A look at players who can pack down on either side of the scrum. Part of our Future Rugby series
Will specialist looseheads and tightheads continue to be preferred, or will ‘swing props’ become more prevalent in the coming years?
It’s been more than a decade since World Rugby increased the number of substitutes in a matchday squad from seven to eight. The change was made for safety reasons – with teams mandated to include three specialist front-row forwards on the bench: namely a loosehead prop, a hooker and a tighthead prop.
Coaches have exploited the rule in subsequent years for various tactical reasons. Between 2018 and 2023, the Springboks selected their front-rows in combinations, and would often substitute their entire starting front row with the trio on the bench at key moments of the contest.
Many coaches have made tactical changes for specific purposes. If the starting loosehead struggled against the opposition tighthead at scrum time, they had the option of deploying a fresh loosehead from the bench. If the starting tighthead showed signs of fatigue, another specialist was sent into the fray.
While it’s been an era for specialists, some coaches have continued to value props with the ability to pack down on both sides of the scrum. This has proved especially important when squad places have been limited, as is always the case at tournaments like the World Cup.
At the 2023 tournament, most teams – Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, all the Six Nations sides and others – opted for nine front-row specialists in their initial 33-man squads. It was interesting to note how South Africa – who based their game plan around a dominant scrum – travelled to France with a front-row contingent of seven; namely two specialist looseheads, two specialist hookers, two specialist tightheads, and one swing prop (Trevor Nyakane).
Before addressing this dynamic, and how South Africa have pushed to develop several swing prop options over the past six years, it’s worth reflecting on a time when front-row versatility was not just an asset, but a prerequisite. Before substitution benches included an extra front-row forward, the reserve prop was expected to cover both positions.
Hanyani Shimange played hooker for several South African teams as well as the Boks (2004-2006) during that era. He now serves as a scrum consultant for the Stormers, and is well placed to comment on how the roles, and indeed the approach to the game, has changed.
“Back then, there were a few guys who could play all three front-row positions, like John Smit for South Africa and Federico Mendez for Argentina,” he says. “A few props were really effective at both loosehead and tighthead, like Jason Leonard and CJ van der Linde – two World Cup winners for England (2003) and South Africa (2007) respectively.
“So the swing prop is not a new idea, but I guess it’s less common since the extra bench spot was introduced.”
You don’t have to dive too deep to compile a list of those who have played loosehead and tighthead for their country in recent years.
Ben Franks and Ofa Tuʻungafasi (All Blacks), Andrew Porter (Ireland) and James Slipper (Australia) are among those who have been used in both positions. As any front-ranker will tell you, the demands of playing each position are very different, and not just at the set pieces.
“Typically, the loosehead will carry a lot more and the tighthead will hit more rucks,” notes Shimange, “If you look at a player like Steven Kitshoff and how he carries and competes at the breakdown, he is almost like an extra loose forward.”
The Boks have invested in this idea over the past six years. Thomas du Toit and Trevor Nyakane have been the team’s designated swing props during this period, and have been managed accordingly in the lead-up to the 2019 and 2023 World Cups.
Nyakane played 29 Tests between 2018 and 2023. During that period, he featured 10 times at loosehead, and 19 times at tighthead. He was deployed at tighthead (from the bench) in the recent World Cup final against the All Blacks – and played a key role in the dying stages of the game, when the Boks were under a lot of pressure.
Du Toit has played 18 Tests since his debut in 2018, slotting in at loosehead on 10 occasions and at tighthead on eight. He replaced Nyakane at the 2019 World Cup after the veteran broke down with a tournament-ending injury. Du Toit was placed on standby ahead of the 2023 World Cup in France, but ultimately wasn’t needed.
“Look at the recent World Cup, the Boks picked five props in their 33-man squad, and one of those (Nyakane) would have been the swing prop,” says Shimange. “Others teams might have preferred six specialists.
“Hooker is an interesting one, though. I don’t think there are many players who could do what Schalk Brits or Deon Fourie did for South Africa (cover hooker and the back row, in 2019 and 2023 respectively). There are a lot of players who have come from the back row to the hooker position – Malcolm Marx is another one of them – but it is a tough transition at the highest level.”
Shimange goes on to explain why a team might invest in a swing prop or other utility players, instead of taking the more conservative route in selecting specialists.
“It depends on the skill-set of the player, and the level of competition within your group. It’s also dependent on the opposition, and what you’re looking to achieve.
“Some props may not have the ability to dominate both sides of the scrum, but if they are good enough to hold up a side, they may well be encouraged to swing. Guys like Du Toit and Nyakane are rare players that can dominate both sides, and that is so valuable, but often it’s enough that a player can hold his own.”
There are further examples of players covering both positions at club level. Veteran Brok Harris has been asked to play loosehead and tighthead in his second stint at the Stormers, and has been one of the team’s standouts performers.
The rugby schedule is more congested than ever before. Since South Africa joined the European tournaments, teams from both sides of the equator have had to manage their personnel carefully over the course of a long club season.
It isn’t uncommon to see the strongest combination playing one week, and a second-string competing the next. While World Rugby’s laws prescribe the selection of six front-row specialists in every matchday squad, teams often travel with additional players in their touring party, in case injuries are sustained at training during the week.
Some teams have been fortunate to travel with props with the ability to play on both sides of the scrum. In the coming years, that versatility may well be essential.
“There’s value in getting young players to learn both positions, as they may need to move across in later years,” says Shimange. “You may have a young tighthead who is not the strongest scrummager, and the coach might ask him to focus on loosehead. Later, he may offer options in both positions.
“It’s not necessarily a new thing, but I think the swing prop selection, and the use of utility forwards in general, will increase in future.”