Scrums manna from heaven in the search for bonus points
Maximising key attacking platform will be a potent weapon during the Six Nations
Ireland’s Conor Murray gets ready to put the ball into the scrum against Australia. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho
All changed this week, changed utterly as the beautiful old championship warhorse is to introduce a bonus points system in the Six Nations.
This is such an exciting move but changes everything. The culture of our championship has evolved over a century and is based in outscoring the opposition – 3-0 if needs be , but now that may not suffice.
What a prospect we have in store.
And what of the Six Nations away team such as Italy in Paris? World Rugby rankings take into account home and away.
The bonus point will impact nations differently – Italy may have to rip up their long-standing template built around a fierce scrum and lineout maul.
I certainly hope the French Top 14 style of eking out three-pointers off scrums will err towards attacking rugby because the Autumn Series has taught me one major thing: the scrum remains the best attacking tool and the most underutilised tool available to the Six Nations sides. Robbie Henshaw and Beauden Barrett showed us why!
The scrum last Saturday was fascinating.
At times it appeared Rory Best either elected for a no strike, getting eight on eight, or in that 16 second scrum as the ball lay in the channel decided not to or couldn’t strike.
It did highlight the tactic of not striking for an eight on eight or the position of the Irish tighthead vis-à-vis the Irish loosehead impacting the hooker’s ability to get his striking leg up.
If the loosehead is too low relative to his tight head it makes it extremely difficult for Best to strike.
Clearly creating this outcome was a Mario Ledesma tactic to get the Wallaby tighthead and hooker to force the Irish loosehead down. Why? In order to stunt the Irish scrum attack: scrums have that potential.
Furthermore rugby’s principle of go forward; by kicking, running with the ball, mauling or “simply” walking the opposition back at scrum time.
This is why the All Black match in the Aviva vexed me so as on 22:36 minutes Conor Murray rolled the ball into the Irish scrum. The New Zealand eight got an initial snap shunt as the Irish appeared vulnerable.
The All Blacks had a tendency to crab the Irish scrum to destabilise it but this time all eight Irish jerseys stayed straight as New Zealand disengaged rotating clockwise illegally putting the their backrow right on top of Jamie Heaslip. Liam Squire was soon to infringe. However Kieran Read completely detached and outrageously attacked the ball at Heaslip’s feet.
Flankers defending these situations have two methods for “survival”.
The first: ensure the defending pack totally destabilise the attacking scrum making it impossible for even the most talented number eight to control or pick off cleanly. This in turn nullifies any possible backrow move.
New Zealand failed with this. As a defending backrow this, although the best method, is often ignored as the stakes being so high where an error in timing as Sam Cane experienced in Chicago can a) concede the try and b) make Cane look very, very silly. Read was conscious of this.
So the next option is to prioritise the early break by getting to Heaslip’s feet as he’s picking the ball. However it’s almost impossible to see Heaslip picking the ball as there’s no clear line of sight to the ball with all the legs in the way.
So you can hit and hope or, as Read did, abandon all laws to prevent the certain pushover try.
The only alternative is to keep an eye on Heaslip’s hands by giraffing your head up over the scrum to see the number eight’s hands. Watch Michael Hooper do this in that 16 second scrum above.
This is what I would have done and as soon as Heaslip triggers by dropping his hands; break and arrive as he’s picking.
The laws note the number eight like the rest of the pack has to remain bound to the scrum until “the hindmost player unbinds from the scrum with the ball at that player’s feet and picks up the ball, the scrum ends”.
Various interpretations exist but referee Jaco Peyper penalised the All Black backrow for detaching early, making no reference to Heaslip and as the All Black blindside and number eight detached making it eight Irish on six All Blacks with a certain try coming to Ireland.
So a definite penalty try and sin bin for the outrageous cynical Read; but neither occurred. But referees need to punish severely these cynical actions especially in a Six Nations bonus system.
Beyond the pushover try, the scrum is at its most potent 70 metres out as the opposition back three are hedging in the backfield covering the kick; giving the attack 60 metres lateral space for eight attacking players (number 8 and 7 backs) to be defended by four defensive backs.
This is why both Ireland and Australia were at their most adventurous from 70 metres out.
Ironically, all this makes Tadhg Furlong’s tighthead role crucially important to the new bonus point system.
Get the platform five metres or 70 metres out and tries will come as quality timing will maximise advantage.
In Johnny Sexton’s potential injury absence, Joey Carbery has many attributes but his ability to attack lateral scrum space, hitting the gainline, spending time in traffic whilst hitting his flat support is certainly one.
Six Nations rugby must finally acknowledge that having 18 players tied up in scrums is manna from heaven in hunting for bonus points!