One of the more interesting developments of this World Cup cycle has been the rise of specialized tighthead locks. A Tighthead lock is the lock that scrummages on the tighthead side of the scrum. Tighthead locks are usually shorter and have wider shoulders; they are also usually the more powerful scrummagers. Their role in the scrum is more important than the loosehead lock because the tighthead side is under the most pressure. The tighthead locks provide the power to keep the scrum from going backward on the tighthead side.
In open play, the tighthead lock’s job is to do the ungodly work. Typically they are the enforcer of the pack. They clear rucks and take carries to get out of difficult positions or into heavy traffic. The tighthead lock is primarily a strength-based position that dictates their success.
Obviously, tighthead locks were a thing before the 2019 World Cup. However, the term only really made it into the mainstream rugby coverage in the buildup to the 2019 World Cup around Ireland’s selection of Jean Kleyn. Ireland had been lacking a specialist tighthead lock with his skills and Kleyn had been playing well for Munster. However, Kleyn is from South Africa and had only qualified for Ireland on residency so there was a lot of controversy surrounding his selection and the merits of carrying a specialist tighthead lock.
Then, during the first game of the 2019 Six Nations match, France took on and beat England. France had selected Paul Willemse, another South African expat playing in a foreign country. Willemse partnered with Bernard Le Roux in the 2nd row, with Willemse playing on the tighthead side. Willemse brought heavy carrying and brutal clearout work, while Bernard Le Roux was more mobile and a hard grafter.
Since late 2019, the French team has undergone an evolution in their playing style evident in the roles assigned to their second-row players. On the tighthead side, Willemse has remained the first choice ahead of Romain Taoifefenua. While on the loosehead side, they have opted for Cameron Woki, a converted flanker who hadn’t played 2nd row until the 2021 autumn internationals.
Thibaut Flament, a former fly-half at Loughborough, has also emerged as a back-rower for Toulouse. Both Woki and Flament bring more dynamism and skill to their roles compared to Willemse. The contrast in styles allows the French 2nd row to have a more significant impact on various aspects of the game.
In the lineout, Willemse is a capable lineout jumper but is more often used as a lifter since he is very heavy. The loosehead lock and back-row do most of the lineout jumping. When Woki is playing he is also the main lineout caller.
South Africa uses a similar pairing except both of their locks are huge. Eben Etzebeth is the loosehead lock while Lood de Jager is the tighthead lock. De Jager does a lot of the unseen work while Etzebeth does the more flashy work. The most significant difference between France and South Africa is that both South African locks are line-out options. De Jager is the main lineout caller while Etzebeth is the most used lineout jumper.
Both pairings have a stark division of attributes and skills due to the specialization of tighthead locks. Probably, the most extreme version of a tighthead lock is Will Skelton of La Rochelle and Australia. It’s also no coincidence that he is the biggest of the tighthead locks at 6’8 in and 310 lbs. His team’s effective utilization has allowed him to terrorize opposition forward packs in France and Europe, and he seems to save his best performances for Leinster where he has systematically dismantled them in back-to-back- Heineken Cup finals
While La Rochelle is a primarily defensive team, they prefer to let the other team have the ball and apply pressure with their defense. Skelton’s size makes him capable of making dominant tackles and destroying rucks routinely. At lineouts, he and Uni Antonio defend at the front and blast mauls to pieces. Skelton is almost always a lifter in defensive lineouts, he’s too heavy to get in the air quickly.
In attack, Skelton is one of the team’s main carriers. Especially coming out of trouble, in heavy traffic, or close to the line. His offload game makes it so that if teams make a mistake tackling him he’ll flick the ball to the support players in his pod. At attacking lineouts he’s also more of a lifter but he is occasionally used as a jumper. Sometimes he’s used a carrier of shortened lineouts. Even if he doesn’t have the ball he causes enough of a problem that the opponent has to divert resources to him in case he gets the ball.
Selecting a tighthead lock allows coaches to have one lock dedicated to making tough carries and clearing rucks. Meaning they can select a more dynamic lock for the loosehead side.
Former Rooster, current Journalism student at Arizona State’s Cronkite School, 3rd-year scrum-half and social manager for ASU Rugby.