[Do you think this title will increase blog traffic?]
I think its fair to say that Connacht have struggled with the position of hooker for the last few years now – at least for the five years that I’ve followed the team. I’m going to skim through the various individuals who plied their trade in that time period, and then offer some unnecessary thoughts about them, what I like to see from a hooker and what Connacht should look for in future signings.
In that time period we had the exciting running force of Sean Cronin … before he could throw. He’s now an international standard hooker who can indeed throw very well and is now criticised for not being able to hook properly. Whether he can or not is actually not clear but people like to make assumptions. Certainly Leinster have not hooked much this year but considering their scrum goes to bits when any of their hookers lift a leg its not surprising they have tried to negate this issue. I’m laying at least half the blame for this issue on Rossy actually because although he’s been excellent this year he seems to change body shape when the two hooks.
‘I’ll nail it this time….’
Adrian Flavin was at the club both before and after Cronin, amassing 159 caps over seven years. I remember him as a solid option in terms of throwing, around the field, in the scrum, and doubling as a Johnny O’Connor look alike, at least from a distance. But by the time I came to Galway he seemed to have already been superseded by Cronin for the most part who has been part of the international set up from 2009 onwards.
In 2011 Connacht signed South African hooker Ethienne Reynecke for two seasons. Despite initial excitement at the thought of signing a Saffer hooker Reynecke failed to impress. Most Connacht supporters memories of him is probably of a man who undoubtedly gave it his all, but also undoubtedly tended to do very silly things. In addition he will also be remembered for appearing to have eaten all the pies in his second season. Despite his deficiencies his 44 appearances out of a possible 56 pro12 and heineken cup games indicates where Connacht were in the front row in that time.
His neck is wider than his head, how could Connacht not have signed him?
In the second year of Reynecke’s time here, Connacht signed Heineken cup winner Jason Harris-Wright, from Bristol….wait that doesn’t sound right? Indeed despite being a part of the 2009 Cup winning Leinster team Harris-Wright had found himself in the English Championship wilderness, ostensibly because of the over-exuberance of youth off the field. Harris-Wright became Connacht’s first choice hooker almost immediately, yet at the time of writing he has only 36 caps for the province, indicative of an at times injury disrupted career. When fit he is undoubtedly the first pick at hooker for almost all Connacht players.
Flavin retired in 2013 at the tender age of 33 and Reynecke also moved onto pastures new. I was particularly surprised by Flavin’s departure as 33 does not seem particularly old for a hooker, he was generally used off the bench meaning stamina was not a major issue, and he didn’t seem to have many injuries. In any case as a result Connacht were down to a single hooker, and brought in perennial Munster third-choice Sean Henry. Although a year older than Harris-Wright, Henry is a relative neophyte in terms of top level rugby. He won a British and Irish Cup with Munster A in the 2011-12 season but had only 7 senior appearances to show for his three years down south. Connacht fans were sceptical that we may have inherited some less than appetising left overs, but were then collectively relieved to learn that Henry could in fact, throw, scrummage and move around the field on his own steam. When fit he has been second choice at Connacht and at times has pushed for the starting jersey.
Stop smiling Henry you’re supposed to be a tough front rower!
However Henry – and indeed Harris-Wright – have not been fit for portions of the season, opening the door for recent graduate of the Connacht academy David Heffernan, who has made 10 appearances from the bench and one start for the province this year. A former backrower (like Harris-Wright) Heffernan was just a tad too short to make the grade in that position and has been moved forward. Although we haven’t seen much of him personally I feel he has impressed around the field and shown calmness under pressure. His throwing has come in for some criticism but as the most visible aspect of a hookers game that is to be expected, and in any case he has yet to have a true horror show.
Heffernan teaches Henry the dead eye stare…
Besty will tell you that even some of the most experienced hookers can and will get the yips, just as kickers from time to time forget how to find the posts. However kickers at least have the benefits of an established percentage system which most ‘in the know’ fans will often allude to and which tempers hyperbolic criticism to an extent. Hookers should be judged in the same way and it would make criticism much clearer if the figures on throws were more widely used. As an example, being able to say that ‘Hooker A is a 75% thrower, but only 20% go to the back, compared to B who hits 70% but with 35% to the tail’ is a much more informative and transparent means of comparison.
There may be some players I’ve missed out and apologies if so but I think these are the main men in the number 2 jersey at Connacht for the last 5 or 6 years. Something stands out when you look at this group of players – with the exception of Cronin they are all varying degrees of average. Now don’t get me wrong they have given their all for Connacht and at times shown some good qualities, but there’s nothing extra about them. We can’t disregard the value of a hooker who can be depended upon to throw well, scrummage well and make their tackles, but if that’s all they can do then they will be a passenger for long portions of the game.
The best hookers also excel in at least one other facet of play, effectively taking on the role of an auxiliary flanker or prop, around the field or in Cronin’s case another centre. For the most part these players haven’t really offered that, at least not consistently, and in my opinion Connacht have suffered as a result. That’s why Heffernan is such an exciting prospect as he appears to still have the pace and strength of a back rower while also having learned the specialist skills of a hooker fairly quickly. Harris-Wright was also a back row, as many hookers have been in the past, but just doesn’t seem to get around the field in the same manner as a Heffernan or Cronin type.
It doesn’t have to be all fancy dan runs either; Best is great as a seven type player, able to get over the opposition player and ball on the ground and contest the ball. He’s not pacey in the flat out sense but he’ll get to rucks quickly and efficiently and does his work extremely well. There are plenty of other examples of quality hookers who fulfil either the running or jackaling backrow role, such as Schalk Brits, Richard Hibbard, Stephen Moore and of course Bismarck du Plessis, one of the few players who can tackle with such ferocity that even a legal challenge results in a yellow card.
Dan Carter, about to have his shoulder rearranged through the power of du Plessis.
Having a hooker who can fulfill a secondary role whether it be as ball carrier or ball stealer is nearly essential to any teams success these days, and also offers an important back up for when your primary players are injured or just busy elsewhere on the pitch. While Sean O’Brien is out Leinster can look to Cronin for significant carries. Ulster and Ireland use Best over the ball, freeing up their respective sevens to make carries, or simply offering more opportunity to steal the opposition ball because there are now two jackals in the team instead of one. Hibbard might not even know how to spell pass but he sucks in defenders when he carries, setting up Wales with front foot ball and possibly shaking the defensive line loose. Du Plessis in particular is a one man wrecking crew.
I’m not trying to say Connacht’s current hookers should be comparable to the best in the world in their position, that would be foolhardy. But the simple fact of the matter is with ball in hand there’s very little to recommend about our current and former hookers.
Connacht have at times attempted to emulate Penney ball this season under Lam, minus the media coverage. We’ve seen forwards hanging out on the wings and we’ve seen them asked to make carries repeatedly. For the most part our hookers just aren’t up to it, and when coupled with a relatively lightweight back row that quickly becomes a major problem as you’re left asking your props to make the majority of hard yards. Even if they are capable of doing so, limiting your options so much quickly becomes apparent to the opposition.
In time Heffernan might become that player who can play around the field as well as in the set piece, but in the short term it would behove Connacht to try and find a strong ball carrier for next season. It might seem like a tall order but no one would have believed a Super XV winning captain was likely to sign for Connacht either. Likewise given our injuries at seven this season a Best-type hooker would have been a huge asset. I’m not suggesting it would mean we don’t need a seven on the field but it would certainly have helped. Connacht either through upskilling our present hookers or buying in must try and fill one or both of these hooker roles for next season.