Rugby Rant: Give props their due in World Rugby awards

It’s time bigger blokes got awards nods from the game’s governing body, writes Russ Petty

Rugby Rant: Give props their due in World Rugby awards

HOW MANY of the 101 previous nominations for World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year have been for a prop? How many times in 19 years have they been up for what is described as ‘the ultimate accolade’? The answer is zero. With the usual award show not on last year, 2021 is the earliest this trend could change.

So why no recognition for props? There’s the argument that the importance of the scrum has diminished over the years. According to Opta (part of Stats Perform), the average number of scrums per Rugby World Cup game reduced from 32 in 1987 to 14 in 2019.

But ‘no scrum, no win’ surely can’t be sent to rugby’s cliché recycling bin yet. Not when it was so evident in South Africa’s 2019 World Cup final triumph or Saracens’ ending of Leinster’s 25-game winning streak in September – contests that both featured tighthead Vincent Koch.

The scrum was also a major talking point after the opening games in Pool A of the Autumn Nations Cup, while Pro14 viewers witnessed the rare sight of a substitute tighthead being named as Man of the Match in November, when WP Nel’s scrummaging on a wet night in Llanelli was celebrated.

“What does a prop have to do to make the list?”

Is there perhaps a positional bias when evaluating performances, similar to the quarterback and running back dominance of the NFL’s MVP award? Does a comparative lack of noticeable involvements or fewer minutes played count against props? With 41% of the total nominations, 68% of the previous winners have been flankers and fly-halves. A favouring of the more successful teams? New Zealand account for 30% of nominations and 53% of winners, while Joe Taufete’e is the only ever nominee from a Tier Two nation.

Let’s talk about those props that both play for flourishing sides and excel beyond the less visible ‘dark arts’ of the scrum or clearing rucks. Tadhg Furlong made the EPCR European Player of the Year longlist in four consecutive seasons and the shortlist twice. He is the only northern hemisphere prop to have started in three Test wins against New Zealand in the professional era. In the past decade, he accounts for three of the five times a Tier One prop has beaten five or more defenders in a Test.

In the same period, no England player has made more tackles in a Test than the 27 by Mako Vunipola against Ireland in 2019. Only CJ Stander made a run or tackle more often than the Saracen on the 2017 Lions tour (every 3 minutes 21 seconds he played).

If players of this calibre aren’t receiving nominations, then what does a prop forward have to do to make the list? It’s time to live up to the ‘game for all shapes and sizes’ mantra when it comes to awards nights.

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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