Not so long ago we seemed to be struggling for loosehead props in the professional game in Scotland. It could be said in fact that we had a prop crisis. Cue Darryl Marfo being catapulted into the Scotland set up and earning 3 caps, the highlight being a stand out performance against the All Blacks in November 2017. Exactly a year later Marfo is warming the bench for Boroughmuir in the Premiership and we seem to have no end of quality loosehead props in our two pro sides.
The guys making all the headlines for the pro sides at this minute are both of South African origin, have similar rugby backgrounds and are similar kinds of players. Oli Kebble hails from Durban and Pierre Schoeman is from Nelspruit. Both played Super Rugby there and and both represented the country of their birth at Under 20 level, Kebble in the 2012 World Cup and Schoeman in 2014.
A further Saffer import has actually played more minutes for Edinburgh this season than Schoeman, in part due to that players red card against Leinster: British & Irish Lion no. 834, Allan Dell. Like Kebble, Dell was also a member of the South Africa squad that won the 2012 Under 20s World Cup and ironically despite both now being firmly established as looseheads they both wore the No. 3 shirt at different times during that competition. Dell even got off the bench in the final at tighthead. It’s worthy of note that the South African loosehead in that final and throughout the tournament was the now hugely familiar and impressive (and ginger) Steven Kitshoff who surely has some Scottish ancestry somewhere.
In addition to those welcome imports, there are 3 home-grown players who have also played their part in their respective teams this season. Edinburgh’s Rory Sutherland has 3 Scotland caps and despite giving the impression of being a much squatter man he is 6’0 tall, the same as Dell and Schoeman. In Warriors colours you can add Alex Allan and Jamie Bhatti to the list. Bhatti has represented Scotland 11 times but has fallen a little behind Allan (6 caps) both in Scotland and Glasgow colours of late.
I think is fair to say then that the loosehead situation in Scottish rugby is pretty healthy at the moment. We have 4 looseheads currently Scotland qualified and capped and a further two who are seeking to be SQ through residency. The only concern here is that they are all between 24 and 26 years of age. So who is coming behind them?
A couple that spring to mind are George Thornton (21) currently plying his trade with Wasps and Ross Dunbar (20) who is holding down the no.1 jersey at Boroughmuir. Any others?
So, in top trumps fashion, who is the best loosehead in the land at this current time?
I’m going to put Bhatti, Sutherland and Allan to one side right at the start. None of them are bad players by a long chalk but it is clear that both domestically and internationally they are seen as back ups. Bhatti has taken a back seat in the race for Scotland colours and Sutherland is even further behind. Alex Allan has moved forward in this particular trio but despite that he is behind Dell for Scotland and behind Kebble at Glasgow.
That leaves us with the South African triumvirate.
All three have played the majority of their teams’ respective matches this season with Dell chipping in with three starts plus one replacement appearance for Scotland. On the domestic front though Dell has almost always been a replacement for Schoeman (suspension time aside).
It is however at this point that I will say that Allan Dell gets the “3rd best loosehead in Scotland this season” award. He falls short because when you dial down into the statistics he doesn’t manage to top the charts in any category unlike his compatriots who share 8 of the 11 key numbers between them.
This old prop also thinks that Dell doesn’t have the same level of menace about him at scrum time that Schoeman and Kebble do. He’s competent but if you are looking for a prop to really ground down their opposite man it’s not him. Also despite appearing to look more athletic than his compatriots they still manage to do more around the park.
We won’t ever find out who is the best scrummager between Kebble and Schoeman directly, and will therefore have to rely on facts in the form of statistics and opinion in the form of well, opinion, to help us decide who the best loosehead prop in Scotland is right now.
Let’s start with the facts.
On the attack side of things Kebble is head of the line in metres gained (97, Schoeman 73) as well as offloads (3 to Schoeman’s 2) and passing (17 to Schoeman’s 8) which ties in nicely with the dynamic style of Glasgow’s play. Schoeman however has 2 tries to his name (Kebble 1), has carried 81 times (Kebble 60) and records a carry every 5.83 minutes (Kebble 9.73).
On the defensive side of the chart Schoeman has a tackle completion rate of 92% and Kebble is just a little behind at 84%. Schoeman makes a tackle every 6 minutes and Kebble every 7 minutes. It’s worth noting at this point that Alex Allan has the best tackle completion rate in this comparison of 97%, albeit that is only from a total of 37 tackles as his appearances invariably come from the bench.
Turnovers are close with Kebble recording 2 won and 4 lost whilst Schoeman has won 3 and lost 4.
On the discipline front only two of the looseheads here have been red carded – one was shown to Schoeman for leading with the elbow against Leinster with Allan earning his for contact with the head against Scarlets. None of our looseheads on this evidence appear to be card happy.
I make it that the stats alone put Schoeman slightly ahead although I acknowledge that the differences may just reflect the respective styles of our two pro sides.
In the wake of a disappointing night for Glasgow in the first leg of the 1872 Cup the Rugbypass index has Schoeman as the no. 1 rated loosehead in Scotland with 82 points. Kebble is 5th with 70 points.
You know what? I’m struggling a bit. Looking at the different things that make a good prop I’m hard pressed to get a Rizla paper between them. They are both great scrummagers, they both carry and tackle and have good hands. They are everything you want a modern loosehead to be – except for Scottish qualified. They are also niggly and even in the modern game your props need a bit of badness about them. As long as their scrummaging backs it up, which it does.
I can’t call it a draw though as that’s a cop out, so the best loosehead in Scottish rugby at this present time is: the greatest Schoeman.
What did you expect? I am an Edinburgh supporter after all… who would get your vote?