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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 9 December, 2019

'Win or we're out of the competition' - Niall Annett on Ulster's precarious Pro12 position

The former Ireland U20 captain believes players like Rory Best and Sean Cronin have evolved the role of hooker in recent years.

Niall Annett acknowledges the Ulster fans after a home win over Connacht.
Niall Annett acknowledges the Ulster fans after a home win over Connacht.
Image: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

ULSTER HOOKER NIALL ANNETT, selected on the bench for this evening’s RaboDirect Pro12 clash with Leinster, talks league ambitions, Heineken Cup woes and the evolution of his rugby position over the past 15 years.

Tonight’s game is enormous for us. It’s exciting to be taking on one of Europe’s best sides at the new Ravenhill but we know the task we’re facing: win our we are out of the competition.

We are raring to go after having the last weekend off — very much an enforced break due to our gutting Heineken Cup exit to Saracens. I was up in the stands for the quarter final, watching with my Dad and a few of his mates. It was just surreal. I was holding my head in my hands when it became clear Jared Payne was going to be sent off [for challenging Alex Goode in the air]. I thought I was daydreaming; that it couldn’t be real.

Everybody will have their opinion on the sending off but everyone at Ulster is of a similar mind that it was a wee bit harsh. Aside from the fact that Jared’s eyes were always on the ball, the decision ruined the game as a spectacle. The character the lads showed, though, to compete so hard with 14 men and only lose out by two points, was a heartening.

It is difficult to see a team you feel you could have beaten going on to reach the Heineken Cup final. Saracens really did a job on Clermont but I would echo the comments made by our captain Johann Muller, earlier in the week, when he said they deserved to reach the final but may not have deserved to reach the semis.

We’re playing three of the top four sides in our run-in and even if we get past Leinster we may have to head down to Thomond Park and beat Munster. That will be a hell of a game.

However, with this evening’s match featuring two dynamic Leinster hookers — Richard Strauss and Sean Cronin — I wanted to look at the evolution of the position over the past 15 years.

The mould breakers

The role of hooker has changed so much in recent years and can be traced back, I feel, to two world-class players. One of them was All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick who was such a tough, tough guy but someone who could pass the ball well, get involved in attacking interplay and offloads.

Taking it a step forward was Keith Wood; a guy who broke the mould. They called him The Raging Potato and he would run around like a No.8, score great tries, have these great hands and passing range, and even kick the ball out of hand. To me, he was the player that encouraged me to become a hooker. I remember watching him during the Lions Tour to Australia in 2001. He was running around like a mad man but had these wonderful range of skills in open play. [The clip below is a stunning, tactical kick by Wood against Argentina in the 2003 World Cup]

Source: Lizardo Lizardos/YouTube

To be a successful hooker, you have to look after the set-piece. That is your principle role. You have to right there, in the middle of the front-row, scrummaging, hooking the ball [either left or right] to the first or second channel. It is a cliché for a a reason but you will games 99% of times if you can get the set-piece right and get on top of the opposition. Rugby has not changed too much in that regard but hookers are now expected to be fit, explosive, make an awful lot of tackles, carry the ball and do some poaching. You are, in effect, an extra back row.

Props and hookers were generally the same body type, and shape, for years but that has changed somewhat in recent years. You will always have dynamic props that go against the current grain [for example, Jack McGrath] but they are usually built for the close-in grind. You have some props who are absolute monsters and who can shift some serious tin in the weights room. With hookers, and with no disrespect to props, you are now expected to have a more athletic build as you have some ground you’re expected to cover across the pitch. Still, that does not preclude you from the weights work.

Looking at the Leinster lads we are up against — and not wanting to build them up too much so they can knock us down — Cronin and Strauss are serious operators. I don’t know Sean, apart from catching a few words after games, but the Ulster lads in the Irish camp tell me he is one of the quickest in the Test squad. To be a hooker and to have that sort of pace — that first four or five steps when you pull away from an opponent — is a serious asset.

Sean Cronin Leinster's Sean Cronin on his way to a try against Treviso. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Strauss is very explosive and dynamic. He is fantastic at the breakdown too. When he gets into the poach position, early, to get the ball, very few players will be able to shift him.

From an Ulster perspective, and as a young player coming up through the system, Rory Best was such a role model. He is effectively like another openside in your team and is so tough and strong. He comes into his own at the breakdown and there is no better hooker in Ireland at securing turnovers that Bestie. If your hooker can secure two or three turnovers per game, like he so often does, then you are already onto a winner.

The new scrum rules have taken away from the impact of striking engagement but it has increased the pressure, within the scrum, ten-fold. Everyone is trying to leech and drive through each other, rather than attempting to get around the shoulder and drive in. You are now expected to be in a pushing position while being able to hold your own weight.

Some of the dark scrummaging arts have faded this season, due to the removal of the engage. Pincering, however, is often used by teams with differing levels of success. As hooker, you pincer [squeeze] in with the loose-head to go after the opposition tight-head. By doing that, a team can often leave their own tight-head exposed and he can be left as a target himself. It can also lead to the referee penalising you so it’s a weapon to both disguise and use with prudence.

BJ Botha, Damien Varley and David Kilcoyne Damien Varley and Dave Kilcoyne often team up, for Munster, to target the opposition tight-head. This leaves BJ Botha to hold the fort on his side of the front row. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

I come to the line-out last but certainly not least. As hookers, we are usually reliant on the lifters and jumpers and vice versa. However, many fans will judge the hooker alone on the success or failure of the line-out. All the statistics are on your shoulders. A lot of practice, as one would imagine, goes into mastering this set-piece.

I will practice with the team two or three times a week and a wee bit by myself. The more you do, the better for your confidence. You keep on top of your technique, have reels of video analysis to go through and constantly look for improvements. Training involves a lot of core work, throwing with bands on your arms, throwing on your knees to strengthen the upper body. You have to watch trigger movements, or tells, too. Myself and Rob Herring trained to throw from straight behind our head — it saves a lot of hassle. Best throws from over his head so he must be swift when making his throws.

Modern line-out calls can change from week to week. If you’re, for example, Paul O’Connell or Johann Muller, you will come in at the start of the week and say ‘this is the trigger word, letter or number’. It can be a handful for the first few hours but you eventually get into the swing and master the new calls.

It is a lot to take in and usually the reason why players can’t wait to get out and the weekend and put all the hard training and slog into practice.

@NiallAnnett2 played 18 games for Ireland U20s and captained the side on 11 occasions. He currently plays hooker with Ulster.

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Patrick McCarry

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