There‘s an old joke involving a less-than-successful village cricket team containing the local parson – a decidedly un-athletic gentleman who had never held a catch, thanks to his lack of ability and in spite of years of trying.
Came the day when, posted to the least damaging part of the outfield, the ball was skied to him and, astonishingly, he took the catch. Overcome with emotion, he lay down in the lush outfield, trembling with joy.
He held the ball up in front of his face and said a quick prayer of thanks. He balanced it on his index finger, rolled the ball down the bridge of his nose, down his chest and up again, held it up to the sky, examining it closely, wondering why he‘d never before noticed what a thing of beauty a cricket ball was.
His reverie was interrupted by a panting teammate running up to him: “Throw it in, you silly bugger, it‘s a no-ball and they‘ve run 13.”
In a perfect world, All Blacks tighthead prop Owen Franks would be allowed a blissful celebration like that if he manages to score his first try in test rugby in his 100th test tonight.
He is the holder of a dubious world record – the international rugby player who has gone the longest without scoring a try, next in the list being the Wallabies‘ James Slipper who has turned out for his country 86 times without troubling the scorers.
So while Franks could be excused if he emulated the cleric of the cricket team, lapsing into a coma of contemplation, the cold hard fact is he will still be the world record holder.
The only other All Black prop to have played 100 tests, Tony Woodcock, scored 10 tries in 118 tests – the most unforgettable in that hold-your-breath World Cup final in 2011 but, as all tightheads will be quick to point out, he was a loosehead and thus theoretically more able to be in try scoring positions.
Woodcock and Kees Meeuws are the most prolific test try scorers in All Blacks‘ propping history, though Meeuws‘ 10 in 42 tests gives him the best strike rate.
In fact, the only prop in test history to have scored more was long serving Italian Martin Castrogiovanni (91 tests) whose 11 tries included three scored in one match against Japan in 2004.
All Blacks prop Owen Franks with his son Beau during the Captains Run at Eden Park on Friday, in preparation for the 2nd test between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. Photo / Brett Phibbs. facebook twitter email linkedin google-plus whatsapp pinterest reddit
But statistics don‘t tell the story of props – often the most intelligent, characterful or humorous in the team (Wilson Whineray, John Drake, Gordon Slater, Dave Hewett) or the deep, brooding, doesn‘t-say-much-but-when-he-speaks-you-listen type (Carl Hayman, Olo Brown, Keith Murdoch, Ken Gray and, to a certain extent, Franks).
The personality of props applies at almost any level. I can remember, in Auckland club rugby, two props unable to be separated by the selection panel. The problem was solved by giving them about half a game each but things went awry if the one who started was reluctant to come off.
At one stage, the one on the sideline got so frustrated, he barracked his teammate: “You wouldn‘t come off if you were in a bloody iron lung”.
In several years of covering All Black rugby, the props were often the best company. At one All Black training session, I happened across the highly mobile and personable Steve McDowall limping out of a session in Argentina.
I inquired about his health and the likelihood of missing the upcoming test. “No,” said Steve, looking over his shoulder in the direction of the coach – the limp magically disappearing.
“I‘m okay. He just wants us to run up a mountain [pointing at a big hill in the distance]. The day they put a bloody mountain in a rugby field, I‘ll run up one.”
And an old favourite, Richard Loe, of whom I had written a critical piece, was inside his hotel room on tour as I passed on my way back from another interview.
“Lewis!” he roared. I thought I‘d better go and face the music, wondering how I‘d operate my keyboard once Dicky had ripped my arms off and fed them down the garbage chute.
But he put the kettle on, poured endless cups of tea, settled in and began to chew the fat happily about all manner of things, like the North Canterbury farmer he still is.
There are the deep thinkers (Ken Gray) and the pleasant, good-natured souls whose off-the-field disposition belies their imposing demeanour on it (Slater, Gary Knight) and the odd prop who somehow gets into coaching (All Black prop and scrum guru, “Snow” White).
And then there‘s the guy who confirms the prejudices about props (squat meatheads with the IQ of a barnacle and regrettable table manners), like England‘s Colin Smart. He was rushed to hospital after drinking a bottle of complimentary aftershave at a rugby dinner.
One of his teammates had poured his aftershave out and replaced it with wine before showily drinking it.
Smart, unwilling to be shown up by a mere lock, drained the aftershave and had to be attended by the England team doctor before having his stomach pumped to prevent his organs from closing down .
All of them, the lot, regardless of nationality and all paid-up members of the Front Row Club, would cheer and toast his health (but not with aftershave) if Owen Franks were to score his first try tonight.