Ho, ho, ho - it's the Front Row!
by Wes "Brigham" Clark
It's that time again, when our thoughts are turned to quiet evenings at home by the fire, gift-giving and the spirit of the season. Perhaps December is most fully characterized by that jolly fellow with the twinkle in his eye, who wears a reddened nose and bears a protuberant tummy that shakes like Jell-O.
I am, of course, referring to the prop forward.
Props rule, no doubt in my mind. I once saw a tee-shirt that sums it all up: "Beer was invented to keep props from ruling the world." While it is true they are rarely in a position to score the tries that are the most celebrated and commented-upon part of rugby, props are indispensable. After all, is there anything more characteristic of rugby than the scrum? You can't have a scrum without props, and who would want a life without rugby? In fact, the two positions in the front row - prop and hooker - are the only ones defined as requiring training and experience. According to requirements, spare props - in case of injury - must be on hand for an international side to continue play. Sure, an untrained, inexperienced fly-half or fullback might make a shambles of play, but at least the game can continue.
And yet, props seem to get little respect. In fact, one of my club's props is a constant source of humor, both in what he has done in the past and speculating upon what he could do in the future. (Under certain circumstances simply mentioning his name provokes smiles.)
I once discussed the respect issue with a fellow who stated it's because physically, props closely resemble fireplugs or beer kegs - and this makes people smile. Another prop assures me it's because the gentlemen in his profession are associated with the humorous fat sidekicks in American humor: Oliver Hardy and Lou Costello are two such examples. John Belushi was clearly the funnier Blues Brother. And to complete the circle, would you be entirely surprised to know that Chris Farley once played prop? It's true.
I will admit to being a wanna-be prop. One of my first exposures to rugby was one of those U.S. Rugby newsletter mailings. This one had a photo of the Eagles front row setting up before a scrum, with the caption, "The Eagles front row - tough men to the front." When I saw that a little "bing!" happened in my head - the same "bing!" that led me to enlist in the Marines when I was 18. (I also considered the Air Force and the Army, but I knew some day I would want to be able to say that I was a Marine.) So, mentally, I'm a prop. Forget fly-half, full-back and all those other glorious, try-making positions - my greatest rugby desire is to play prop. But... being a wise man of advancing years, I can read the writing on the wall. Every prop I have spoken to about this says, for me, it is a real bad idea. I'm too tall and/or too old. (One grizzled old prop in my club gives it as his opinion that all the really good front rowers, like Sean Fitzpatrick, have 20" necks. While I can grow the neck - I'm at 17 1/2 inches already - I recognize that it is a bad idea.) My long legs are too well-suited to locking. So I play lock.
Props are often immediately distinguishable from their fellow players. So much so, that I've created a little mental game for myself called "Spot the Prop." Since rugby is not yet the universal game it should be, there are a lot of people out there who are natural props but just don't know it. Not following me? Well, since a picture speaks a thousand words, let's use a few. "Spot the Prop" is a game I created for my club's website. Go there and come back. I'll wait.
Enough of my speculations. Let's hear from a couple of literate props. (Yes, there is such a thing.)
There's a fellow in England who has written, I think, the absolute last word on propping. His name is Ian Diddams, and he plays for Devizes RFC in England; he calls himself "Didds." He also calls himself "the World's Only Literate Prop Forward." John "Montana" Thomas - another prop - has called him something better: "the Mark Twain of the Front Row." With his permission I have collected his writing and posted it here, but for now you should read what he has to say about props, in his Prop's Guide.
So there we have it, the prop. Instead of slagging the fellow off, follow Didds' recommendation and buy him a pint. Or, better yet, since it's December, leave him a couple of cookies on a plate with a note thanking him for his efforts.