Are We Witnessing the Death of the Hooker in Rugby Union?

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Much has been made of the death of the ‘traditional number 7’ in recent seasons, but it seems the issue is more prevalent in the position of hooker.

It seems long gone are the days of players such as Brian Moore, John Smith and Sean Fitzpatrick who have been replaced by….well nobody really. Scanning the international landscape you’d struggle to pinpoint almost any hooker who could hold a light to the aforementioned quartet.

If pushed you could maybe argue Bismarck du Plessis is of true international class, in the traditional sense of a hooker, however eve he has been somewhat struggling for form in recent months. Behind him you could maybe look to the likes of Dylan Hartley and  Richard Hibbard, however you could hardly argue they would be considered amongst the all time greats.

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Even the All Blacks seem to be struggling in the hooker department with an over the hill Keven Mealamu backing a competent if unspectacular Dane Coles. Even worse the Wallabies find themselves scraping the hooker’s barrell with the likes of Polota-Nau, Hanson and Fainga’a all failing to fully establish themselves.

In the Northern Hemisphere the situation isn’t much better with the French having failed to settle on a hooker for much of the past couple of seasons whilst Scotland’s continued selection of Ross Ford shows just how bare their cupboard is.

The issue here appears to be that coaches are favouring hookers who are considered to have more rounded skills in favour of those who perform the basics well. Given the mess the scrum has become it seems a hooker is no longer required to actually hook the ball meaning this art has been all but lost in favour of crooked out ins.

This is obviously hugely regrettable, but it is in the loss of hooker’s abilities to throw the ball in at the line-out that we must truly mourn. The failure of so many supposedly ‘international class’ hookers to perform this most basic of tasks must be considered a true travesty in the modern game.

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What this basically boils down to is modern coaches preferring a ‘hooker’ who is more akin to a back rower than a front rower. There is an increasing trend in the modern game for coaches to select athletic hookers who are able to carry the ball in the loose, make numerous tackles and win turnovers. Whilst these are all attributes any coach would wish for in a hooker, they should not be preferred to the positions core skills such as line-out throwing.

The best example of this erosion of the traditional hooker is Leicester Tigers and England player Tom Youngs who spent the first 17 years of his rugby career as a centre. It was only at the age of 22 that coaches decided Youngs had some of the necessary attributes to play in the front row, and therefore set about ‘converting’ him.

Now this shouldn’t detract from the incredible things Youngs has already achieved as a ‘hooker’, nor should it detract from the fact he is clearly an excellent footballer, what it should highlight however is the rapidly declining expectations placed on hookers, even at an international level.

Youngs clearly has the attributes necessary to be an effective rugby player, but you only have to look at how England’s line-out fell to pieces when he replaced Dylan Hartley during the Six Nations and Autumn Internationals. This isn’t just an issue with Youngs however, more one across the whole of professional rugby where skills such as this are being devalued immensely.

This trend looks set to continue with back row players continually being ‘converted’ into hookers in a bid to give a team more options in the loose. It seems modern coaches are putting much more emphasis on the breakdown rather than the set piece. Maybe I’m wrong but to me there seems at least as much value in being able to retain your own ball during line-outs and scrums, or maybe teams these days are happy to just make do?

Do you think we are witnessing the death of the hooker in modern rugby?

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4 comments

  1. As an ex-hooker I concur wholeheartedly with this post! Hooking is a skill set that takes a long time and dedication to refine. The majority of coaches that think of you as an extra back row player is ridiculous. Evidenced by the fact that when I moved back to the UK, I had a growth spurt and lost a lot of weight, turned up to my local club, told them I was a hooker and they put me at 7. 7?! I mean come on! I could tackle, ruck, maul and carry the ball but was constantly getting “You need to speed up Josh” or “You’re not breaking from the scrum quick enough”. THAT’S BECAUSE I’M A HOOKER! I’d been conditioned to last 80 minutes at a front rows pace, doing grunt work at a pace befitting of a front row. I never had to work on sprints or how to break from a scrum quickly. In my eyes my jobs were simple: I scrum and hook the ball (on mine AND the opponents scrum), I throw into the lineout and put myself around the pitch doing the dirty work that other players didn’t want to do. End of. This theory of a hooker being an extra back row player is ridiculous. It’s all well and good in the loose but nowadays there are so many scrums and lineouts you need someone who is capable of completing these tasks to a certain standard. Not someone who has been “converted” from the backs/back row to do the job. It takes years to get this stuff right!

    • Surely the point that you are making is that a hooker can’t become a back row, not vice-versa? I’d argue that the change and emphasis on a more dynamic pack is a positive thing, just look at Courtenay Lawes- a great example of a ‘modern’ second row, which I believe is a dramatic improvement on the ‘traditional’ second row. It comes with the territory of the professional game that players need to be quicker around the park because they’re paid to work full time on maintaining fitness. As for the ‘skills’ I believe that they are mutually exclusive- the scrum has come from an evolution of the game, and a failure of officials to recognise the need for change in the laws to combat this, coaches aren’t stupid- if hooking the ball was still the most effective way of retaining the ball of course that would be the top priority but it isn’t, because someone realised one day that if you have a stronger hooker acting like a second tight head, the second the opposing hooker lifts his leg he will be driven backwards. As for the lineout, there is no excuse for poor throws which is the reason why tom youngs doesn’t ever start for England, but remains on the bench as a bit of a game changing alternative. However, he remains a fairly unique example which I believe is unfair to apply to all hookers. In any case, I believe that the hooker becoming a more active member of the game in the loose can only be a good thing and I personally believe that the ‘traditional’ hooker would be at risk of looking out of place at the highest levels today.

  2. As a hooker/ backrow forward myself, i have to dissagree, when i play backrow, i usually successfully do all the jobs required of me. When i play at hooker, i can throw in the lineout and hook in the scrums at a high standard, along with providing the skill set and carrying ability of a backrow forward. So as long as the hooker can throw and scrummage, then i dont really see the problem with them being able to play like a backrow forward

  3. although admittedly i originally played hooker from the age of 11 to 15 and have only recently started to play in the back row

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