Six Nations: Will fixing Ireland’s scrum be as easy as changing a tyre?

It was a weakness against England last week, but hooker Rob Herring is not panicking

Views abound. The scrum isn’t a scrum anymore. It’s a restart, a penalty mechanism, an attacking platform, all of them, a cheaters’ charter. The scrum, as it was conceived, with a hooker hooking and straight in, isn’t quite that anymore.

And what it has become has given Ireland pause to think and most others pause to ask what happened against England in Twickenham to the game's signature set-piece.

On top of the changed laws you have the referee coming in with all sorts of notions that even the specialists in the frontrow cannot always read. On Saturday, that seemed to be the case.

You want to keep the scrum square and paint a good, solid picture, where there's not as much movement. That's one of the things we need to work on

"A lot of the scrums, for me, were wheeling around and on any given day, that's a fifty-fifty decision from a ref," says hooker Rob Herring. "If he starts to see or maybe feels there's a bit of dominance on one side, the decisions start going towards one side.

“You want to keep the scrum square and paint a good, solid picture, where there’s not as much movement. That’s one of the things we need to work on. When things aren’t going our way and decisions aren’t going our way, to almost assure the ref we aren’t the team involved or that we’re going to get a bit of dominance.”

Mind games

Some mind games then, and intimating that it is the opposition making infringements because they are under siege, a play that didn't work against England's Ellis Genge.

Additionally, a trial scrum law for this Six Nations Championship, aimed at reducing the pressure on the necks of hookers and decreasing the number of collapsed scrums, is in full flow.

The law focuses on the “brake foot” of the hookers, both of whom are required to ensure one foot is extended towards the opposition during the crouch and bind phases of the engagement sequence. A free kick is awarded if the “brake foot” is not applied.

“It’s a pretty small change for the hookers and you can understand why they brought it in, to try to take a bit of pressure off the hookers’ necks. But I think every team is in the same boat,” says Herring.

“There was a free kick for coming back early, which is good because it means they’re reffing it. It’s a small adjustment and I don’t think it changes things massively. It just means there’s less weight going forward at the bind stage and you find other ways to get that weight forward.”

The messaging is that nobody in the Irish pack is panicking as Scotland sizes up their challenge in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. The idea that something was so fundamentally broken, to Herring, suggests the fix is straightforward: a flat tyre, change the wheel.

The game has evolved, hasn't it, in the last few years and especially in the way that we are being asked to play as forwards in Ireland

“Hopefully next time when something like that happens, we’ll manage it better,” he says of England.

As an impact replacement for Dan Sheehan, Herring has had to think more than ever about how the Irish scrum was wheeled and went backwards. His roles, along with those of the two props, have changed since John Hayes trundled from set-piece to set-piece planting himself like Mt Musheramore on the tighthead side.

Turnovers

With some justification, Herring also looks at the turnovers and unforced penalties Ireland conceded as just as problematic as the scrum, where England won seven out of their 10 and Ireland won the one scrum they had.

“The game has evolved, hasn’t it, in the last few years and especially in the way that we are being asked to play as forwards in Ireland,” he says.

“We expect to be able to fit in and handle the ball and play to space and all that kind of stuff. It’s something I work very hard on. Defence comes to me a lot more naturally than attack but I keep chipping away at it and when I get opportunities I try to get my hands on the ball and see what I can do.

“We gave a lot of turnovers in open play and some silly penalties (15 in total), which were avoidable. That kind of started piling a bit of pressure on ourselves, compounding the pressure, and that is a good lesson for us as well. There are going to be times, whether it’s the lineout or whatever, where something won’t be going right, and not compound that pressure.”

The scrum is generally only a talking point when it begins to move and cartwheel around the park. But the mood in camp is that head mechanic John Fogarty has this one.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times

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