The great rugby commentator Bill McLaren once described them as “cunning as a bag o’ weasels”.
The prop forward rarely makes the headlines, but the game of rugby would not be able to function without the powerhouses of the pack.
England’s first-choice loose-head Joe Marler gives us an insight into playing the prop position.
Is there much difference between a loose-head and tight-head prop?
There is a massive difference. The pressure of a loose-head is he is getting a lot of weight on his back and his neck coming down from the tight-head. Loose-heads are trying to stay upright, tight-heads are trying to bear down and stay strong.
That’s why it was such a big thing for [ex-England front-rower] Jason Leonard to be able to play both sides to a world-class level – because it is so different and you are using different muscles and different parts of your body.
Have you always been a loose-head?
I flirted with tight-head, when I was at Worthing, the coach Will Green – who played for Wasps and England – said I might fancy tight-head and I did it for a season and I didn’t fancy it whatsoever.
It’s a mindset really, if you’re gonna be a tight-head you have to be strong – to try to take on two people – they are the cornerstone of the scrum basically.
All the pressure is coming through that corner of the scrum. They are so valuable and tend to be big, strong men – big backs, big chests and very strong lower bodies as well.
What are the skills needed to play loose-head?
Loose-heads are tough in the scrums but as you are only going against that one guy you haven’t got the same amount of pressure and you usually have a little bit left in the legs to be able to get round the park.
That’s what is expected of a modern-day loose-head – more carrying, hit a few more rucks and get round the park.
I think there’s been a bit of a change in the last few years with loose-heads being more dynamic – the likes of Mako [Vunipola] and Cian Healy for Ireland are great examples of what they are looking for in loose-heads.
Mako is very powerful and has such natural ability, he’s so comfortable holding the ball and is also solid in the scrum – him and Cian are the guys setting the way.
Even though it has changed a bit your priority is still to bend over and push as hard as you can in that scrum.
What sort of specialist training do you do as a prop?
Front rowers all do a lot of grazing, there’s a lot of scrum talk, a lot of pushing…the dirty work. The back-row guys and second row aren’t at all interested in coming near us. Nothing too specific, just a lot more pushing and in the gym we do a lot of bench pulls, back work and neck work.
We do live scrums in the week leading up to a game. We go head-to-head with two packs, it’s pretty full-on – a live session where we go from a live maul, live line-out, rucking, pick and go into a scrum.
The closer it gets to a game we don’t do too much – we narrow it down to 5 versus 5 or 3 versus 5 to work on more technical aspects.
Is there much competition between the England front-row?
Dan Cole – aka the Coler bear – puts himself out there to be the big iron man in the gym. But it’s not really competitive, you can’t compete with him – you just have to say ‘okay you win, that’s fine’, just let him be.
I sometimes go up against Cole and Henry Thomas and Dave Wilson in scrums. You have to get your head on and do your best. The idea behind doing it at match intensity for 20-25 minutes is you can replicate what Saturday is going to be like as close as you can get.
Sometimes, depending on the opposition or who we are coming up against, it can be harder going up against a British and Irish Lion like Dan Cole and you hope if you can do all right against him you can do okay at the weekend, but it doesn’t always work like that!
Who has been your toughest opponent?
Wales’ Adam Jones has to be up there, but the one that sticks was when I was at Esher on loan and I came up against a guy called Des Brett.
I remember his name because I went up to him after the game and said ‘what did you do to me there?’ I had a terrible afternoon where I couldn’t get anything right and he was pushing me all over the place. He was an old man with a massive beard and long gangly hair, but very quiet and he just gave me a torrid afternoon.
It was a great experience, him looking at me like ‘who is this young pup?’. I was a bit gobby and thinking I was something a bit special and he decided he wasn’t having any of that. He used his experience and technique, but that’s something I’ll always remember – mainly because of the way he looked – it is quite hard to forget – he was like a pirate!
But then I’d want to play in it – I wouldn’t want to come up against it…I’ll be on the bench and come on at the end.