Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Exciting props trio opens up ABs options

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen welcomes the emergence of international quality tightheads, writes Gregor Paul.

The return of tighthead prop Ben Afeaki has given the Chiefs a fourth loose forward. Photo / Getty Images
The return of tighthead prop Ben Afeaki has given the Chiefs a fourth loose forward. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks thought they had an established pecking order at tighthead prop by the end of last year.

They might have to think again by the end of 2013 as the dynamism, skill and agility of Ben Afeaki has him poised to make a dramatic impact in test rugby.

Afeaki is not a sudden revelation. He's been on the national radar for almost two years but a broken arm last year and some minor injuries denied him the chance to push on after being named in the All Black wider training squad in 2011.

Finally he's fit and able to show his extraordinary aerobic capacity. One of the most prominent features of the Chiefs' campaign so far has been the contribution of the 130kg Afeaki. He has picked up the ball-carrying load of the departed Sona Taumalolo and been just about immovable in the set piece.

In Afeaki, the Chiefs have, effectively, a fourth loose forward such is his ability to cover ground, give and take a pass, offload and stay strong over the ball at the breakdown.

His work rate and contribution with the ball is of interest to the All Blacks, who are continually looking for ways to add a critical edge to their game.

There were concerns that the All Blacks, while hugely successful in 2012, were a touch predictable - certainly easier to read - by the end of the season. The key to their success is finding points of difference; they want players who can add layers to their tactical approach and ask questions that opponents can't immediately answer.

Blues tighthead prop Charlie Faumuina was settling into test football by the end of last year and did enough in general play to suggest he would soon be putting intense pressure on incumbent Owen Franks. Now Afeaki is likely to feature in that mix, giving the All Blacks real competition in that area which they hope will not only give them options on how they can play, but also drive all three men to get the best out of themselves.

"I think it [having three quality tightheads] is a reflection on the hard work that has been done by Mike Cron [All Black forwards and scrummaging coach] and others across the country," says All Black coach Steve Hansen.

"It's not just those three either; we have a few other promising athletes at tighthead as well who are putting their hands up.

"We don't have quite the same depth at loosehead in terms of ready-made international props but I would expect that situation to change in the next 12 to 24 months."

Scrummaging will remain the key component on which the tightheads will be judged. Franks, having played 45 tests, is currently viewed as the best operator. His strength, experience and technique make him so. But Faumuina, as he showed in his seven appearances last year, is the better ball handler and runner. Afeaki could show he is at another level again should he be given the chance and that's why the pecking order has to be considered volatile.

The intriguing element is that they are all similar vintage - Afeaki and Franks 25, Faumuina 26. That's a little unusual. Normally competitive berths see an older, more experienced player face the challenge of a fast rising younger man.

"I guess it is a bit unusual that they are all about the same age but I don't think age is relevant really," says Hansen.

"They are all at different levels of their development. There is Ben who is the novice, I suppose. He was injured for a lot of last year and now he's come back and I don't think you could ask for him to have done any more than he has around the park. The challenge for him is to graft away as a scrummager and deliver a consistency of performance there.

"That's what we are seeing from Charlie and something he was beginning to do last year and again now with the Blues. He's the mid-level, if you like, and then we have Owen, who is still young, but he's the expert in that he's established himself at test level and understands about grafting performances."

- Herald on Sunday

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