Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Front rowers hot property

Ben Franks and Hikawera Elliot set the scrum in the first test against Ireland but the front row could look different in November. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Franks and Hikawera Elliot set the scrum in the first test against Ireland but the front row could look different in November. Photo / Getty Images

Versatile props are set to go the way of the dinosaurs with a metaphoric ice age ready to grip in November this year.

Come November, specialists will be all the rage as a result of trial law changes that will allow teams to pick eight men on their bench - the eighth having to be a front-rower.

The All Blacks, confident the trial will become permanent, now have their eye on an extended list of props to take on their end-of-year tour. When they play Scotland, Italy, Wales and England they will have four props in their matchday 23. They will be able to pick their two best tightheads and two best looseheads.

At the moment the All Blacks pick their best tighthead and loosehead to start and their best hybrid for the bench. That scenario requires the bench prop to be capable of covering both sides.

The change in philosophy will be good news for some, bad news for others. The likely beneficiaries are men such as Charlie Faumuina, Ben Afeaki and Toby Smith.

The likes of Ben Franks and Wyatt Crockett may now come under pressure to hold their places in the All Black set-up.

Franks has been a solid and useful operator for the All Blacks since he broke through in 2010. He covers both sides of the scrum and is probably the most mobile and dynamic prop in general play in the country.

That makes him the perfect bench option - not only does he provide security through his versatility in terms of the set-piece, he can inject some ball carrying and defensive impetus in the final quarter.

That was much the same as John Afoa, who became the bench prop of choice for most of 2010 and 2011. Afoa operated at another level again as a ball carrier and he could damage tiring defences with his pace and power - as he most famously showed against Wales in November 2010, when he blasted 40m for a memorable try.

Both Afoa and Franks were encouraged to develop their skills on both sides of the scrum to enhance their selection prospects. Neither was seen as quite good enough to be considered the first choice on either side of the scrum, but they had obvious potential as squad men given the wider range of skills they possessed.

But the landscape will be entirely different in November when the All Blacks will have infinite choice as to how to set up their options. They will be taking a 32-man squad to Europe and that is likely to include five if not six props.

As a basic rule they will be looking for the best and are unlikely to worry too much about versatility: they just won't need props whose main skill is to cover both sides.

The question for the selectors will be: who are their best specialists? If a pecking order were to be drawn up, Owen Franks would sit as the No 1 tighthead, with Faumuina next and Afeaki close behind. Ben Tameifuna would probably be fourth and Ben Franks fifth.

On the other side of the scrum, Tony Woodcock would be No 1 and Franks and Crockett almost inseparable as the next choices.

Chiefs loosehead Smith has quietly impressed this year, building his game well and doing his bit in holding an effective scrum steady. He is thought to now be on the All Blacks radar.

The positive in all this: the number of talented props challenging for places.

Not so long ago, the All Blacks had few options - either specialist or generalist - in the front row. Now they have a host of youngster emerging as a result of improved specialist coaching.

"Owen Franks is a guy who came onto the scene as a young player and was well advanced physically and had mental strength," says All Black coach Steve Hansen.

"Faumuina has really matured over the last 12 months and would have been in the team if it hadn't been for injury. It is exciting and it is a reflection of the work that has been done around the franchises and by Mike Cron.

"I think they are coming through better prepared. We are seeing a different type of athlete coming into the All Blacks. These young men have come in and fitted in almost immediately and by and large like players who have been here for a long time. Even the senior players are amazed at how well they have fitted in and how professional they are.

"That means we are doing a lot of things right in our academies and ITM Cup teams and with markets the way they are, we need to continue that if we are going to have a constant stream."

- Herald on Sunday

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