Thursday, June 29, 2017

Modern burdens ensure less-than-happy hookers

By Alan Watkins, the online Independent, 1/6/99

One of my rugby maxims is that it is possible to look 50 per cent better than you really are as an open-side flanker if you are bald, blond or red-headed, or wear a scrum-cap. Even the most hardened inhabitant of the press box will say: "Look at that No 7. He's everywhere. Should be in line for a cap before long." This is one maxim which has survived the onset of professionalism and changes in the laws.

A more recent maxim of mine is: the worst position on the field is hooker. No wonder they shave their heads and trot around the pitch as if they expect to be arrested at any minute, as, indeed, some of them - no names, no writs - undoubtedly should be. Their burdens are legion, their responsibilities multifarious.

They are expected to secure the ball on their own put-in. True, they always were. This aspect of their duties has become lighter with the passage of the years, as referees now tolerate flagrantly crooked feeds which, if they are spotted at all, are penalised with an indirect penalty.

More, they are expected to cavort around the field like supernumerary flankers, turning up here, there and everywhere. Several of them are very good at this aspect of their tasks. Colin Deans, the former Scotland hooker, was as fast as a back. Richard Cockerill, the current occupant for England, would not claim to be a Deans, of whom he may well never have heard. But he is no slouch either.

Above all, hookers are expected not only to throw in straight at the lineout but so to direct their throw that their own side secure possession. If a hooker fails to do this he is liable either to receive the sympathy of the commentators as a player who is having a bad day or to be denounced by them as someone who is not up to the job.

The latter fate befell Phil Kearns, the Australian hooker - who, after Sean Fitzpatrick of New Zealand, used to be considered the best practitioner in the world. The occasion was the recent England v Australia match at Twickenham. Poor Kearns kept missing the target, wiping the ball and becoming perceptibly more worried by the minute. At half-time he was substituted.

It was evident that the ball was not landing where Kearns wanted it to land. However, it is a big jump from this to lay down that the hooker must always throw in such a way as to secure possession from the lineout. For this is to admit that the lineout has become a formality - or a farce.

A scrum, even with the rarity of a straight put-in, still gives the advantage to the side putting in. It does so because of the relative positions of the feet of the hookers and the props. A lineout, even with lifting allowed, should provide no comparable advantage to the side throwing in.

In the nature of things there must, of course, be some advantage, because the hooker, his scrum-half and several forwards know - or ought to know - the point which he is aiming to reach. It does not follow from this that the hooker should guarantee possession. If he can, there is something wrong with the supervision of the lineout by the referee. I believe there are two evils at present.

One is that players dart about, changing places as if they were engaged in some childish game, while the hooker pretends to make a throw. The referees should put a stop to musical chairs and dummy throws. The forwards (or the number of forwards chosen) should be required to stand in the order in which they propose to contest the lineout. The hooker should then have to throw in without delay and with no dummying allowed - any more than either ploy would be allowed in a scrum-half putting into the scrum.

The second evil is more controversial. Indeed, it is popularly regarded as a shining virtue. I refer to the gap between the players. If there is one spectacle calculated to arouse the enthusiasm of dear old Bill McLaren, it is that of a referee parading up and down between the two lines of forwards like a sergeant-major, roughly pushing apart citizens about three times his size. And yet this much-prized gap is an invitation to violent collision. It also encourages the musical chairs. It should be diminished drastically or even eliminated altogether.

And why, in any case, should the hooker be responsible for throwing in? Until the late 1960s the wings did the job. Very often it was the only contact with the ball which they enjoyed throughout the game.

The French persisted with this system for longer than anyone else. Then Jacques Fouroux, the French coach and former scrum-half, handed the task to the scrum half.

Coaches should once again show more imagination about who does the throwing in. Referees should be more vigilant unless they want the lineout to go the same way as the scrum as a source of uncontested possession. But perhaps this is precisely what the organisers of modern rugby have wanted all along.

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