In Rugby, there are a number of non-negotiables: respect for the referee, sportsmanship and an unwillingness to back down form the backbone of the game.
Threading the line between these three factors has always been the biggest challenge in the sport, and the teams that have found the perfect balance are the ones who have enjoyed sustained success.
Slotting into this challenging balancing act are the game’s “enforcers. ” These are the players who push the boundaries to gain a psychological advantage over their opposition.
In years gone by, these players would routinely overstep the mark in a way that would be impossible in today’s game. Names such as Bakkies Botha, Sebastian Chabal and Ali Williams were accustomed to the dark arts and, as such, became icons of their time.
Winding the clock forward to 2024, the question is, who are the game’s “enforcers”? Focusing exclusively on the upcoming Guinness Six Nations, here are the top six enforcers who will look to drag their team over the line in this year’s Championship.
England – Maro Itoje
The 29-year-old recently signalled his intentions to remain in English Rugby for the foreseeable future, which is a major boost for head coach Steve Borthwick. A constant menace in particular at the maul and ruck, Itoje has already amassed 76 caps for England plus another 6 for the Lions since making his debut in 2016. Long thought to be a future England captain, the giant lock will no doubt remain a bedrock for the English pack for the next four years.
France – Romain Taofifenua
Entering the twilight of his career, the 33-year-old lock remains a destructive operator for both France and Lyon. At 6’8″ and 140kg, Taofifenua is one of the seemingly endless lines of man-mountain second rows for Les Bleus. Renowned for his big hits and dynamic carrying ability, Taofifenua will have to work double time as France waits for new recruit Emmanuel Meafou to return from injury.
Ireland – Peter O’Mahony
The Irish captain is arguably the closest modern player to the old-school enforcer and is renowned for gritty determination, niggly play and world-class production around the pitch. Now 34 years old, the Munster icon could be playing his final Six Nations campaign, given the uncertainty around his contract situation. Irrespective of the off-field developments, he will undoubtedly be at his snarky best throughout the Championship.
Italy – Sebastian Negri
A senior figure in the Azzurri squad, the Zimbabwean-born back row is the chief ball carrier in the Italian pack. Playing with a sense of reckless abandonment, his teammates look to him a leader by actions and will be leaning heavily on him this season as they chase a first victory since their famous victory against Wales in 2022.
Scotland – Rory Darge
Scotland’s newest captain takes over from his back row rival Jamie Ritchie as the Scot’s next leader alongside Finn Russell for the 2024 Championship. The 23-year-old is widely regarded as one of the brightest Scottish rugby prospects of the past decade and could be their long-term leader. Simply put the Glasgow Warriors star is a bundle of energy who rips into the opposition as he leads from the front.
Wales – Taine Basham
A difficult squad to assess, given the rebuilding nature of Welsh Rugby at the moment but the Dragons backrow has all of the traits required to be Wales’s next Dan Lydiate.At just 24 years old is already in his third season of international rugby and will look to firmly establish himself in the stacked Welsh back row. Due to the combative nature of his position, it is unsurprising that Basham is often the one to stir things up for both club and country.