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"The Blind Side" vs. The Tighthead

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  • "The Blind Side" vs. The Tighthead

    "The Blind Side" is a book about two things: (i) the development of the left tackle position in American football from being just another grunt in the 1980’s to the second highest paid position in the sport today and (ii) Mike Oher's journey from being a giant homeless kid to playing in the NFL. There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between left tackle and tighthead prop, and, although our Mike comes from Fermoy rather than the mean streets of Memphis, between Mike Oher and Mike Ross.

    It’s January 2003. UCD are playing Cork Con at Belfield in an All Ireland League Division 1 match . UCD's tighthead is 24 years old, 6'2 and an undersized 16 and a half stone. Con’s number three is 23 years old, 6'2 and carrying a soft 21 stone. The UCD prop hit a lot of rucks, made a few carries, made his tackles, looked a bit shaky in the scrum. The Con prop only occasionally broke into an, awkward looking, trot. He didn't make it to many rucks and didn't touch the ball. Most of the 500 spectators wouldn't have thought much of either player but, if pushed, might have ventured that the UCD player looked the better prospect. Of course, most of the spectators wouldn't have noticed that the Con prop didn't take a backwards step in a scrum that match, or that season (or the season before, or the season after). Match report: http://tribune.maithu.com/article/20...-con-a-lesson/


    I was the UCD tighthead and after another year and a half of mediocrity, I packed in rugby with two herniated discs in my neck (two less than Phil Vickery apparently, we now share neck doctors). The Con tighthead developed into one of the best tightheads in Europe and the bedrock of Leinster's retention of the Heineken Cup. It was his injury in the first scrum at Twickenham in March, and eventual withdrawal after 35 minutes, which led to Ireland's humiliation. More accurately, it was Ireland's failure to adequately replace Mike Ross that caused their downfall. Tighthead prop might be the most important position in rugby. If your tighthead retreats a foot on your own ball, your out-half will have their openside in his face. If your tighthead goes back more than that, as we saw at Twickenham, its turnovers, penalties and, every prop's worst nightmare, the penalty try. I still wake up with cold sweats about one particular match in which I was destroyed, our scrum-half's taunts still ring in my ears - "Beep, beep - vehicle reversing!".

    Tighthead is not only the most important position on the pitch, it’s also the most demanding to play. Tom Court is a great athlete. He is 6'3, 19 stone and a monster in the weights room. But he's not a tighthead. So what makes a good tighthead? To answer this question, we should be taking a leaf out of another Michael Lewis book, Moneyball, and focussing only on the most important attributes. It’s easy to be distracted by statistics such as how quickly a prop or baseball player can run 30 yards or how much he can bench press. Billy Beane’s Damascene moment was realising that the only really important statistic for baseball hitters was how often they got on base. Similarly, tight head props should be analysed first and foremost by their ability in the scrum. But how do you identify and develop young players who can become world-class scrummagers?

    Left tackle has a lot of parallels with tighthead prop. It’s a key position as he protects the quarterback's vulnerable blindside. If your left tackle gets beaten, your quarterback (your key asset) gets hospitalised. It’s also the hardest position in football to play as a left tackle needs to be strong enough to stand toe to toe to a bull-rush from a 24 stone defensive tackle but quick enough to drop back and pick up a blitzing linebacker. The ideal left tackle is 6'5 plus, 22 stone plus and has great agility, long arms, flexible hips, good balance and an explosive burst. That's a very small sub-section of the human race. Mike Oher meets those criteria and, when he first met a scout in 2004, Oher was immediately marked down as a first round NFL draft left tackle. This was notwithstanding the fact that Oher had just started playing football, couldn't make his High School team and had never even played left tackle.

    The arrival of Lawrence Taylor and speed rushers in the 1980’s NFL drove up the value of left tackles who could protect quarterbacks from this new threat. Starting NFL left tackles now earn an average of $4m per season, almost twice as much as the other linemen (football’s equivalent of the front-row). In fact, it’s the second highest paid position in football ($1m p.a. behind quarterback). Its simple economics: importance of asset + scarcity of supply = inflated price. As the importance of tighthead has become more and more apparent, the same economic principles have served to drive up their value. Rugby salaries are light years away from the NFL but, with Toulon paying Carl Hayman a reported £550,000 per year to sit on their bench, people have started to take notice. Tighthead props are paid a premium and quality tightheads are now some of the highest paid players in world rugby.

    Lets return to the key question, how do we recognise and develop the young rugby players who can become international quality tightheads? Mike Ross was 26 before Harlequins spotted his potential, how was it missed in Ireland? Why did he end up plying his trade against jokers like me up until then? What attributes should the game be looking for? It’s not possible to accurately judge based on the scrummaging ability of young props as restricted scrums and differing rates of physical development can hide a lot at underage level. As with Mike Oher, it’s the potential for greatness, not the current performance level, that should be looked at. But rugby does not benefit from an NFL quality scouting system and good tightheads seem to come in all shapes and sizes. How do you reconcile Adam Jones and Carl Hayman? They used to say that you couldn't play tighthead with a long back but Hayman, Martin Castrogiovanni, Dan Cole and many of the other top current tightheads are 6'2 or more. Tightheads do have to be able to scrummage low, but big guys can get down there provided they are flexible in the hips and strong in the lower back. "Loose hips" is a key scouting evaluation for NFL linemen. Cobus Visagie, one of the best scrummaging tightheads of recent years, has a theory that the ideal tighthead has slim shoulders and a barrel chest. Of course, even if sports scientists are able to assist in identifying a physical ideal, there are still no guarantees. Mike Oher hasn’t made it as a left tackle in the NFL and has had to move to the less well paid right side.

    Rugby needs to get more scientific in the way it evaluates and develops young props. And it’s here that Irish rugby has a structural disadvantage. English club academies take teenagers and focus on their individual long-term development as rugby players. Irish schools take teenagers and focus on winning schools cups. For example, the most promising young tighthead in Irish rugby, Adam Macklin, captained Methody to Ulster Schools Cup success in 2008 as a distinctly prop shaped number 8. Promising young athletes with the right attributes need to be motivated to play in the front row through underage rugby rather than allowed to rampage about from the back row. Coaches need to be motivated to look to those players’ long-term prospects rather than wanting to get the ball in their hands at number 8. Economics will probably have a role to play in encouraging more big young athletes with flexible hips, narrow shoulders and barrel chests to focus on tighthead prop and the contracts they could earn as professionals. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to convince enough Irish mothers to allow their sons into the front row notwithstanding the almost inevitable herniated discs and cauliflower ears that will follow.
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