How do we turn a problem into a prop?


Following the scrum debacle at Twickenham, former Ireland and Leinster tighthead prop EMMETT BYRNEattempts to demystify the dark arts of the front row, explaining the roles of the loosehead and tighthead props, the mechanics of the scrum and looks at what Ireland could have done to survive in London


IN BROAD terms, he must lock the scrum and represents the most important player because his position is the most vulnerable point in a scrum in terms of weight and leverage and therefore represents the weakest point where the opposition attack. On his feed he tries to stabilise the scrum and on opposition ball he works in conjunction with the rest of the pack to try and fracture the opposing scrum.

He won’t lead the attack; the loosehead will start it and he’ll follow. The natural weight of the scrum is on the loosehead’s side. At tighthead you’re playing against two players, the loosehead and the hooker. You have to deal with two people and more often than not they are underneath you which hands them a biomechanical advantage.

The revised scrum laws demand of a prop that his shoulders must be in line with, if not above, his hips. In the old days a tighthead was able to lower the height of the scrum by any means possible and this included dipping the shoulders well below hip height. The laws now facilitate the loosehead to get under the tighthead.

The loosehead’s head, neck and shoulder are under his chest. That’s difficult to defend against. The tighthead needs to understand the change of angles required to minimise the surface area the loosehead can work with. Obvious physics suggest that if he can get right in under his chest, he is going to do more damage than if you just give him a small area under your right shoulder.

By changing angles and distribution of weight you can actually minimise the surface area that you present to a loosehead. The other important job a tighthead must do is lower the height of the scrum. People are obsessed with pre-engagement height but it is not as important as post-engagement height. Pre-engagement optimal height is proportional to force production, trying to get too low will reduce this. You must also be relaxed so as not to engage antagonistic muscle groups which will slow you down. On engagement you exert maximal force, lower the height and are rigid like a statue while taking short steps maintaining optimal force. On the feed of the ball another shift in angle counters the opposition snap drive, this, however, requires accurate timing. There is more than one way to scrum as a tighthead and the best in the business can problem solve from one scrum to the next.


The loosehead cannot push forward unless he lifts first; this destabilises the tighthead. The latter must apply downward pressure. If the tighthead only applies forward pressure he’s going to be forced to stand up. He must apply forward and downward pressure simultaneously. This is where the new training regimes of the last seven of eight years in terms of props have changed, with great core strength a priority.

The core is a link between the upper and lower body and essential to applying downward pressure. If you lock the hips down then the shoulders follow, which is so crucial.

The understanding of the angles of the hip, knee and ankle will help when dealing with different body types and understanding where the optimal pushing position is for that given body type. Ideally you keep short steps in a scrum as they produce better leverage on going forward.

The loosehead’s role is to attack the tighthead on opposition ball and stabilise the scrum on their own ball. There is a significant difference in the role of both loosehead and tighthead. The tighthead is doing his job if he holds the scrum and keeps it stable. The loosehead is responsible for taking the opposition tighthead out of the game.

In a nutshell, a tighthead holds; a loosehead attacks. A loosehead leverages up and forward, tighthead leverages down, in and forward. A loosehead doesn’t need to worry about angles so much as just generating as much force as possible while ensuring he remains under his opposite number and his right hip remains tight to the hooker.


It has changed on the introduction of new laws regarding the hip and shoulder height in scrums. In the old days, they employed a right arm pull down, so to speak. Ideally, tightheads were heavy, broad men and they tried to “wrap up” a loosehead, as it was known; getting the elbow pointing downwards after you got a grip. The most important thing was not to let the loosehead open up your right shoulder.

Modern tighthead props in general aim for a point in between the hooker and the loosehead. They drive in, applying downward pressure and looking for a slight inward angle. They use their right arms to pull the loosehead out and then try and leverage themselves into the gap and at the same time separating the hooker and loosehead.

When attacking the centre of the scrum, ie the gap between loosehead and hooker, it is crucial that the tighthead gets his left shoulder under the opposition hooker. The type of build that facilitates this is a thickset man with narrow shoulders, this again reduces surface area; being very broad can be disadvantageous. It’s like an arrow penetrating. Body weight for stability purposes is also a factor. The average for a modern tighthead is between 115kg and 125kg.


The timing of the hit is vital. However, in pressure situations players start to worry about their own jobs. Everybody must be 100 per cent committed at scrum time to the task in hand and not just paying lip service.

The term that Mike Cron, the All Black scrum coach uses to describe this, is “loafing”. He uses the tug of war analogy as a way of illustrating his point. If you had one man against one man they are going to give you 100 per cent because they are going to be exposed otherwise.

If you add people to the rope on either side, they start to delegate the responsibility because they can delegate the blame. In a scrum it is the exact same principle. It’s about timing, working and understanding stability, binds and spinal alignment. Strength without stability is worth nothing. You can’t launch a rocket from a canoe.


There is so much stacked against him technically that to find a guy who can cope is priceless. No matter how well drilled your scrum is, if you have a weak tighthead it will be under pressure. It filters all the way back throughout the team and there is a psychological fillip for the opposing eight.

The scrum is an ideal attacking weapon as it is the only time in a match when a team can orchestrate a one-on-one in terms of the respective backlines. When you have problems in the scrum not only are you at a psychological disadvantage, but also you’re going backwards and it curtails your attacking options: your backrow is taken out of the game and your backline is back-pedalling in defence or attack.

You are also vulnerable to the interpretation of the referee, running a high risk of giving away penalties. Because the tighthead side is the weakest in terms of the physical make-up of a scrum it is therefore the obvious area to attack.


To me, England were focused on damaging the Irish scrum from the outset and Ireland didn’t expect that. They thought it would be a standard Test match with a couple of pressure scrums.

The English started with a double drive and got a penalty. Ireland needed to react aggressively in the very next one because by not doing so it encouraged England to chase all the scrums.

You have to use a lot of energy to do that damage in a scrum. If the opposition are fighting back then a team won’t bother expending that energy because they won’t get a value from it. However, England quickly realised it was worth their while to expend that energy.

As the game goes on the psychological advantage kicks in significantly. You can not go back to parity. By the time Tom Court came on Ireland were psychologically on the back foot already. Even a brilliant tighthead would have had his hands full.

Ireland didn’t react so they so they found themselves having to survive.

When in survival mode you have to be clever. You need the hooker, tighthead, number eight and scrumhalf to come together.

Referee Nigel Owens was standing on the far side watching Tom Court and not the feed.

Reddan could have gone for a crooked feed so that Best could push rather than hook. You talk to Tom Court and say ‘I need you to hold the scrum for one and a half seconds after the hit’.

You lose the scrum as an attacking weapon but it’s about survival.

If Owens watches the feed, then Court takes an advantageous bind. The referee mightn’t like it but he can’t see it. You feed the ball straight but it buys Court time to keep the scrum steady.

On England ball, Best and Healy needed to be very tight and attack under Dan Cole. When they get underneath him and Court comes across at a 10 to 15 degree angle all the weight of the scrum shifts onto the English tighthead side, creating a natural wheel. The only way that can be stopped is if Cole splits Healy and Best. As long as they stay together and understand that you’re okay.

Unfortunately for the penalty try in the second and third scrums Cole managed to split Healy and Best.

Emmett Byrne won nine caps for Ireland from 2001-2003, playing on both the loosehead and tighthead sides of the scrum at Test level. In May 2006 he became the 10th player to make 100 appearances for Leinster, starting 51 matches at tighthead and 25 at loosehead.

He was noted for his ability in the scrum, a player who could genuinely play both sides of the frontrow. Ireland’s annihilation in the scrum at Twickenham and the IRFU’s advertisement seeking a scrum coach at academy level make this set-piece very topical.

TIGHTHEAD OPTIONS: And two wildcards


The 27-year-old Galway born prop can play both sides of the scrum. He has represented Ireland at Youths, U-19, U-21 and Ireland Wolfhounds. levels.


The 24-year-old Leinster tighthead prop was educated at Gormanston College and was a member of the Ireland team that won an U-20 Six Nations Championship Grand Slam in 2007. He has played for Ireland Youths, U-18s, U-20s and Wolfhounds.


His rugby education began at CBC Cork and took in UCC, Cork Constitution and the Munster academy before making his senior debut .The 24-year-old has represented Ireland through the age-grades before winning a cap for the Wolfhounds.


The 22-year-old captained Methody to an Ulster Senior Cup success from number eight but switched to tighthead when he joined the Ulster academy. He recovered from a cruciate knee ligament injury and has played for Ireland at underage level.



The 19-year-old from New Ross, who is in the Leinster academy, is very highly regarded. Would have played for Ireland in the Under-20 Six Nations but for injury. Should be back for Junior World Championship. Has played for Ireland at U-18 clubs, U-19 and U-20.


The 28-year-old Belfast-born tighthead played 26 times for Harlequins over two seasons before joining the Exeter Chiefs last summer for a second spell there, having left Ulster for the Chiefs before moving to London.