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The front row is one of rugby’s most unforgiving battlegrounds, often credited with the Game’s ‘dark arts’. It is also home to some of the most technically gifted players on the field, and also to a strong bond between players expected to go beyond the call of duty for their team.
Sean Fitzpatrick knows all about life at the coal face, and remains one of the finest hookers to ever play the Game. The son of former All Black Brian ‘BBJ’ Fitzpatrick, he was a Rugby World Cup winner with New Zealand in 1987 and also tasted Tri Nations, Super 12 and NPC success during a career that included a then-record 92 caps for the All Blacks.
Fitzpatrick’s Test bow came in 1986 as part of the ‘Baby Blacks’ side selected to play France following a blanket two-match ban on players who toured apartheid-era South Africa with the rebel Cavaliers.
Only a year later, at the inaugural Rugby World Cup, he was parachuted in to deputise for injured skipper Andy Dalton during the pool stages and excelled to the extent that he kept his place as the All Blacks stormed home to lift the Webb Ellis Cup. Helping him every step of the way were his Auckland provincial teammates Steve McDowall and the late John Drake.
During the tournament, they came up against some of the Game’s toughest front row combinations, notably France in the Final. New Zealand prevailed 29-9 and Fitzpatrick has special – if unpleasant – memories of the man on the French tighthead.
“The toughest front row was the French,” admitted Fitzpatrick. “They were technically very good, and had probably the best tighthead that I played against, a guy called Jean-Pierre Garuet. He was outstanding, a little nugget of a man, who liked inflicting a lot of pain on the opposition hooker.
“For me it was a massive learning curve. I was fortunate that I was playing in a very good team. The front row that I played in was the Auckland front row, so to have Steve McDowall and John Drake there made it a lot easier. The combinations were essential.”
Very few champion sides have reached the top without the support of a solid scrum. To Fitzpatrick and the 1987 All Blacks, the set piece was the first building block that needed to be put in place. The familiarity of the Auckland front row was a vital cog in that winning machine.
“Technically it’s a very, very important position,” he said. “If you don’t have a dominant scrum, or one that can get parity, you’re going to struggle in that phase of the play. We always used to say, ‘if we have a good scrum, the rest of the game will build on that’. We spent a lot of time perfecting that and scrums like the French, and the Australians with Tommy Lawton there, were quite exceptional.”
Given the attritional nature of their positions, experienced props and hookers have become prized commodities in the international game. While Fitzpatrick sees a number of young players as possible stars of the future, he believes that they must first get miles under their belt at club and provincial level before they can challenge the best in the world at Rugby World Cup 2015.
“I think it’s such a competitive position,” he said. “You could say young Joe Marler at Harlequins, he could develop, but it’s a position that you need experience in. If you look at the best loosehead, say Tony Woodcock at the moment, he’s just had huge, huge hours of scrummaging. They come and go pretty quickly these guys, so the ones that hang around and gain that real experience are invaluable in terms of what they can bring to the team.”
The front row is also an area of the Game that has changed greatly since Fitzpatrick got his hands on the Webb Ellis Cup in 1987. The size and power of props and hookers in the modern Game is far removed from the amateur era – almost creating two separate categories when evaluating the best of the best.
“You look at the size of (South Africa’s hooker) Bismarck du Plessis, he’s a man mountain compared to what we were, so it’s hypothetical,” Fitzpatrick said. “In terms of being a front row, I was fortunate in being with John Drake, Steve McDowall and Richard Loe. I look at a Garuet, those sort of players, and it wouldn’t have been bad to have been between them either.”
What’s certain is that the front row forms the bedrock of any exceptional team.
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