There are few more thankless tasks in sport than that of attempting to fill the boots of a star player who’s missing through injury. This weekend will see two fascinating examples of exactly that, when Zander Fagerson and Nathan Hughes pull on the shirts usually occupied by WP Nel and Billy Vunipola. So, will they sink or swim? Let’s look a little closer…
In the countless hypothetical selection meetings held this week by rugby fans in various pubs and hostelries across Europe, discussions will likely centre on which fly-half should steer their team, who’s the ideal ‘team daddy’ at number eight or perhaps the identity of the full-back most likely to go through opposition’s back line like a medium/rare chicken vindaloo. However, for those whose mortgages depend on the strength of their selections, such decisions are considered only once they know who will anchor their scrum.
For Scotland in recent years, that task has been manfully performed by WP Nel. Or at least it was, before he was ruled out of this year’s 6 Nations with a neck injury.
If Nel wasn’t born to be a tighthead prop, then he must have been built in a laboratory for the same purpose. His short, squat dimensions means there’s nothing for a loosehead to lever or bend and there’s almost no chance of getting underneath him. Added to that, he has all the strength and guile required of a world-class scrummaging specialist and he’s being widely tipped to wear a Lions jersey this summer. He is not the man Vern Cotter wanted to lose, especially before the France fixture.
If there isn’t an old adage concerning rugby props, along the lines of, ‘If the weight of your opponent in stone outnumbers your years on the planet, be afraid’, there should be. There may well be one after this weekend, as that exact scenario faces Scotland’s very promising and very young tighthead, Zander Fagerson.
Fagerson, just 21, is one of the game’s outstanding prospects and doubtless has a stellar international career ahead of him. When it comes to props, however, there is a huge difference between possessing world-class potential and actually being world-class, and that transition doesn’t happen quickly in the dark recesses of the front row.
Scotland’s first four scrums on Saturday resulted in penalties to Ireland and against the monstrous French pack that gave England such serious problems at Twickenham, such frailties could be terminal. Fagerson has a herculean task and Scotland’s hopes, in more ways than one, may now rest on his shoulders.
England once again have an enviable strength in depth across almost all positions, but when World Player of the Year nominee Billy Vunipola’s name was scratched from the squad list, Eddie Jones may have quietly turned the air blue.
Vunipola never really established himself under Stuart Lancaster, his place in the team contested with Ben Morgan. Under Jones, Vunipola has become England’s driving force and, without him, they have looked a poorer team.
In a back row that is now also missing Chris Robshaw, whose bear-like presence in tackles, rucks and mauls make England a harder team to play against, Vunipola’s absence leaves an even bigger hole.
With the always impressive Ben Morgan still out of favour with the current England coaching team, 25-year-old Wasp Nathan Hughes has been tasked with providing England with the required go-forward and, on first inspection, he couldn’t be better suited. England have replaced one 6ft5’, 19+ stone nightmare to tackle with another, but they can ill-afford Hughes the time it took Vunipola to become a dominant force in test rugby. Against Wales’ proven test-quality back row, they will need him at full power this weekend.
Hughes is clearly not yet as confident in an England shirt as he is in Wasps’ colours. Against France, too often he took the ball into contact almost sympathetically, perhaps more concerned with not losing the ball in contact than individual heroics. As the game wore on his confidence grew, never better illustrated than in one charge off a line-out that made two French forwards seriously question their decisions to play rugby when sports like badminton exist.
Hughes is a phenomenally gifted athlete who will doubtless become a real force in the world game, but, if Eddie Jones can’t convince him of that fact this week, England could again struggle to impose their game plan in Cardiff. If Jones does succeed and Hughes plays like we know he can, Saturday could see the birth of a new star.