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'Tightheads are still as important, maybe even more so'

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Munster's Stephen Archer in action during training

Munster's Stephen Archer in action during training

SPORTSFILE

Munster's Stephen Archer in action during training

This might feel like turkeys voting to ban Christmas, but Stephen Archer believes the role of the tighthead prop is even more important since the change of rules in the scrum.

It had been speculated that after the new 'crouch, bind, set' scrum call settled in that we'd see less to separate the stronger and weaker scrummaging teams.

But six months on from the introduction of the call, Archer thinks the chance to have a battle at scrum time has seen the better scrummagers come out on top. Removing the crunching hit has introduced longer, fairer scrums, he says.

"The change is so long ago now that it feels pretty natural and we are well used to it at this stage. Overall, it has been successful, we've had less collapses for sure," he says.

"The initial big hit seems to have been where the big collapses were coming from, so getting rid of that is a positive.

"But us tightheads are still important, maybe even more so now. You can really get to scrummage, you see teams earning more penalty tries now, earning penalties, getting right shoulders, making space for the No 8s. I think it certainly hasn't devalued the scrum at all, it's even more important to be strong there now."

So, what exactly goes on in there? For front-row virgins, it seems like the 'crash, bang, wallop' takes place and the ball pops out at the No 8's feet as if by miracle. Not surprisingly, Archer says there is a bit more to it than that.

"As a tighthead, you are facing two bodies, the loosehead and the hooker. My job is to take on the two men instead of one – like looseheads! I always slag the lads that I have the hardest job.

"The aim is to try and work the opposition loosehead downwards, keep him down and straight. And once the hooker starts attacking you as well, you need a bit of help from your own front-row. Then it's up to your own hooker to try and negate your opposition hooker. Trying to get the forward momentum after that is the next step.

"A lot of teams now seem to be finding it difficult when the hooker strikes the ball, so then they try and walk over the ball instead. As a result, scrums seem to be stronger on their opponents' ball.

"The chance is there to catch them when they go for the strike: it's 16 legs against 15, I suppose. As the tighthead, the ball comes in my side on the opposition put-in, so I get a good look at it and we drive it from there," he says.

BATTLE

It certainly seems like a bit of a battle ground, but even getting to wear the No 3 shirt is tough in Munster these days. BJ Botha started last weekend and John Ryan was used from the bench while Archer played the previous week in the bonus-point win over Cardiff.

Rob Penney is certainly keeping his props guessing, but his rotation policy affects everyone.

"There is plenty of competition on the home front," Archer admits. We've three good tightheads battling to start every week. BJ is obviously a top player with loads of experience, but John Ryan has performed very well too this year. We're driving each other on, but we have to be on the ball too.

"Cardiff went well for me, it was a good win and it was good to get the bonus point. We picked up a penalty try that day in Thomond and we were pretty comfortable throughout.

"The penalty try is a great feeling – it's not quite like scoring a hat-trick for a soccer player, but it's always a good feeling to get seven points for the team. I think some of the backs get a bigger kick out of it, they always come running in celebrating from 20 or 30 yards away to celebrate it. It's what us props want," he says.

With the Six Nations taking place parallel to the Pro12, like many who have dipped their toe into the international fountain, Archer is experiencing mixed feelings. He is thrilled to be performing well with Munster, but he'd love to be knocking heads with the English tomorrow.

"In the back of your mind, it is a little bit tough to watch all the lads heading off for the Six Nations games. That's what the aim is for everyone, but getting the taste of the squad this season keeps you interested to a certain extent.

"I was in the squad for the autumn series and I'd definitely be hoping to get back in. But the Ireland fellas have been going really well, so it will be hard to get in before the end of this competition. If I just keep performing for Munster, you never know, I might get back in."

In 12 months plenty has happened for Archer, so you'd never know where 2015 will see him. Heineken Cup starts have been followed by international honours, but his European debut turned into an eventful weekend.

"The weekend of my first Heineken cup game was a little strange, it was the away defeat to Edinburgh, which we won't talk about.

"It was an amazing experience for me personally – the result was not the best – but as it turned out, it coincided with the birth of my first daughter, Alex. Personally, it was a weekend to remember.

"That was October and I've started two more Heineken Cup games since, which is a real positive from where I was last year. I was involved in the Irish match against Australia and I picked up my second cap which was another boost, despite the result and the performance being disappointing.

"I was also involved for the Wolfhounds against the England Saxons a few weeks back and that was great to win. I was happy with how I acquitted myself there.

"It's been an amazing 12 months, and I have had a pretty clear run at it this year with regard to injuries. You'd have to be reasonably happy with that," he adds.

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