WHEN Flying Fijian tighthead prop Manasa Saulo clutched his back in pain during the warm-up match against Canada, every close follower of Fijian rugby would have felt like someone had just pierced his heart with a knife.
Here is a man physically carrying the hopes of an entire nation on his big shoulders and he is quietly wincing with pain to get the job done.
The naval officer’s pain should be our pain for he plays in one of the most fiercely contested positions in rugby.
So while wingers and looseforwards score tries the real heroes that should receive the biggest accolades in any rugby union match are tighthead props.
He is considered the fulcrum of the scrum and the anchor.
The vast improvements to our scrummaging has been due to the game time and experience over the years by our front row and the expertise by our coaches, not to mention the hours of weight training at the gym. Most rugby deaths and life paralysis have been from front rowers. 2007 tighthead prop Jone Tuilomo died from an unknown sickness a couple of years ago and we can vouch that it had to do with his being a frontrower.
While training has mordenised so have the tactics by the opposition. Saulo, the Naitasiri warrior duly received attention from the medics while lying flat on the ground as they put ice and some massage on the back. He soon got up still clutching his back, but showing no signs of any further problems.
Tighthead prop is the front rower on the right who slips in between the openside prop and hooker from the other team. If the opposition front-rowers are law-abiding then it’s just a straight pushing contest.
But when you face brutal props with all the tricks, mostly not in the book, then expect trouble.
What he goes through is not experienced by any other player on the field, except, to a lesser degree, by his front row team of hooker and openside prop or loosehead prop.
For those fans unfamiliar with what a tighthead prop is and what he goes through in every scrum and if you are not trained for the position expect excruciating pain or even death.
Or take the shortest way out and live to tell the tale, (like this writer once did in a club game after trying to be a utility player from fullback to prop) when he felt his backbone twisting and cracking noises from his back.
Get quickly unstuck and ask your coach to send somebody else.
Imagine a full force of a lock pushing from your left hip and the flanker on your right, the number eight behind them and your left arm attached to your hooker and the rest of the scrum.
Then the opposition openside prop is trying to lift up your right shoulder, while the opposition hooker is pushing down your left shoulder. With the whole weight of the scrum behind you and the opposition twisting your shoulders, you have got to be specially built, specially fit and specially gutsy to face all kinds of disrupting tactics. That’s why front rowers grow beards to rub into the cheeks of opposition to distract them.
You’ve got to experience it to realise that a different kind of battle is going on there.
Various changes to the scrum laws have made referees more vigilant to the ploys of unscrupulous front rowers.
Big Joeli Veitayaki was one famous tighthead prop who anchored Fiji’s scrum in the 1999 RWC and is still regarded as the best.
Former England and British Lion front rower Jason Leonard says this: “The tight-head prop is very much the fulcrum. He anchors the whole scrum and is destructive in a negative sense.
He will be trying to put the opposition loose-head under pressure.
The primary role of the loose-head, on the other hand, is to look after the hooker so he can get a clean strike at the ball, but these days loose-heads have to be destructive too.
The tight-head plays on the right of the front-row and mainly uses the right-hand side of his body, whereas the loose-head’s left side dominates.
Because of this it is fairly rare to find someone who can excel at both.
To be a good prop, you’ve really got to enjoy the position —it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, putting your head where it hurts.”
So when the big battle against England begins on Saturday and the backs do their razzle dazzle, spare a thought for the front rowers.
They are our real heroes in the frontline of the battle.
All we can do is to pray for them and the rest of the Flying Fijians to be kept safe from serious injury in the face of the great expectations from every Fijian fan.
Go Fiji Go!!