Tighthead Impact Assessment

This article is a belated follow up to my previous effort covering loosehead props. If you’re stuck inside like me checking the blog for something new to read periodically, then I hope this briefly alleviates a few minutes of boredom/rugby withdrawal.

As before, we will go over the options, the depth and future prospects. Even despite Rory Sutherland’s almost miraculous resurgence at loosehead to become the best in the recent (truncated) Six Nations, tighthead health seems a lot better than the other side of the scrum – I can tell you now, we’ve got more players to discuss, and less time needed to go over problems. I’ll split the players into squad incumbents, depth options and prospects.

Current Squad Players

Zandbags – Zander Fagerson
186cm
126kg
29 caps

After making his Scotland debut at a ridiculously young age, Fagerson seems to have finally nailed down his status as first choice for Scotland this year four years on from his injury-enforced debut as cover for Nel.

Question marks over his scrummaging are retreating after some impressive displays in the 2020 Six Nations and he is still a belligerent and aggressive presence in the loose with an unbelievable engine, able to carry, tackle and scrummage all day long. He may even need a new nickname (now officially adopted by his teammates, we hear) as despite frequently being in the thick of any flare-ups he’s clearly no Mohamed Haouas or even Kyle Sinkler, temperament wise. He’s also a colossal unit. He recently talked about having slimmed down to his current 126kg to stay mobile, what do you make of that Gordon Strachan? Anyway, a great player to have started and still only recently turned 24. He will continue to get better and better.

The Farmer – WP Nel
182cm
115kg
38 caps

With the rise of Zander Fagerson to full prominence, you could slip into reflecting that Nel was merely a project player bridging the gap between the mighty Euan Murray and younger talent like Fagerson coming on stream. This would be a big mistake, with Nel at times during that period having been part of any conversation about the world’s best tightheads. Even at 33, Nel is an ideal man to have on the bench and you would have no concerns over him stepping in due to injury or indeed following Petrus du Plessis and Peter De Villiers into a position as a mentor to younger props.

Ice Bergh – Simon Berghan
193cm
117kg
25 caps

Berghan is a bit of an enigma, berated by some fans as no more than a good club player however also occasionally capable of barnstorming displays like the one inflicted upon France in 2018. Very solid in the scrum, though not as destructive as the men above, Berghan lost a few stone a couple of seasons ago and we saw his work rate in the loose rocket to good effect. I think we are pretty lucky to have a player who I’d undoubtedly call international class (even if not at the top end of that class) as third choice, given our struggles in the position in the past.

The Contenders

D’arcy Rae
185cm
125kg
1 cap

Rae has missed the majority of this season with injury but prior to this he was getting plenty of game time and pushing Fagerson hard for the starting jersey when Nel was out. As we will go on to see, there are plenty of prospects in Scottish rugby at tighthead so he will have to get back his best quickly when pro rugby resumes but if injury hits amongst the three players above – or Nel retires – you’d have no issue Rae being in and around the squad. He’s a solid scrummager and has the hard edge you want in your tighthead.

Murray McCallum
183cm
118kg
3 caps

McCallum burst onto the club scene a few years back and looked a ready-made, top-class prop. Built like a tower of muscle, strong in the scrum and with much better hands than your traditional prop. After his first season I’d have wagered that he’d have pushed past Berghan and maybe even Nel by now, such was his obvious potential.

Unfortunately over the last year he has really struggled for any sort of significant game time at pro level and the versatility which saw him deployed at loosehead to accommodate Fagerson for the Under 20s may also have limited his specific development on either side of the scrum. Like Fagerson he is still only 24 so he has time on his side.

Jack Owlett
187cm
122kg

This lad could potentially be in the prospects section but he is playing pro rugby so goes into “contenders” given our low number of players. London born and schooled in the Exeter Academy but now managing some appearances (usually from the bench) for Wasps he will quickly come into contention if he can push on to compete for a starting position in the English top division. I haven’t seen a massive amount of him but he looks a solid scrummager and a big carrier as you’d expect with that frame.

Adam Nicol
185cm
110kg

It’s hard to understate just how destructive Nicol was for the Under 20s side in 2016-7, he had opposition scrums on roller skates and looked an incredible prospect. Following these displays at age grade level, Nicol didn’t take the standard route through the FOSROC academies but eventually landed a pro contract with Glasgow all the same.

This season he’s managed a reasonable amount of game time due to injury but unfortunately has been slightly underwhelming at PRO14 level. Still a big prospect though, not every prop matures as young as Fagerson so like McCallum over at Edinburgh (Nicol is 23) he has plenty of time.

The Prospects

Dan Winning
182cm
113kg

Winning was Nicol’s backup for the Under 20s and after a pretty horrific injury that kept him out for over a year he had more or less dropped off the radar. The South African born prop deserves a lot of credit for bouncing back though, with impressive Super 6 displays this season leading to a chance at a substitute appearance for Edinburgh. Pushing the opposition pack back towards their own try line and winning a penalty try was certainly not a bad way to seize that opportunity either! He looks to have replaced Jack Stanley in the Edinburgh squad now, but will have to face the same challenge for gametime all yound Scottish props do, being 5th in the queue.

Euan McLaren
188cm
118kg

Big unit and highly rated for some time but victim of some unfortunate injuries. McLaren is likely to be the sort of player who can most benefit from the Super 6. He’s going to find it really hard to break into the Glasgow squad with the players currently in front of him but will hope his performances for Ayrshire keep him on the radar.

Murphy Walker
185cm
108kg

Walker is another recent Under 20s international and is also a versatile player who has covered both sides of the scrum for the age grade squad. One early concern with Walker’s potential would be that build wise he is a lot more Allan Dell than Zander Fagerson to look at, but given the listed 108kg weight is from over a year ago you would fancy he can just about get up to the sort of bulk needed. He was a handy scrummager at times on the loosehead side especially for an Under 20s side not blessed with great size. Another that will be looking to use the Super Six to push for a pro contract.

Mak Wilson
183cm
116kg

Wilson is only 19 but following an injury to the next man on this list he has proceeded to follow in the footsteps of Fagerson and Nicol to form the cornerstone of an impressive Under 20 pack. A superb scrummager with a very un prop-like ability in the loose he is well worth keeping an eye on and his development should be a priority for the SRU. It’s not often an age grade Scottish pack will quite handily see off all 5 sides at scrum time in the 6N. Super 6 side the Southern Knights have a good one.

Dan Gamble
185cm
118kg

I have to admit I know very little about Gamble, but given that prior to injury he was ahead of Wilson in the pecking order I’m going to assume he’s at least reasonably useful. Gamble still has another year in the Under 20s to impress and is another big unit for his age so worth keeping an eye on.

Summary

In what is a very different picture to the loosehead side, we seem to have a well-oiled conveyor belt churning out tightheads with reasonable potential these days. As you can see below, most years Under 20 side has produced a player who is either now an international, a pro, or someone with at least a shot of going pro:

2014 Rae
2015 Owlett
2016 Fagerson + McCallum
2017 Nicol + Winning
2018
2019 McLaren + Walker
2020 Wilson
2021 Gamble?

It’s great to see that other than Owlett and Winning all these lads are Scots born as well whereas there seemed a real paucity of Scots-born prospects on the loosehead side.

One similar challenge will be preventing the logjam caused by only having 2 pro teams, but at least the talent appears to be coming through. There are other Scots qualified players like Charlie Capps and Jack Stanley who have or did have pro contracts in Scotland as well, but hopefully the Super Six and the tried and tested English route still offer opportunities for young players.

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5 comments on “Tighthead Impact Assessment

  1. Glarugby on

    Great article scrummo. Good to see a potentially pipeline of talent coming through.
    Fagerson is a great example though of what specialist coaching can do to lift a players level. He was also good in the loose but now he had added some impressive technique to his scrummaging.

    • David on

      I think Fagerson was almost a victim of his own success in the early days of his career. He was so dominant against ‘lesser’ players that we were all surprised when he came up against an excellent technical opponent and was sometimes outfoxed. The reality is he was still is very young for a tighthead. His development curve still has some way to go, and we were all perhaps guilty of judging him against the performance criteria we would expect of a seasoned pro. I think you are dead right that the specialist coaching has helped him with some of the tricks he can use, or how to combat them. To a certain extent experience is also probably making a difference.

      He’s two years younger than Sinckler and three years younger than Furlong – I think he can reach the heights that those players have reached. I hope he tours with the lions and with a bit of luck, could be the starting tighthead by the 2025 tour of Australia.

  2. Scotty on

    Great article, very interesting read. However, I would argue that, if we were about to go into a World Cup, our looseheads have got a bit more depth at the moment. Sutherland has somehow catapulted himself into the ranks of the top LHs in the northern hemisphere, Oli Kebble (I know not yet qualified but almost there) is a man mountain and Dell and Bhatti have proven themselves very able backups. On the other side, Fagerson is incredible for his age (even though it feels like he has been on the scene for about a decade) but then there is a huge gulf. Nel is a strong replacement to come on for 20 mins but is over the hill and I think you have highly overrated Berghan. He is a poor scrummager and though he has a bit of impact in the loose, he is a penalty machine. Hopefully one of the younger guys you have listed can come through to deputise Fagerson in the next season or so, preferably in a Sutherlandesque meteoric rise!

    • The Incredible Shug on

      If the World Cup were this autumn, we’d take five props: Fagerson, Sutherland, Dell, Kebble (covering both sides of the scrum), and one of Nel and Berghan.

  3. Big Al on

    Just watched the SRU replay of the November 2017 All Blacks game. Worth pointing out that Fagerson more held his own in the scrum in that game before he went off with a HIA. He’s technically a lot better now too. That was a good All Black scrum that had destroyed the French scrum the week before. Marfo was pretty good in that game before he went off injured too. Amazing how far he has fallen off the radar since then. With both of those two off we were really struggling in the scrums. We have so much more depth now.

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