RANKED: The five most feared front-rows in Test rugby

Colin Newboult

With the Rugby World Cup looming, Planet Rugby will be taking a look at the units of a team to measure who has the advantage in the lead-up to the tournament.

We continue with an area which doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves but one that forms the pillar of the pack and creates the platform for others to thrive; the front-row.

5. New Zealand: Ethan de Groot, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tyrel Lomax

Currently lower down than they would like to be, but there is plenty of potential in this trio and by the end of the Rugby World Cup they could be at the top of this list. The All Blacks have struggled in the front-row during Ian Foster’s tenure, but with this three, the head coach appears to have found his answer.

All are in their mid-20s, with Lomax the oldest at 27, which means they have plenty of development left in their game. It is certainly exciting for New Zealand supporters, who have been desperate for answers up front due to the ageing Joe Moody and Dane Coles/Codie Taylor, while they have really struggled to replace Owen Franks.

However, in De Groot, Taukei’aho and Lomax, they have three exceptional set-piece exponents. The two props are wonderful scrummagers, with the hooker providing outstanding support in the middle and accuracy in the lineout.

Although the loosehead and tighthead perhaps lack the explosiveness with ball in hand of others in this list, they are incredibly powerful and have other strengths. They clear out efficiently at the contact area, are good counter-ruckers and get around the field to make their tackles defensively. With Taukei’aho the player providing that mobility and dynamism in the carry, it means that they are a well-balanced unit.

4. France: Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Uini Atonio

This trio was arguably up there with the South Africans in the first part of 2022, but their struggles in the opening few rounds of the 2023 Six Nations has seen them slip down the pecking order. They were almost put into fifth behind New Zealand, but the improved performances from Baille in the final two matches of the recent tournament has saved them.

The Toulouse loosehead is, at his peak, the premier loosehead in the world, while Marchand is also up there with the best hookers. Atonio is considered the ‘weakest’ of the three, but the La Rochelle man has improved massively to become a genuinely top-class tighthead. His scrummaging has come on tremendously on a technical level and, combined with that size and power, it makes him a fearsome proposition nowadays.

As a unit, France’s front-row wasn’t at its best in the Six Nations, but you get the sense that they are somewhat saving themselves for the big competition, which starts in September. Backed by a fervent French crowd later this year, Baille, Marchand and Atonio could be sending their opposition packs into reverse for those two months.

3. South Africa: Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe

This was the starting three during the Autumn Nations Series, and it wouldn’t be a surprise should Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber keep this unit together during the Rugby Championship and World Cup. Interestingly, there is a significant size difference between Malherbe and his compatriots, Nche and Mbonambi, but it did not affect their set-piece dominance.

The Stormers’ tighthead remains the best scrummaging prop in the world, while his loosehead partner is a destructive presence in both the loose and tight. With Mbonambi in the middle, who does a brilliant job in the set-piece – his darts at the lineout are among the best – they lay an excellent platform for when the bench come on in the second period.

They aren’t, Nche apart, quite as exciting to watch with ball in hand as others on this list, but the trio do their jobs brilliantly. No opposition front-row likes to face them and as Nche, Mbonambi and Malherbe wear them down, the Springboks then land the killer blow by bringing on their outstanding replacements.

2. Ireland: Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong

These three didn’t get too much time together in the Six Nations, with Furlong missing the opening three rounds due to a calf injury, but there is no doubting this combination when they are all fit. Porter, who has switched between loosehead and tighthead during his career, has at times had his technical issues in the scrum, but it is basically their only weakness.

With Sheehan’s rapid rise to the top, thanks to his dynamism with ball in hand and solidity in the set-piece, and Furlong’s continued excellence in pretty much every facet of the game, Ireland currently have an incredible front-row unit.

They provide a superb platform at scrum time, but their biggest strength evidently comes in the loose, with Porter, Sheehan and Furlong all outstanding carriers. They are also – the latter two in particular – very skilful, and their ability to create through their passing and off-loading game gives them an advantage over the other sides in the sport. However, they aren’t quite the best trio in rugby union…

1. South Africa: Steven Kitshoff, Malcolm Marx, Vincent Koch

You didn’t think we would miss out these three, would you? We simply had to include both Springbok units, and for us, this is the best front-row combination in the world game. Adding Malherbe over Koch would make it even better from a purely scrummaging perspective, but there is not much drop-off with Koch at the helm, while his mobility in the loose makes him a better player to have in the second half.

Alongside fearsome set-piece operators Kitshoff and Marx, it allows South Africa to dominate the scrum right throughout the game. Those two also provide plenty outside of their nuts and bolts, with the loosehead and hooker two of the best breakdown exponents in the game. With them often playing less than 40 minutes, it means that fatigue is not a factor, and they can control the contact area.

Nienaber’s men are therefore such a difficult side to break down and especially in the knockout stages of a World Cup. France may well be the favourites, while Ireland and New Zealand will also be in the reckoning, but the Boks have something the others don’t, and that’s two genuinely world-class front-rows. With set-piece so crucial in tight matches, that could be the decisive factor in determining the outcome of the upcoming global tournament.

Honourable mentions

England were very close to the top five and on pure ability alone, with Ellis Genge, Jamie George/Luke Cowan-Dickie and Kyle Sinckler in tandem, they are right up there, but the set-piece, and especially the scrum, has been a real issue for some time. They are in a similar situation to Scotland, with Pierre Schoeman, George Turner and Zander Fagerson excellent around the field. Schoeman and Fagerson are good technically but not at the level of the top five.

Elsewhere, Georgia have a plethora of quality front-rows, and following a brief lull, they are starting to find some dominance. Nika Abuladze, Shalva Mamukashvili and Alexander Kuntelia were excellent late on in their victory over Wales, with Guram Gogichashvili, Beka Gigashvili and Guram Papidze props that have consistently impressed with their club sides in France. The Lelos front-row is one to watch, given the extended preparation time they will have prior to the World Cup.

Others who are not far away are Italy, who showed vast improvement in the Six Nations thanks to the form of Danilo Fischetti, Giacomo Nicotera and Simone Ferrari, and Argentina, who are effectively a tighthead away from finding an outstanding trio. Julian Montoya is already a world-class hooker, while loosehead Thomas Gallo enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2022.

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