When looking for a legendary Bath Rugby lock to speak to, now Bath Rugby Academy Director Danny Grewcock seemed an obvious choice.
The British and Irish Lion, and England international enjoyed a fantastic career at the Rec, weighing in with 229 appearances over ten years, and was one of the most highly regarded players in the game.
Since his retirement in 2010, Danny has taken up a back room role, and is now in charge of marshalling the next generation of talent to come through the ranks at the Club as Academy Director, and secure the long term legacy of the playing squad.
As we write, for the first time since the inception of the World Player of the Year award, a lock forward has been the recipient. And of course he is New Zealand All Black Brodie Retallick, whose performances over the past two years have frankly proved him to be head and shoulders above his peers, no pun intended.
So, for a lock to get the recognition is long overdue. One Mr Matfield was shortlisted a few years back, as was Mr O’Connell, but the Chiefs man was the first second row to get his sizeable mitts on the prize.
“I think certainly in rugby as a whole, they recognise the value. If you can’t win the ball, the game is going to be a bit of a struggle! Straight away, second rows will play a crucial role in that,” he explains.
“It is good to see second rows getting their recognition. I think that looking at England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland they've all had some very good second rows come through. Martin Johnson being the standout for England. Paul O’Connell for Ireland and Alun Wyn Jones does a fantastic job with Wales.”
The days of a lumbering behemoth trundling around the park are long gone. The modern era has seen a transformation of standards in all positions, on and off the field. The strength and conditioning, diet, nutrition, skills and fitness work now have meant the position of lock has evolved accordingly. Ball winning and retention is only one cog in that engine these days.
“I think it's still quite a broad set of skills and even with the England second rows at the moment, each of them are slightly different in strengths. I think that the number one has got to be the ability at the set piece, in terms of the scrum, the lineout and the restart and the kick offs. That's kind of the basics in what's expected of the guys.
“You see that with Dave Atwood with his strong ball caries and his strong defensive work. Then on the other side they are a bit more smart and strategic with their play. You see that in Stuart Hooper, in the management of the lineout and in the strategy involved in the attack and defence on that side of it.”
“Brodie Retallick is probably one of those players who gets the athletic balance right. He’s very good in the contact area, he's a very skilful ball carrier and is good all round in a game. A good call for player of the year.”
So the new skill set of a lock is a rich tapestry of talents. Danny contends that the professional game has seen an evolution for all of the front five, and watching some of the action at the Rugby World Cup, it’s hard to argue that we are watching a very different, mobile and exciting brand of the game.
He tells me,
“Definitely, I think that was a move for the front five. Typically, the back rows are seen as the guys who do all the defensive work and are the ball carriers and I think it has moved significantly. Now you see all these prop forwards that are key ball carriers and the second rows doing the same.
“Courtney Lawes and these guys are the big hitters of the team with the line speed that they bring to it, and the actual centre contact stuff they do.
“They're setting standards. I think you're seeing a much more balanced player in the second row because the set piece is still a priority but the expectation on them with ball in hand and defensively is so much higher, especially at that international level. There aren't many second rows who haven’t got that full range of skills.”
So in tandem with solid set piece basics, physicality, defence, ball carrying, handling skills, strategic nouse, the perpetual motion of men like Retallick, fitness, what else are modern locks tasked with contributing?
When one thinks of the great Martin Johnson, or Paul O’Connell for example, it’s a sizeable elephantine the room. Leadership. A talismanic aura that only a few greats possess. Danny agrees whole heartedly, and says Bath have two such men in Dominic Day and Stuart Hooper - not to mention the likes of Tom Ellis, our cover star today, and Charlie Ewels coming through.
In fact Johnson was something of pioneer in his defensive role, as the flowering analysis of the game told a pretty simple story. The World Cup winning skipper constantly was proved to be bettering the back row in his tackle count - which meant that the modern players coming after him were saddled with the same high level of expectation.
“Definitely, Stuart Hooper is the guy who leads the Club at the moment. You need someone there who is thinking ahead and who can get to lineout number four and then think about what happened in lineouts one, two and three and change his plan accordingly based on what he sees in front of him.
“A lot more detail goes into it these days, but at the same time we've got to be careful that we don't over analyse things. It's a part of the game where you can see teams and lineouts being very successful and it will often be down to the work of the coaches and work of key individuals like Stuart who are out there making the calls.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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