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ANALYSIS: What makes the perfect hooker?

SPOTLIGHT: In the second of this new series Alex Shaw examines the prototypes of every position in the modern game and what makes for the perfect player.

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Following on from the first article, focused on props, looking at what goes into making the perfect rugby player, we now turn our attentions to the hooker position.

Just as with looseheads and tightheads, a lot more is expected of hookers in the modern era than was previously, with the days of a solid set-piece contributor being enough to crack most first XVs long gone.

It is also a particularly exciting time at the position, with an array of difference-makers currently plying their trade in the international arena. As we did with the props, we will pick out the five key attributes for the position and the players that best exemplify those qualities from all over the world.

We start as we did with the props, and that is with the foundation of set-piece stability. Most notably at the hooker position, this comes from a player’s ability to consistently hit their jumpers at the line-out, whether that is through a simple throw to the front or more challenging – but with bigger rewards – longer throws to the middle or back pod, or even beyond the line-out to a waiting runner.

(Continue reading below …)

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At the World Cup, no player was as accurate throwing in at the line-out as South Africa’s Bongi Mbonambi. Credit is also due to Springboks’ contingent of jumpers, though without Mbonambi’s inch-perfect throws, a lot of the South African game plan would have fallen apart out in Japan. In addition, the Stormer also helped Tendai Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe give Rassie Erasmus the most dominant scrum at the tournament.

Traditionally, hookers, as often smaller than their front row counterparts, have tended to be more mobile and therefore more able to influence the game at the breakdown, phase after phase. It was also fairly common to see hookers transition between roles in the two jersey and spots on the flank in the back row. Even with the advent of professionalism and increased specialisation, it’s still a positional switch that occurs semi-regularly.

As an example of a hooker who can make a difference in this area of the game, you don’t have to look any further than Scotland’s Fraser Brown, with the Glasgow Warrior having taken on roles in the back row on multiple occasions. From his ability to latch on over the ball and prove a predatory threat in defence, to the accurate and physical work he does clearing at attacking breakdowns, Brown is a fine example of this aspect of a hooker’s game.

Again, in line with what we previously said about props, work rate and stamina are big components in the modern hooker’s arsenal. Like the props, they tend to be replaced midway through the second half, but the bulk they carry around the pitch, as well as the attritional work they get through at the scrum, requires immense levels of stamina.

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England’s Jamie George is the epitome of the hard-working, non-stop hooker in the modern game. Like his Saracens teammate Mako Vunipola, who featured in this same category for the props, George’s well-rounded skill set is only made to look so impressive by his aerobic capacity to keep performing throughout the course of a game and the hunger and work rate to keep executing, even when fatigued.

The modern hooker is also a weapon in the loose and there tends to be even more asked of them as ball-carriers than there is of props. This can range from the physical behemoths who barrel their way through would-be tacklers, to the more diminutive and evasive players at the position, but whatever the method of attack is, they tend to be vital to getting a team on the front-foot and over the gain-line.

The greatest example of this in the modern game, and this player falls very much in the behemoth model of hooker, is South Africa’s Malcolm Marx. The giant 25-year-old is one of the most potent ball-carriers on the planet and he has run rampant through international and Super Rugby defences alike over the past few years.

Finally, we come to ball-handling. Again, due to the added mobility that hookers tend to have in comparison their teammates either side of them at the scrum, they regularly become involved with the game in the more open expanses of the pitch. In order to have the maximum impact in those areas that they can, they need to be more than capable ball-handlers and distributors, something that certainly hasn’t always been a staple among front rowers.

He may have had his challenges with injuries over the last season or two, but no hooker demonstrates this more completely than New Zealand’s Dane Coles. Before the likes of George, Marx and Mbonambi rose to prominence, Coles was seen as the pinnacle of the position and a lot of that had to do with his remarkable ability to link play, keep phases alive and look entirely at home in the wide channels and among the backs.

line-out throwing and scrummaging – Bongi Mbonambi

Breakdown – Fraser Brown

Work rate and stamina – Jamie George

Ball-carrying – Malcolm Marx

Ball-handling – Dane Coles

By Alex Shaw, RugbyPass

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