s .
“There have been a fair number of changes to the scrum over the years, not least in respect of the hit, but the No. 3 is still hugely important.”
Which brings us to the Wales pillar Tomas Francis.
Wales have won just three of the last 11 internationals that he has been missing. In the absence of Samson Lee, they don’t have another proven Test-class scrummager, notwithstanding that Dillon Lewis is excellent around the field and especially over the ball.
When fully fit, Francis can hold his own against some of the best loose-heads. He is calm and dependable, boasting the right temperament for a player in his position, who has to withstand attacks from opponents and scrummages with his head between the opposition loosehead and hooker. It’s been estimated that the No. 3 has to absorb 60 percent of the force coming through in a scrum. Huge strength, as well as a phlegmatic nature, is needed then.
But there are concerns about Francis’ fitness ahead of Wales’ Test series opener against South Africa a week on Saturday.
“Tomas Francis has just picked up a niggle in his back, so it has been a bit of a problem for him on and off in the season,” Wayne Pivac announced this week.
“We are just treating that with care — we expect him to be fully fit for the first Test — so it is just a precautionary measure, really, to make sure we have the numbers in training and we can prepare as we need to.”
Most coaches tend to err on the side of positivity.
Pivac was never going to announce: “Our star tighthead and only recognized premier-standard scrummager is having back problems and I’m so worried I haven’t slept for a week. We’ve brought in two relative novices as cover and our other No. 3 is renowned for things other than his set-piece work from him.
But the certainty is Wales’ coach will be concerned.
Sam Wainwright and Harri O’Connor may be promising players but both are short of experience, with Wainwright having started just three times for Saracens since arriving there three seasons ago and all those appearances coming in the Premiership Cup, while O’Connor boasts just one start for the Scarlets. As mentioned, both are seen as prospects, but it’s a huge ask to think of pitching either of them against the formidable Steven Kitshoff. You can read more about Wainwright here.
Wales do have Lewis in their squad, but, again, it will provide only limited reassurance for Pivac.
Could it have been different?
It could have been if Wales had capped the Ospreys’ Tom Botha when he was available to them.
The South Africa-born player — who is a more-than-useful scrummager — made his debut in regional rugby on August 31, 2018. He was eligible to Wales after serving out a three-year residence period thereafter.
A reading of World Rugby’s regulations on player eligibility for national teams suggests that he could have figured between August 31 last and December 31, when a new five-year residence period kicked in.
But he wasn’t capped during that window.
It is unclear if Botha even wanted to play for Wales or if he was approached but the fact is he’s now off limits to Pivac until after August 2023. You can read more about the man who ‘lives, breathes and tastes scrums’ here.
Should anyone be blamed? One close observer of the scene in Wales thought not, saying: “Wales had Tomas Francis, Leon Brown, Dillon Lewis, WillGriff John and Samson Lee as options at the time.
“Would it have been fair to have capped Tom Botha as sixth choice just as possible cover in case things went wrong at some point in the future.?
“I’d say no. People will say there was a lack of foresight, but the other side of the coin is they are talking with the benefit of hindsight.”
That said, hindsight also allows us to offer the view that it was a mistake to let Javan Sebastian slip through the Wales net. The Scarlets prop, who was born in Carmarthenshire, made great leaps forward last season, impressing in the scrum and around the field.
But he again is out of reach to Pivac, with Scotland capping Sebastian, whose father hails from Edinburgh, off the bench against Japan last autumn.
Sebastian had started to motor as a prop the campaign before, when he played 15 times for the Scarlets, with 10 of his appearances seeing him feature in the run-on side. Just maybe his potential to seriously kick on should have been spotted.
It’s too late now.
Now Wales are left hoping — possibly there’ll be some praying involved as well — that Francis will be fit to play.
If nothing else, they should learn from all this that they need to develop more No. 3s, and quickly.