Trevor Nyakane has shone on both sides of the scrum for the Springboks, but the skill is a rarity
How tough is it for a Test prop to play loosehead and tighthead?
“Back in the day I tried to play tighthead and it didn’t go too well!” jokes former Springboks loosehead and current La Rochelle scrum coach Gurthrö Steenkamp, when asked how rare the skill is to play both sides of the scrum to an elite standard. His experience was as a much younger man, but at the top end of rugby the ambi-shovers are scarce.
During the Test series with the British & Irish Lions, though, Trevor Nyakane‘s ability to anchor either side for South Africa – and attack from either role – has earnt him serious kudos. So why do we not see more elite props switching sides?
Steenkamp tells us: “Firstly we need to acknowledge the fact that Trevor, over the last few years, has simply been a tighthead. And he’s been fairly rock steady – in the first Test, (as a tighthead) alongside Ox Nché, he put in a very solid performance. But you also need to understand that Trevor was originally a loosehead. So even if he hasn’t played it in a long time, it’s not completely foreign to him.
“If it was a classic, full-time tighthead who has never played loosehead going out over to loosehead, it would have been a different story. Because all of a sudden you don’t have two shoulders connected (to a team-mate and an opponent), you only have one shoulder, which is your right shoulder. Lots of tightheads when they go to loose feel a bit off-balance, and they don’t really feel comfortable. But it’s easier for a tighthead to move to loosehead.”
One impressed observer of Trevor Nyakane’s performance off the bench last week was Sigma Lions scrum coach Julian Redelinghuys. The shape the Springboks replacement was able to get into, against the Lions pack, won Redelinghuys’s respect.
And Redelinghuys – himself a former Boks prop, whose career was cut short by a serious neck injury – is on hand to offer his views on the big technical difference between the positions. As someone who coaches Ruan Dreyer, a prop who plays on both sides for the Lions, he sees the differences daily.
“For a tighthead, having your shoulders in line with your hips is really important,” he begins. “And Vincent Koch showed a good picture at the weekend – his back was flat and in line with the ground, almost like two vertical lines. Whereas, with a loosehead, you want your hips a little bit below your shoulders, because there you can win the battle if you can get the (opposition) tighthead going up.
“They also need to come in at a little bit of an angle. It sounds weird to say it, but you want to get the tighthead to ‘bite’. To go in. But as a tighthead you never want to turn in unless you dominate. You want to stay square and avoid the loosehead getting their head on your chest.
“With Trevor, it was his first time in a really long time he played loosehead and he was against a quality pack. But he had good shape, he worked really hard with his left arm and the results obviously spoke for themselves. They are a good outfit, the Springboks, and they are starting to get some time together as a pack – you can definitely see they’re going to get better and better the more time they spend together.”
Nyakane was asked about his position choice in the build-up to the deciding Test in the Lions series. He explained that while years ago he saw himself as a loosehead giving it a go at tight, today he sees himself as a full-on No 3.
But while Redelinghuys details nicely the different shapes required in both positions, there is another big consideration. According to Steenkamp, the key difference between the two prop positions is dealing with pressures. At tighthead, he says, “you’ve got everybody coming”.
Sale Sharks prop Simon McIntyre agrees. Having originally trained as a tighthead, he moved to loosehead after a season with Wasps. Only a few times has he had to switch back, perhaps most notably for Wasps in the 2016-17 Premiership final against Exeter, when he came off the bench at loosehead and then in extra time had to move over to the tight side.
“‘Trying to write with your bad hand’ isn’t a bad way of looking at it,” the prop tells Rugby World. “It’s both opposite and very different at the same time.
“You’re very right-side dominant, when you’re playing loosehead. Just because that’s where the tighthead is coming in from; it’s where you feel it the most. However, tightheads have the whole weight of the scrum going through their spine. You’ve got two guys coming at you. So in terms of the forces, they are very, very different.
“It’s probably why you get specialists, because it’s not something that you can chop and change quite easily. You’ll find a lot of the time with tightheads going to loosehead, they even have their wrong foot up. A lot of pressure goes through that inside right foot, and if you’re not used to that it can be very confusing in the moment to programme your brain to think the opposite way.”
Steenkamp says that having props who can play both sides certainly helps when the injuries pick up, but being the dual-sided prop tends to lend itself more to being the back-up or the handy squad guy. With frontline stars, he explains, surely it is better to have players who are incredible at one position rather than quite good at both.
When this is put to McIntyre, he considers the point and adds: “It takes a career to perfect one of them. That’s why you have props at an older age who are still learning and developing.
“I’ve spent most of my career at loosehead and I’m still learning things today. In terms of specialising, they’re both so different and unique that to try to learn them simultaneously you’re almost confusing your brain as to which one is which.
“I don’t know if it would actually be possible to be world class at both. But there’s the fact Nyakane played both during the Lions series. His performance off the bench on the weekend was very impressive. The second half the replacements came on and they probably had the (edge). It just shows what a high-skilled thing it is to be able to do.”
Does he deserve more credit for it?
“Absolutely!” McIntyre replies. “I was watching it in awe. To do that Test level, never mind at club level, is very, very impressive. And to do it to the standard he did it was quite a sight.”
Asked if we will see generational talents who can be world class at both in the future, Steenkamp says that there is always an exception to any rule and that there is not “no chance in hell”.
He adds: “It says a lot about the Boks that they went with him. The confidence they showed, the trust. Saying to Trevor, ‘You know what, we could have brought in another loosehead, but we prefer that it’s you. Because you’ve been playing so well.’ We need to look at that as well, in terms of the mindset of the player. That played a massive role.
“We need to acknowledge what Trevor accomplished. It was a great performance from that side.”
The Lions would have had a crossover prop of their own had Andrew Porter not pulled out of the tour with injury before we got going. Could we have seen the Irish star mirror Nyakane’s feats? It certainly would have been an uncommon sight. And in the years ahead, we should treasure the rare beasts who can live on either side of the set-piece.
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