The Depth Chart

Part 2 :: Second Row and Half Lock

The second row is traditionally referred to as “the Engine Room” because they were seen as the power behind any dominant scrum. It’s an entirely appropriate descriptor for the role but, if anything, I’d say that to limit the term “engine room” to just the scrum does the importance of your lock forward group a disservice. They aren’t just the engine room of the scrum, locks are the engine room of big wins at the highest level of the game and the more locks you have, the better.

In some ways, the name we use to describe the position is misleading. If you call them “second-rows” – as in, the players who pack down in the second row behind the front row in the scrum – you could be lead to believe that you should only have two-second rows in your starting pack, with one on the bench as a replacement. But why limit yourself to only two of the type of players that are crucial components of winning sides?

The more players you have capable of being primary lineout targets and contesters, strong maulers on both sides of the shove, physical ball carriers and impact defenders off #9, the more capable you will be of winning the areas of the game synonymous with winning the scoreboard.

The thinking on this principle has become tied up with larger concerns over the physicality in the game as a whole, which can lead some people to look at the wrong things when assessing pack builds.

To keep it in a Munster context, when you think back on it you’ll probably remember multiple occasions from 2008 to 2014 where a guy like, say, Donnacha Ryan, was considered “too slow” to play at #6, right?  That was outdated thinking then and it’s even more outdated now. If you put a lock forward into a situation where he’s being exposed for pace, you’re doing it wrong and that’s whether you’ve got two locks at #4/#5 and another two at #6/#7.

If you have guys who fit that “lock” profile – 6’4″+ and heavier than 118KG – your offensive and defensive scheme must keep them in the areas of the field where their size counts for them and not against them. When you have at least three lock forward profile players in your starting pack, you are better prepared to succeed in the modern game under the laws it is currently played under.

The facts are that, since 2013 in the European Cup, every team that has won a star has had a three-lock pack. That is to say that the team who have won the European Cup every season since 2013 have had a starting pack with three players capable of playing in the “second row” traditionally or, at the very least, have all the traits you would normally associate with a second row forward.

2013: Toulon – #4. Bakkies Botha, #5. Nick Kennedy, #6. Danie Roussouw
2014: Toulon – #4. Bakkies Botha, #5. Danie Roussouw, #6. Juan Smith
2015: Toulon – #4. Bakkies Botha, #5. Ali Williams, #6 Juan Smith
2016: Saracens – #4. Maro Itoje, #5. George Kruis, #6. Michael Rhodes
2017: Saracens – #4. Maro Itoje, #5. George Kruis, #6. Michael Rhodes
2018: Leinster – #4. Devin Toner, #5. James Ryan, #6. Scott Fardy
2019: Saracens – #4. Will Skelton, #5. George Kruis, #6. Maro Itoje
2020: Exeter – #4. Jonny Gray, #5. Jonny Hill, #6. Dave Ewers (#7. Jacques Vermuelen)
2021: Toulouse – #4. Rory Arnold, #5. Richie Arnold, #6. Rynhardt Elstadt

Even Toulouse? Yes – Rynhardt Elstadt is a perfect example of an offensive “half-lock” style player that fits in with Toulouse’s overall pack build and wider style.

When you consider that 50%+ of all tries scored in the modern game have their roots at the lineout, it’s not a surprise that selecting more lineout dominant players is associated with winning teams but it isn’t just the lineout either. The size and power these larger frame players can wield are of immense value on both sides of the ball in 2021.

For the first time in many years, I believe that Munster has a core group of lock forwards capable of affecting games at the highest level – if they can stay on the field consistently.

It’s been a long time coming. Munster invested heavily in RG Snyman ahead of 2020/21 to add a world-class operator to our core of Beirne and Kleyn but he only lasted seven minutes of his debut and then missed the entire season with a torn ACL, a minor knee issue post ACL recovery and then a fire pit accident.

It was as close to a nightmare scenario as you could get. Your marquee difference-maker in the key area of the field missing every single key game he was signed to dominate? It was a killer blow. Of course, you can’t say that you have to say that it’s the next guy off the rank but when you look at the narrow margins Munster lost by in the biggest games – PRO14 final against Leinster, Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse, even that rubbish loss to Connacht that killed the Rainbow Cup run – you can’t help but feel that a fit RG Snyman tightens those games to within the margin for error. What does La Rochelle look like without Will Skelton for 11 months? What do Leinster look like without James Ryan for 11 months? Maybe a few results fall the other way for them, maybe they don’t, but when you are without key, physical components in the second row, you suffer.

Ahead of last season, I had Billy Holland listed as an urgent PRIORITY 1 replacement so his retirement at the end of 2020/21 was far from a shock. The signing of Snyman should have seen Holland’s minutes reduced to veteran cover levels in all competitions but what happened after seven minutes against Leinster in September changed all of that.

Billy Holland is a remarkable athlete in that he just straight didn’t make any sense over the last few seasons but he still managed to perform to a relatively high level across that time. There are no other 6’3″ locks playing just over 110KG who featured primarily in the second row at the levels Munster are expected to compete at in the modern era. Before his retirement, Holland was the smallest active player who played exclusively in the second row in the United Rugby Championship, Gallagher Premiership and TOP14. This is all relatively speaking, of course, Billy would be able to see his reflection on the top of my head, but I’ll put it like this – Billy Holland would have been considered undersized for the position in 2010 but through his own skill level and understanding of the lineout, in particular, he managed to carve out a fantastic career at Munster across the 10s.

But there’s no getting away from the reality that if Billy Holland is a regular feature of a matchday squad, that is one component of your tight five that isn’t a physical threat with the ball in hand or an impact defender. Not every player has to be, mind, and Holland certainly brought elite skills elsewhere as a lineout caller, an intelligent lifting/jumping component, a counter-jumper and an accurate and clever offensive support forward with good handling skills, as well as being a technically sound and willing tighthead scrummager but when you consider that most of our other fit and available tight five forwards fit the same bill, you can see where the problem arises.

Basically, if both of our Category 1 matchday hookers, for example, are not impact defenders or heavy ball carriers, and neither are both of our tighthead props and only one of our matchday looseheads are – and he’s got injury issues – while your other CORE 1 starter is Tadhg Beirne, who can do a job as a primary central ball carrier but is probably better used in the wider areas, a lot of the heavy, central impact ball carrying and defending in the front five will fall on Jean Kleyn, with the rest of the load being taken up by the back row.

You can get away with your front row being set piece dominant support forwards for the most part – South Africa do, for example – but you’ve got to support them with elite firepower in the three locks and power forwards you put behind them as South Africa do.

From a pack construction perspective, it’s getting harder and harder to find front row forwards who will fulfil their primary role at the scrum/lineout and act as primary ball carriers and impact defenders. Ideally, you’d have a guy who could hit all three of those markers at an elite level and, of course, never gets injured but as the impacts go up, and the pressure at the scrum increases, the demands on the front row are reaching breaking point.

The vast majority will have to pick two, while carrying enough weight and size to go forward on the pick and go or off #9 while being a constant offensive breakdown presence.

A guy like Frans Malherbe, for example, would count as a defensive captain for the Springboks, a breakdown support forward on offence and max out his involvements as a dominant scrummager before being replaced by a guy like Vincent Koch, who provides a more balanced output off the bench. Even a world-class operator like Tadhg Furlong has largely pulled back the ball carrying part of his game, for the most part, to focus on other areas of positional output.

This is where the lock forwards come in to compensate and why more and more sides are starting to use three in their starting pack. In this area of the game, Toulon and Saracens, in particular, have been hugely influential.

Peak Saracens back five combination of Maro Itoje(4/6D), George Kruis (Tighthead Lock Specialist), Will Skelton (Heavy Power Forward), Jackson Wray (Combo Flanker) and Billy Vunipola (Heavy Power Forward) was brutally effective in producing winning scenarios on-field. When they combined that back five with a front row of prime Mako Vunipola (Heavy Support Forward), Jamie George (Ball Playing/Heavy Support Hooker hybrid) and Vincent Koch (Heavy Support Forward), with Titi Lamositele (Heavy Support Forward), Richard Barrington (Heavy Support Forward) and another hooker build off the bench post-Schalk Brits, it’s not hard to see why they were almost impossible to beat at full strength. Without the intervention of the salary cap scandal that dismantled them at their peak, I would suggest that Saracens would almost certainly have closed in on a fifth European Cup in six seasons in 2021.

Munster were beaten often enough by that Saracens side in the last few years and now we have a lock core capable of living with them at their peak, should they all manage to stay fit relatively consistently.

PlayerPositionAge in Jan 1 2022GradeContract Year in 2022?
Jean KleynL28CORE 1YES
RG SnymanL26CORE 1/PRIORITY 1YES
Thomas AhernL21FOUNDATION 1NO
Tadhg BeirneL/BR29CORE 1/PRIORITY 2YES
Fineen WycherleyL/BR24POTENTIAL FOUNDATION 1NO
Jason JenkinsL/BR26 CORE 1/PRIORITY 1YES

In Jean Kleyn, we have one of the most underrated tighthead lock specialists in Europe, in my opinion. Power-wise, I think he can live with anyone and his impact as a scrummager and maul component is incredibly valuable. Where he sometimes falls down is when he’s required to load up on ball carrying, where his hands can let him down in certain high pace crash ball scenarios or as a screen passer. All too often, he has found himself in a situation where he has to take that role because he is one of only two or three guys with the power profile to impact at the higher levels of the game. I don’t think it suits him. Where Jean Kleyn really works, in my opinion, is as a heavy support forward who carries the ball five times max and loads up on scrummaging, mauling, offensive breakdown work and impact defence.

He’s comfortably a CORE 1 talent and, in a contract year, would be a priority for re-signing, in my opinion. Trophy-winning teams are built on workhorses like Kleyn, the only question will be budget. If Kleyn isn’t in Irish contention – and he does not seem to be at the moment – then that raises questions about affordability in a market that will have no problem throwing money at a guy like Kleyn. Without the carrot of test rugby, how much of Munster’s re-signing budget do they invest in Kleyn?

A lot of it depends on Tadhg Beirne’s contract status and whether he’s negotiating a central contract or a provincial one.

The Beirne Ultimatum

This upcoming season will be crucial to Beirne’s future career in Ireland. This renewal is right when Beirne will be most expensive to province and country, i.e. in the direct aftermath of a pretty successful Lions run after a season where he became a regular starter at the international level for Ireland. Tadhg Beirne is widely recognised as one of the premier locks in the Northern Hemisphere playing in his peak years. Whether he plays at #4 or #6 (or #19/#20) is irrelevant because he is an elite performer in any role you could ask of him; 4/6D, Offensive or Defensive Halflock, Power Forward, Heavy Support, you name it, Beirne is elite at it.

His value to Munster is immense, don’t get me wrong, but only up to a point in an environment where budgets are lower and the IRFU are looking for savings year on year across the board if we’re talking purely about a provincial deal with IRFU incentives/top-ups.

If Beirne is negotiating with the IRFU directly on a central deal – which is likely, given his performances over the last two seasons but who knows – then I would expect that negotiation to go relatively smoothly. Look, it’s mostly all IRFU money anyway with these players (along with some private money, on occasion) but when you’re talking about a central contract deal, that implies a level of importance that can be a difference-maker for senior players like Beirne. Donnacha Ryan, for example, was offered essentially what would have been the value of a central contract on a provincial deal but when it wasn’t a “central contract”, the writing was on the wall so to speak. Players with central contracts aren’t guaranteed a start every time, but it befits your status as a key player at test level when you have one. It’s about recognition as much as it is about money.

It also frees up budget for the province, which is why they are so highly sought after.

If Beirne is not on a two-year central deal at the start of next season, it becomes more complicated from a Munster perspective because if they decide to retain him, it’ll come with a drastically inflated cost. Not only because he’s a senior player who would expect to transition to a higher value deal contract on contract, but because he’ll be an obvious target for multiple top clubs in England and France who see a guy who might not be as highly valued by his country as he might be. Do Munster invest that heavily if it’s just a provincial deal? Because if we do, it’ll be at an incredible cost.

Basically, if Beirne isn’t on a central deal, I think he will cost more than the value of a central contract to retain because of the inherent instability of his test place if he isn’t signed on a central contract. If he’s not sure of his Irish place, why wouldn’t he look to cash out in England or France? And if Munster wants to keep him in that scenario, they’ll have to match that price tag.

Onfield, he’s done more than enough to earn a central contract but it’s more complicated than just playing really well.

Beirne’s versatility and unicorn-esque skillset allow him to easily be that third lock in the back without losing any offensive quality. Beirne has the handling skillset, ball carrying impact, size, offensive and defensive breakdown work and a full-court lineout game – calling, jumping, lifting, counter-jumping, mauling – to be a complete option wherever you play him.

That versatility allows Munster to play “big” in the back five, which is something I’ve spoken about at length before. A Category 1 matchday selection that has 4. Kleyn, 5. Snyman, 6. Beirne with 19. Jenkins gives Munster a tonne of size, power and set-piece heft to play whatever way we want.

Snyman and Jenkins, if they can both stay fit, are a game-changing duo for Munster.

Snyman and Jenkins have the offensive and defensive physicality to lift Munster to the next level if they can get on the field consistently. I keep saying “if they can stay fit” because, as you know, Snyman missed the entirety of last season and Jenkins is not a stranger to medium-term injuries.

If Munster can get both players on the field at the same time – regardless of whether Jenkins is scrummaging at tighthead lock or on the flank – they have the relationship and built-in cohesion to be a devasting heavy carrying combination off #9 or running off #10.

Both men are off contract at the end of next season. Munster will wait to see if Snyman can stay healthy but, if he can, I wouldn’t be shocked to see us look to extend both players by an extra year. Again, I think that Beirne’s contract status will play a role here in Munster’s ability to retain these two but, if they are a success on-field, it’ll be something I think we’ll go after.

At 21, Thomas Ahern looks set up to have a big season in the first year of his first full senior deal. He’s got the size, power, athleticism and skill set to be a world-class lock forward. The sky is the limit for him. Ahern has the capacity to be an impact ball carrier that can play off #9, #10 or even in the wider channels with the pace and acceleration he has shown he is capable of. The key for Munster is exposing him to the right kind of games that will develop his ability while pushing him hard in training reps against guys like Beirne, Snyman, Kleyn and Jenkins.

Avoiding long term injury at this stage of his career is vitally important. 

Injuries will come when you push a player who is still growing into his frame too hard in both training and match minutes. So a balance will have to be struck between exposing him to big URC minutes – and maybe even Champions Cup depending on the availability of others – and ensuring we don’t sleepwalk into another Ian Nagle/Dave Foley situation.

Both of those locks were derailed consistently by injury. Yes, playing in the second row is an abrasive position, but we know all about losing a five-star potential player to a series of long term injuries and Ahern has the kind of potential that could see him time a run that lands in the 2023 World Cup squad. So patience will be required but that doesn’t mean that Ahern isn’t capable of having a Coombes Season if he can bring it together physically.

Fineen Wycherley is coming off the back of a season that saw him earn his first cap for Ireland. At 6’4″ and 112KG, Wycherley is on the smaller end of lock forwards, at least those that play exclusively at #4/#5 but that isn’t a killer to him making a home as a tighthead lock specialist or a 4/6D. Wycherley is uniquely interesting in this regard. He’s not as tall as other lock forwards but he seems to have the athleticism and wingspan for that not to be a problem at the lineout. I wouldn’t get too hung up on Wycherley’s relative lack of height for the position. As long as he continues to add to his physicality, Wycherley will be fine as long as he narrows down his role set.

Maro Itoje is, technically, undersized for the second row at 6’5″ but he is an athletic standout and has a very set role of what he does and doesn’t do on the field. Wycherley, for me anyway, is still a guy who tries to do everything that a guy might possibly be asked to do in the modern lock roles. He’ll scrummage on the tighthead side. He’ll carry the ball as a primary carrier. He’ll file into a support forward role. He’ll be a primary lineout counter-jumper. He’ll call the lineout. What I’d like to see from Fineen this season, the first of a new two-year deal, is a narrow focus on his ideal role, whatever that is.

***

PlayerPositionAge in Jan 1 2021HeightCurrent WeightProjected Role Set
Eoin O'ConnorL216'7" 108KGPower Forward
Paddy KellyL216'7"110KGTight Head Lock
Cian HurleyLF216'5" 105KG4/6D Flanker

In the academy, Munster have three young players who should all see URC game time this season. Cian Hurley made his senior debut in the second row last season but I see him filing into a half-lock style role going forward. I really like what I’ve seen from him and he’s got the size to really impact in that role over the next few seasons with a bit of luck.

Paddy Kelly is a guy who has spent two years building his physique in the academy and it’s beginning to show dividends. I’ve seen this guy walking about Limerick recently and he’s looking pretty big. He’s 6’7″ and listed at 110KG right now – I think he’s a bit heavier at the moment – and has the frame to be a tighthead lock specialist. He needs time, another 10KG and development minutes to see him become who he could be, which is a player with much more potential than his relative lack of hype might suggest.

Eoin O’Connor has been cursed with injury since he joined the academy in the same season as Thomas Ahern but he’s got the kind of natural size and power that could see him burst into life this season in the URC as anything from a Power Forward to a Half Lock in a three-lock pack build. He just needs to stay fit and show everyone why he was brought into the academy straight out of school like Thomas Ahern. If I was to pick one player who could shock people with his physicality this season, it would be Eoin O’Connor.