Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Prop showcasing a surprising skillset

Owen Franks has shown a surprising range of skills this season. Picture / Jason Oxenham.
Owen Franks has shown a surprising range of skills this season. Picture / Jason Oxenham.

In a year of surprises, nothing has matched the unexpectedness of seeing Owen Franks develop into one of the All Blacks' better ball handlers and line breakers.

Against all indications and previous evidence, Franks has blossomed into the sort of player no one felt he could ever be. He's become a genuinely modern footballer - as much about the style as the substance and equally happy showing his pass and catch as he is trying to buckle an opponent in the scrum.

This is all terribly new and a touch shocking. Franks, with his devotion to powerlifting and technical craft, has always been able to win rugby minds. He's in the team to anchor the scrum, clear a path at the tackled ball and hoist lifters. All of which he has done with some excellence since he was 21. No one disagrees - he's been all over the nasty bits of test rugby since he first emerged in 2009.

Ask him to scrummage for 10 minutes and he'll go for 20; ask him to clean out rucks and he'll have done six before his teammates have done two and he'll lift anyone or anything in the lineout because he simply loves lifting things.

But for all that Franks has ticked his core role boxes for seven years, he's never won hearts in the same way he has minds. He's not been a footballer for the romantics.

Actually, he'd never previously been much of a footballer full stop - more of a strongman with enough mobility and agility to give rugby a decent crack. By the World Cup last year, the difference between him and his understudy, Charlie Faumuina, was pronounced.

Faumuina is a first-five trapped in a prop's body - a pass and catch player in just about the same league as Dane Coles when it comes to handling. Faumuina's efficiencies in that area only served to exaggerate what Franks didn't offer.

Not now. This season, Franks has undergone the most stunning transition. He's earning a little light-hearted fame for the world record he recently collected when he became the most experienced player in history to never score a test try.

But the implication of that record is far removed from the reality of the sort of player Franks has become.

"I know there is a bit of light-hearted talk about no tries, but you look at his contribution in the attacking side of the game," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster says.

"Forget about the set piece, we know he does that really well. But some of the lines he runs, some of his passing contributions in that area, are things you would probably never have seen from Owie Franks three or four years ago. He's become a pretty vital component of our attack game. He's got a game that is really effective - it just doesn't involve scoring tries."

It's hard to know what has been more surprising - the immaculate and clever lines that Franks has continuously run this year or his level of comfort once he has broken the defence and has to make a decision.

He's made it look like he's a natural in both aspects and he hasn't wasted the opportunities he has created. Once he's hit the hole, he's been calm, aware and willing to take his time to think through the next option.

He has also managed to largely fix the flaw in his tackling technique. He was guilty in the past of getting caught flat-footed - a weakness that made him prone to hit high and late or just not hit at all. It hasn't happened this year as his footwork and dynamism leading into the tackle are improved.

"Not only does he do his core roles - scrummaging, lineout lifting and cleaning - he's a pretty good defender for having a small number on his back," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen says. "He certainly hit a lot of holes for us out in the middle of the park. He's doing those little things better and for a big man, his handling skills are great."

- NZ Herald

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