Hookers in Rugby Union

Playing as a Hooker in rugby is a very challenging job that does not bring a huge amount of reward. In a recent study on Premiership Rugby, Hookers were the lowest paid on average of any position. But the Hooker is a crucial role for a lot of rugby teams and you can really see the difference between an elite Hooker and an average Hooker.

The Role of a Hooker

The name Hooker comes from the job that the position has in the scrum. In the scrum, the Hooker will be in the middle of the two props, meaning they have a huge amount of weight pushed through them. Despite all of that weight, a Hooker needs precision at this stressful time.

That is because it is their role to hook the ball backwards to get it out of the scrum. This means that while almost a tonne of weight is pushing them forwards and a tonne of weight pushing against them, the hooker has to lift one leg, find the ball on the ground amongst a sea of legs and hook it back to get it out of the scrum.

This is an incredibly difficult job that is crucial. If the ball cannot get out of the scrum then it ruins the attacking teams opportunity to launch an attack from the scrum. If the hooker can get the ball back through the scrum quickly then this can launch the attack even quicker and gives the attacking team a great opportunity to score.

While the Hookers have to focus on hooking the ball back, they are still crucial to the success of the scrum. They need to be able to push as hard as possible, with the best hookers in the world having broad shoulders with powerful legs, able to drive their opposition back in the scrum.

A hooker can be crucial to a scrum winning a penalty and if you can establish a dominant scrum, penalties and turnovers will likely benefit your team. The best hookers in the world are brilliant scrummagers, able to push their opposition back along with the rest of their front row and win their team penalties.

Being the centre point of the scrum is a crucial set piece roll that Hookers have, but there is another crucial set piece role that can be really detrimental if the role is performed badly. The other major set piece roll of a hooker is throwing the ball into the lineout.

When the ball goes out of play, the Hooker for the team who has possession will throw the ball into the lineout. This sounds pretty simple but there are a few thigs that make this job a lot more complicated.

The thing that makes throwing the ball in at the lineout sufficiently harder is that the other team are trying to steal the ball at the lineout. The hooker needs to be precise with the throw to find the jumper when they’re at their highest point. Often the Hooker will need to throw the ball before the jumper is anywhere near their position.

Rugby teams will have specific play calls which will tell the Hooker when and where the throw the ball. The Hooker has to be perfect with this or they can risk the ball being turned over.

The other thing that makes throwing the ball into the lineout very difficult is that the throw has to be straight. If the throw is not straight that means the opposing team will get a free kick from where the lineout was taken. It means that Hookers need to throw the ball in straight to the lineout, while also trying to keep it away from the opposing team.

This is incredibly difficult for a Hooker to do but when done right it can create an incredibly successful attacking move. Lineouts are very important near to the opponents try line because this can set up a driving maul. A driving maul is a great attacking weapon and when the hooker nails the lineout throw they can usually attach to the back of the maul and are often the try scorer at the end of a maul.

Being a Hooker in rugby is such a crucial role that only specialist front row players can play Hooker. That is because it is dangerous to put someone into the middle of the scrum when they don’t know what they’re doing. Scrums have to become uncontested if a team cannot field a specialist hooker through injury or suspension.

With such a crucial role at two different set pieces, a hooker can often separate the good teams from the great teams. Elite teams need to have a good set piece and if you have a hooker who is not a good scrummager or cannot throw the ball into the lineout accurately then it is very difficult to score.

The Modern role of a Hooker in Rugby

In the past you would have seen Hooker’s purely focus on the set pieces and not contribute a huge amount to open play. But over the last decade we have seen Hookers change physically as well as their roles changing quite a bit, while still doing the important set piece roles.

Hookers in rugby have become slimmer and quicker, with more of a focus on fitness and power. They tend to be one of the shorter players on the team, but are usually incredibly powerful. The modern Hooker Is able to get around the pitch pretty quickly and powerfully.

This power means they are often one of the primary ball carriers for their sides. Hookers tend to be more mobile than props and so are often used to carry the ball in open play. Over the last few years we have seen guys like Cody Taylor, Malcolm Marx and Luke Cowan-Dickie use their smaller frames to be primary ball carriers.

One of the rule changes that has really helped hookers is the introduction of jackaling. A hooker has the perfect frame for jackaling due to being short with powerful legs. They are able to get onto the ball quickly in the ruck and create a turnover. This is a skill of some of the best hookers in the world.

The low centre of gravity and powerful legs makes it very difficult to shift hookers and they are brilliant at jackaling. Hookers role has increased massively over the last few years thanks to their shorter frame they are able to get around the pitch more and have an increased role on the game.

Best Rugby Hookers of all time

Sean Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick is one of the best players in the history of rugby and a crucial person in the history of New Zealand rugby.

Fitzpatrick was part of the powerful Auckland team that dominated rugby in New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s, making his All Blacks debut at the age of 23. He was originally second choice for New Zealand in the 1987 Rugby World Cup but stepped up when first choice Andy Dalton went down with an injury.

He was part of the side that won the very first World Cup, winning the title just a year after making his debut for New Zealand. That World Cup was also the start of an incredible international rugby record. Fitzpatrick was part of the team that went 23 test matches without defeat between 1987 and 1990.

In that time he helped New Zealand win the Bledisloe Cup five years in a row. He first became captain of the All Blacks in 1992 and had a big task ahead when the British and Irish Lions came, featuring international legends like Will Carling, Rory Underwood, Brian Moore and Scott Gibbs.

Fitzpatrick scored in the third test match which was a dominating 30-13 victory to secure a series win for the All Blacks. Even towards his final years, Fitzpatrick was still a crucial part of the All Blacks team, playing all 80 minutes of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. He was also the starter for the Blues team that won the first two Super Rugby titles.

Kevin Mealamu

Mealamu came through the Auckland academy just a couple of years after Fitzpatrick retired and it was perfect timing for the provincial side as well as the All Blacks.

Having originally worked as an apprentice signwriter, Mealamu was pleased when he was offered a contract with the Blues in Super Rugby to start 2000 and he quickly made his debut for the Super Rugby side. Looking for more rugby he had a short stint with the Chiefs where he played eleven games.

This worked out very well for Mealamu as he made his All Blacks debut the same year that he played for the Chiefs. Mealamu made his international debut against Wales at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. The All Blacks won the game 43-17 in a dominating display.

He would become the starter for the All Blacks, scoring in the quarter-final of the World Cup a year later. There was nothing he could do about Australia winning in the semi-final, but Mealamu certainly had World Cup success after this initial disappointment.

He started in the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final, playing 50 minutes in an incredibly tight affair which saw the All Blacks edge out France. Four years later he would come off the bench as New Zealand won their second World Cup title in a row, with Mealamu being one of the best All Blacks of all time.

His final game for the All Blacks was that Rugby World Cup Final and Mealamu retired as one of the greatest All Blacks of all time. He was a leader for New Zealand, often being the man to lead the haka. He is currently third all time for New Zealand caps, recently being overtaken by Sam Whitelock.

An incredibly powerful scrummager, Mealamu also has the most appearances for The Blues in Super Rugby, winning the title with them in 2003.

John Smit

John Smit is a hugely influential character in South African rugby and he showed excellent potential from a young age, having initially played for the University of Natal before making his Super Rugby debut with the Sharks in 1998.

He clearly made a good impression with the Sharks because he made his Springboks debut in 2000 despite being just 22 years old. After the 2003 Rugby World Cup he became the consistent starter, playing in 46 consecutive test matches for South Africa, being made captain in 2004.

After a short time out with injury he would captain South Africa heading into the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Smit scored in the quarter final as well as his power in the semi-final helping to create space outside for South Africa to score four tries and get to the final.

In the final, Smit came incredibly close to scoring, being help up just short of the line. He was forced off with injury for five minutes near the end of the game but South Africa’s incredibly physical defence was a big reason for South Africa holding England to just 6 points and Smit became a World Cup winning captain.

He was also the captain when South Africa defeated the British and Irish Lions in 2009 and won the Tri Nations the same year. He retired from international rugby in 2011, playing his final two years with Saracens. Having never lost a series as captain, Smit is a Springboks legend and one of the best hookers of all time.

Best Rugby Hookers in the world right now

Malcolm Marx

At the moment there is no doubt as to who is the best hooker in the world. Over the last few years Malcolm Marx has established himself as the best hooker in the world and one f the best players in the world.

He came through the Lions squad in South Africa, making his international debut in 2016 and became the regular starter in 2017 and became a crucial part of the Springboks team for 2017 onwards. So important that he was named South African Rugby Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year for 2017.

Since then his role has only grown in the South African squad. He was part of the bomb squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, coming on earlier than expected due to injury to Bongi Mbonambi picking up an injury. He performed excellently and his dominance in the scrum helped South Africa pull away in the second half.

As well as being incredibly reliable at set pieces, he is a turnover monster and incredibly difficult to shift off the ball. Marx is a great jackler and makes multiple turnovers a game for the Springboks, one of the reason why he received a lucrative contract in Japan.

Julien Marchand

One of the reasons why France have been some dominant over the last few years is due to having a formidable front row, led by Julien Marchand.

Marchand came through the academy of Toulouse, becoming their regular starter in 2017, a move which worked out very well. Marchand came off the bench in the 2019 Top 14 final and started the 2021 Top 14 which both resulted in Toulouse victories.

He is the starter for France now and he started all five games of the 2022 Six Nations which ended in France claiming the Grand Slam. It was a historic victory for France and has set them up for a brilliant World Cup in 2023 where Marchand will like be the starter.

He is another modern Hooker, much more mobile than his front row compatriots. Marchand is a primary ball carrier for France and Toulouse, being incredibly difficult to stop because he is super powerful for such a short frame. A turnover machine, Marchand will likely be a big player for France going forward.

Dan Sheehan

If you wanted any indication of what the modern day hooker looks like, then it would be Dan Sheehan. He is only 24 years old and so has a very long career ahead of him, having only made his debut for Leinster in October 2020.

He impressed from very early on and was named Leinster’s 2021-22 Young Player of the Year. He had a big job coming on for Ronan Kelleher in the 2022 Champions Cup Final and is competing with Kelleher not only at club level but also at international level, with the pair likely fighting it out for years to come.

With Kelleher injured, Sheehan was the starter as Ireland travelled down to New Zealand for a historic series. He did a brilliant job with Kelleher missing, starting in all three games as Ireland came from a test match down to claim a historic test series victory against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Sheehan outplayed Codie Taylor and Dane Coles in the summer and his pace and kicking is incredible for a hooker. He is the perfect example of a modern day hooker who is a primary attacking option for his side as well as being excellent at set pieces.

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