England have assembled a set of beastly and brilliant props ready to win the Six Nations and then take on the world.
Complete with rappers, out-spoken social commentators, rough diamonds from the Championship and pin-ups for a new, diverse national squad there is way more to England’s front-rowers than a set of dodgy haircuts.
Beneath the mullets, mohawks and shaven bonces are a group being moulded in a new England image. While some characters have been stifled in English white they are being encouraged to be themselves. Which is just as well, as they are an eclectic bunch.
Scrum guru Matt Proudfoot wants England players to bring their best personalities to the game
‘We were having dinner last night and that was exactly our conversation among the front rows,’ said scrum guru Matt Proudfoot, who is in charge of this lot as they prepare to play Italy on Saturday with the Six Nations title within their grasp.
‘That’s what I want: them to bring their best personalities to the game. That’s the way I tend to coach. I don’t want them to fit into a box. They have to create a box that they feel is the best version of themselves. My role is to help them find that.’
You will not fit any of these props in a box. On the loosehead side Tongan-born stalwart Mako Vunipola and mental health advocate Joe Marler are the experienced duo — with 136 England and Lions caps between them — joined by newbie Beno Obano.
Mako Vunipola (above) and Joe Marler have 136 England and Lions caps between them
Ellis Genge is constantly, and refreshingly, decrying rugby’s stuffy, middle-class stereotype
Of Nigerian heritage, like his cousin Maro Itoje, the Bath man raps under the pseudonym ‘Sinny’ and was an informed lightning-rod for his club on issues surrounding taking a knee and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The uncapped 26-year-old is also joined by Ellis Genge, one year younger, who in lockdown became heavily involved in player contract wranglings, tried to set up his own union and is constantly, and refreshingly, decrying rugby’s stuffy, middle-class stereotype. Breaking down barriers as well as opposition tightheads seems a personal crusade.
On the other side of the scrum is Kyle Sinckler, a hero of the World Cup whose mother Donna worked in a police call centre so her son could be ferried to rugby games and pay for kit as a kid.
He now wants to set up inner-city academies to help unlock more talent from areas rugby does not yet scour — places like Tooting and Mitcham where he grew up.
Will Stuart and Harry Williams join him on the anchor side of the scrum, and they both had to drop down to some more humble backwaters of the English pyramid before their recognition came.
Stuart, 24, spent time at Blackheath, Moseley and Nottingham, and was loaned out from Wasps before being let go then plucked out by Bath. And Williams, 29, who was in the same Whitgift School side as Elliot Daly, joined Nottingham and Jersey after leaving Loughborough University until Exeter’s Rob Baxter discovered him as a sizeable gem.
Beno Obano was called up to the team to provide cover for Joe Marler or Ellis Genge
Kyle Sinckler, a hero of the World Cup, wants to set up academies in Tooting and Mitcham
‘You have to act with character,’ said Williams, who missed out on the World Cup squad last year. ‘It’s important to be yourself.’
Proudfoot, when working with the Springboks, created two huge, gnarly front-rows who eventually eviscerated England in the World Cup final.
Having sculpted ‘The Beast’ Tendai Mtawarira, Vincent Koch, Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff into global champions, Proudfoot thinks his new England crop can emulate his former charges.
‘We have very talented players, some quite young with a bright future and a lot of growth in them,’ he said. ‘We are mixing it with some experience. That is a great balance. What has really impressed me is the attitude in how to work together and improve. We have a great combination we can really mould three or four front-rows from.’
Will Stuart was loaned out from Wasps before being let go and being plucked out by Bath
Harry Williams – who missed out on the World Cup last year – says ‘it’s important to be yourself’
And while he is at it, Proudfoot is looking to use the Exeter Chiefs blueprint of creating an unbeatable pack based on the qualities of the squad who mauled and smashed their way to a Premiership and European Cup double.
‘The players in the English pack love a maul,’ he said. ‘It is such a powerful weapon. If you watch Exeter play, if you get three opportunities in the opposition 22 you need to take them all. That’s been the learning for us, that is how effective you need to be.’
If they embrace that and these boys’ desire to be different like the Chiefs, England could be primed for global supremacy.
The police will take no action against the 12 Barbarians players whose trip to the pub resulted in Sunday’s game against England being cancelled. The players could still face an RFU disciplinary charge for bringing the game into disrepute.