The front row is one of the most critical units in a rugby team, they do the hard work that provides the platform for the team to play.
The front row refers to the front row of the scrum. So the loosehead prop, hooker and tight head prop, jersey numbers 1,2, and 3 respectively.
#1 or loosehead prop is called that because their head is on the outside shoulder of their opposition prop so their head is loose. Since the setup of the scrum allows them to be on the outside shoulder of their opposing prop they can apply pressure to their opposing number. The loosehead also has an easier ride at the scrums since the pressure they get from the opposing prop comes through their inside shoulder they have an easier time dealing with the pressure. The force from the opposition prop goes into the bind between the hooker and the loosehead so a good setup and a tight bind make it very difficult for that pressure to go anywhere.
In both attacking and defensive lineouts props are most often lifters usually at the front of the lineout to provide weight to the maul and defend lineout peels to the front. Sometimes in attack or defense, they are in midfield as a part of the carrying or defending the midfield pod off a shortened lineout.
In attack, the loosehead is often the more mobile of the two props and is expected to have a higher work rate in attack. Most of the time props are responsible for clearing or sealing rucks but their size also makes them useful as carriers in heavy traffic. At the highest level props are considered a ball-playing option, asked to play pullback passes to a 10 behind a 3-pod or passing pre-line to another forward running a hard line off them.
In defense the loosehead usually defends around the fringes of the ruck; while they are the more mobile of the two props that’s not a high bar. Putting the props near the ruck limits the amount of lateral movement they have to do and gives them plenty of support to their outside. Tackling is the No.1 role of the loosehead in defense. A more recent development in some loosehead props is the development of breakdown skills. A lot of looseheads have become breakdown threats if given a clean target slowing the ball down, winning penalties or sometimes turning the ball over outright.
The #2 or Hooker is one of the most difficult positions to play in rugby. They have huge responsibilities in both the set piece and open play.
The most recognizable responsibility of the hooker is throwing the ball into the lineout. Lineout throwing is very difficult and pressure-filled. There are a lot of ways that the lineout can go wrong such as mistiming between lifters, jumper and thrower or the hooker can just overthrow the jumper.
Another area that the hooker is important to is the scrum. While they do not get as much credit as a prop, they are very important in the setup of the scrum. In attacking scrums the hooker has to “hook” the ball back when it is put into the scrum. Getting a clean strike on the ball is very important the faster you can get the ball out of the scrum the better so if the ball gets to the feet of the no.8 quickly the ball can get out of the scum quickly.
In open play, hookers sometimes play on the wing as an edge forward where they combine their size and power with pace and ball skills. The reason hookers are placed on the edge is to get a good breakdown operator in an area of the field where a break might be made, it also provides a size mismatch with a back trying to tackle a forward. The other place the hooker plays is in the midfield 3 pods as a heavy traffic carrier. At the top level of rugby, it’s more common to see the hooker on an edge but at lower levels given the lower skill level they tend to be in three pods in the midfield.
In defense, they are expected to function as fourth loose-forward who is comparable in size to a front rower. So they are expected to be dominant in head-on collisions tight to the ruck while also being to make chop tackles wider from the ruck. Of the three front rowers, the hooker is expected to be the most dynamic and have the highest work rate in defense. Hookers are also now developing breakdown skills some of them are good enough to play flanker or No.8 due to injuries or in-game adjustments.
The final front row position and arguably most important is the #3 or Tighthead prop. The reason for the name is that the tighthead prop’s head goes onto the inside shoulder of the opposition prop, so their head is “tight”.
The tighthead is very important to the scrum if they are going backward so does the whole scrum. Since the opposing prop is on their outside shoulder they are automatically under the most pressure in the scrum and have to fight to keep their outside shoulder up and square. Since they are so important to the scrum tightheads have to be good scrummagers, a lot of tightheads get away with being mediocre to poor in open play but make up for it by being good at the scrum.
Tightheads are almost always found in the lineout as a lifter even if it is shortened. Tightheads are usually the biggest and heaviest players on the so they are not going to be in the midfield defending against forwards in a three-pod.
In attack, tightheads are really only assigned to clearing or sealing rucks. They are not often asked to be carriers since they are putting a lot of energy into the scrums. Ball-carrying tightheads are very rare to find and has more to do with cardio than their power and physical attributes. Some tightheads are ball-playing options but those are also very rare.
Defending is important but the tighthead is not responsible for much. They are responsible for defending around the ruck and putting pressure on the breakdown by counter-rucking.
Despite seemingly not being responsible for much the tighthead’s role at the scrum is incredibly crucial to the outcome of a game. It’s no coincidence that they are on average the highest-paid position across all leagues in the professional game.
Creating a good combination of skills in the front row is important to the outcome of a game. There are core skills that all the players in the front row must possess. They must be able to scrummage 1st and foremost but they must also be able to tackle, carry and clean rucks too. What the coach is often doing balancing strengths, weaknesses and bonus skills between those players. For example, if you have a tighthead who doesn’t have a high work-rate but is good at the breakdown. You can balance that out with the loosehead and hooker having a very high work rate. You could make the tighthead’s breakdown strength even more potent if the hooker or loosehead is a good low tackler, which would generate more turnover chances and make the breakdown target better. Finding that correct balance of strengths and skills can give you a huge edge in a game and being able to come up with the right combinations is one of a coach’s biggest challenges.
Journalism student at Arizona State’s Cronkite School, 3rd-year scrum-half and social manager for ASU Rugby.