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Tight HIA

Zander Fagerson - pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography
Zander Fagerson - pic © Al Ross/Novantae Photography

It’s been a little while since we had one of these hasn’t it? The plan is to have a little walkthrough of our options on the tighthead side of the scrum where if you peruse various Scottish rugby forums and blogs you’ll often see our paucity of options bemoaned. 

Loosehead stocks look comparatively strong at the moment with Pierre Schoeman, Rory Sutherland, Jamie Bhatti, Oli Kebble and Allan Dell all options with plenty of caps between them plus the likes of Nathan McBeth, Nick Auterac and Robin Hislop in the wings who are all at least fairly experienced pros.

A couple of years ago when I last did one of these articles, loosehead had actually been the side I was more worried about but the emergence (qualification) of Schoeman has resolved any immediate depth issues resoundingly. It will probably swap back around when I rouse myself again in a couple years.

Tighthead is a position where we’ve generally never been blessed with huge depth, we’ve generally seen the torch passed from one top-class option to another over the last 15-20 years as the mighty Euan Murray dominated all comers 6 days a week before he handed over to WP Nel. Nel has carried on in the same vein and has been aging like a fine wine even as Zander Fagerson has moved into pole position and racked up over 50 caps by the age of 26.

Other options over this period have included the likes of Geoff Cross, Moray Low and Jon Welsh. Good players but not in the same bracket as the three main incumbents. So I think it’s fair to say we’ve certainly been somewhat lucky over the 167 caps shared between the three main men given the drop-off behind them.

Let’s take a look at the current situation, the contenders, the depth and discuss where we’re at and why we’re there.

Zander Fagerson is cemented in as first choice tighthead these days and after a Lions call-up and consistently solid form, rightfully so. For me Fagerson’s chief attributes aren’t the obvious things you’d call out for in a tighthead. As a scrummager he’s strong but not a destroyer of scrums in the Euan Murray mould. In the loose he’s rambunctious and generally hits rucks, carries the ball and tackles at a rate all above his fair share. And this is where he shines, not only his workrate but the engine on him. In an era where props usually need only last 50 minutes Fagerson is capable of going for 80 and that engine on such a big man is his biggest strength.

The next biggest I’d say would be his robustness, for someone in the thick of it so often he’s stayed remarkably injury free. I do think as he’s matured Fagerson has settled down a fair bit, the Zandbags aren’t as common. Sometimes the displays aren’t as destructive but he’s consistently a very solid performer indeed and able to offer this base level game in, game out. Not going backwards in the scrum is a very underrated skill – stability is not a given – and he offers for more than that besides. Like any Scottish forward he’s prone to the odd silly mistake but I think he just (just!) about avoids the hapless penalty magnet/knock-on merchant tag fans apply to many in our pack; or, at least, there are usually worse offenders…

Anyway so the starter is all right, who else is there? Let’s start with the four other players who have been capped in recent years.

We’ve already mentioned Nel, and he’s still going strong at 36. He’s slowed down in the loose but is as resolute as ever in the scrum, frequently seeing off opposition looseheads for Edinburgh. 

Javan Sebastian was a left field selection from Townsend but the cannonball-shaped prop gets decent game time for Scarlets and has gone well in his Scotland appearances to date. Still only 28 so a welcome addition to depth but I wonder whether he’s good enough to push Fagerson on.

Then you have Simon Berghan. Berghan is 32 next month and his move to Glasgow has not exactly seen him racking up minutes. He does however have 31 caps and is tested at the top level. It seems his day’s competing with Fagerson and Nel are over but still a solid option if injuries strike I feel.

Last of the four then, Murphy Walker. Walker has been like a breath of fresh air as he breezes into our tighthead options. He didn’t particularly stand out for the under-20s having perhaps looked a bit small in his first season as a starter with them and then being moved over to the loosehead side the next year to accommodate Euan McLaren who we’ll me tion later. But he’s been superb for Glasgow and in his first appearance for Scotland gave Fiji’s loosehead a torrid time, winning several penalties. This lad looks like a genuinely destructive scrummager in the making and is no mug in the rest of his game either. A serious prospect.

Walker’s emergence then is hopefully going to continue on the current trajectory and gives us an age profile for these five as below:

36-31-28-26-23

That’s just about okay, however the two elder statesmen won’t be around much longer so we need more tightheads please. OK, so who else is there?

There are six to mention initially and I’ll divide them into three pairs.

First we have D’Arcy Rae who has a single cap from 2019 and Murray McCallum who had 3 all in 2018. Both headed south for game time and both have done reasonably well. Rae this season for me looks bigger and in better shape than when he left Glasgow, he’s scrummaged strongly for Bath and been robust in defence. I really like Rae and think he should be back in the mix with Scotland. Will Stuart, Bath’s first choice tighthead, is currently injured so Rae should have a chance to keep showing his ability. McCallum on the other hand will need to find a new club first after Worcester’s sad demise. This was a real shame for McCallum as I thought he had started to look as good as I’ve seen him during a run that saw him picking up a fair few minutes at tighthead. Fingers crossed he gets a new club and stays at tighthead after the shuffling from side to side at Edinburgh seemed to stall his career.

These two are properly good players and I sincerely hope that by the time we get to the Six Nations that McCallum has a new club and is up and running and Rae continues as he is. At 26 and 27 respectively they are entering their propping prime and exactly what the depth chart needs to ease any injury worries.

Next pair! Will Hurd of Leicestershire and Fin Richardson of Exeter. What have they got in common? Both were born in England, both are on the fringes of their respective squads, both are getting minutes in the Premiership Cup and both didn’t really stand out for the Under-20s. Richardson, 24, arrived at Exeter Chiefs via the University in the same city. Hurd, 23, went to Uni in Cardiff and I believe spent some time with Glasgow briefly before moving to Leicester, he at least popped up in an A-team game against the Edinburgh equivalent. Both are good-sized units at over 6 foot and 120kgs and are hopefully in the right places to breakthrough. If one or both were able to manage it then that would be a lovely boost to our options. For them it is early days but I feel it is worth keeping a hopeful eye out.

The last pair then: Adam Nicol and Mak Wilson. These two also have much in common. Both were born and moulded in Scotland but now play in the English Championship. Nicol is now at Jersey Reds after release from Glasgow and Wilson at Doncaster after release from Harlequins. In an interesting contrast with the pair above, both were monstrously impressive for the Under-20s – each destroying opposition scrums aplenty. The Under-20s is perhaps a poor place to judge props. Both are also bald and bearded which lends them a fearsome visage. And that counts for a lot. Nicol is 25 and Wilson younger at 22. I hope both can look at someone like Robin Hislop and see that a drop to the Championship is also an opportunity to develop and come again and after showing such early promise. I hope we see their names again in future years. So not for the depth chart now but worthy of an optimistic mention.

Euan McLaren, 23, will get a special mention here too. Another who hasn’t made the professional grade (yet), he’s been consistently impressive in the Super 6 and spent time at both pro clubs recently where it wouldn’t surprise me if he was only an injury away from one or the others 23 at times. I hope he does eventually get an opportunity somewhere to turn professional.

Quite a few players mentioned then. A reasonable number of names but admittedly shallow depth at the top end. The positive is that there are however 3 players (and previously a fourth in McCallum) who are contracted at English Premiership clubs and getting minutes either in that league or its second tier cup. By the end of the season, things could look much improved for us if Rae is still going well for Bath and has come off the bench in the Six Nations a couple times and done well, and someone like Hurd is starting to do well for Leicester and looks like pushing on. And of course if McCallum could get back to his best somewhere I think many are excited to see him fulfil his potential.

Equally none of that could happen, Nel could retire, Zander breaks his leg and…gulp.

Of course it’s a bit disappointing we don’t have very many tightheads to keep an eye on North of the border isn’t it?

There seem to be about nine tightheads in total contracted between the two pro clubs. Fagerson, Nel, Berghan and Walker we know about. Of the others we have a Fijian, two Argentines, a South African and a Kiwi.

Incidentally I haven’t mentioned said Kiwi yet but Angus Williams is apparently Scottish qualified and although 29 this week (happy birthday!) he looks to be developing pretty well as a latecomer to the Pro ranks. Could he ever trouble Scotland selection? That’s two props from nine who were both born in Scotland and we can claim were produced by the Scottish system.

That’s not great. We’ve a good clutch of promising tightheads in the academy in Gamble, Scougall, Norrie and Deans and have to do better developing these lads. Looking at Hurd and Richardson at 23 and 24 and only just beginning to break in at pro level it’s clear that many props will develop that bit later due to the playing time available to them.

Look at many of our recent looseheads like Rory Sutherland, Jamie Bhatti or going back further Gordie Reid or Jon Welsh – they were all lads who went into the club game and developed there, before coming into the pro clubs slightly older and wiser.

I wonder how difficult only having two clubs and the requirement for four good level options (to cover international callups) makes this?

If a potential tighthead needs to be carried for an extra season or two before he can be expected to hold his own, can the wage budget stand it? As we’ve seen, not all props emerge as prodigiously as Fagerson.

Glasgow to their credit have brought Walker through patiently and Nicol did get opportunities before he was released. If a Norrie or Scougall might turn out to be world-class by 28 but not even Pro-14 level until age 24, where do they play in the meantime or do they get released at 22?

Hopefully the Super 6 can bridge the gap. I feel like extended academy contracts for young props are a must to ensure they can still train full-time for that additional season or two they might need. Getting props loaned out into the Championship could be an option too.

I hope you feel a bit better about our options at tighthead than you did before you read this, and would be interested in the thoughts and opinions of others on our options, depth and how we can improve upon both.

4 Responses

  1. Time to move on from Nel who at his peak has been a very good scrummager but is now blocking the progress of others who need playing time at club and international level to find out if they have what it takes. If Scotland wants to build depth in this crucial position, why fill the squad with non-qualified journeymen?

    1. Surely SRU need to engage WP as head of front row coaching to help bring the next and subsequent generations of props through.

  2. Nathan McBeth, Nick Auterac and Robin Hislop in the wings, Hey Scrummo what are they doing out there, is that a Toony experiment ! Ok , I am no comedian. What has happened to Oli Kebble , he usually gives a decent 20 minutes and some Hogg Hair to help us see him. I am completely confussed as to what side he playes these days. Sebastian was no shakes at Ayr and the super 6 is full of props.

    You know what, they try and shove us out, they say we are not athletes, the fat boys of rugby, but in reality, nothing can be achieved without Props.

    By the way off, topic but where is Stuart MacInNakers the Hooker, has anyone seen him, is he flying Dougie Donelly to bowls matches, has anyone seen him ?

  3. TH has nearly always been a problem position, one injury away from a real crisis. It sounds like Rae has pushed on quite a bit since heading to Bath, which is good to hear, never thought he looked that impressive while with the Warriors. Surprised he hasn’t been in or around the squad recently based on reports of his recent form, but then we are talking Toonie’s selection (or does he leave most scrum matters to one of the other coaches?). Anyone getting regular minutes in the Premiership must have something about them and given the shortages at TH, he’s got to be encouraged to push for a spot in the match-day squad. McCallum seems to be beset with bad luck; some injuries, shifted left and right, left clubless after the worrying events at Worcester. I personally wouldn’t class Berghan as solid; always felt he was a liability at scrum-time and wonder if he’s just too tall for the rest of our front row which could mean load isn’t evenly spread when scrummaging. For me, probably 6th choice behind Fagerson, Murphy, Nel, Rae and Sebastian. Wow, 6th choice, I’ve almost convinced myself the problem isn’t so bad! Hopefully Murphy continues to impress and for RWC we would have Fagerson, Murphy and one of Nel or Rae. But really need to keep the conveyor belt of new props moving, especially as a smaller Premiership is likely to mean fewer opportunities for SQ props to get regular, top-level gametime

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