Scrum low, scrum hard and get on with it
RUGBY: GERRY THORNLEYtalks to expert Roly Meates to try to ascertain what should be done to sort out the farce that is the scrum
“The solution is ref classes with live scrumming – not just theory. At all levels I find an amazing variety of ability in controlling the scrum. This is nothing short of a scandal. Mr Poite never packed down in a scrum and few on the IRB panel ever did
TIME WAS, not so long ago, aficionados deemed the scrum had become too impotent. Now, perhaps, its effect on any given game and its outcome is becoming too profound, not least as so much of it is down to a referee’s interpretation on any given day.
Penalty tries, or at any rate three-pointers, are almost becoming the primary weapon of choice for some teams, such as Italy and Argentina, and a handy additional one for others. There were only five completed scrums in last week’s France-Scotland match yet it yielded a penalty try for France and had a seismic impact on the game’s ebb and flow, for a French crowd and team alike derive more psychic energy than most from such a punishing blow.
Beforehand, over in Rome, Monsieur Romain Poite was dishing out four full and three indirect penalties to Italy, and just two indirect penalties to Ireland, and was even on the cusp of giving the Italians a penalty try.
Cian Healy now admits a prop almost has to spend as much time studying a referee as an opposing prop. “We just go over their call and get an understanding of the sequence and the timing, and you see what they’ve been hot on lately and how they do other games. Because it’s good to know how a ref works if you haven’t really been under him lately.”
Regarding last week’s penalty haul, he recalls: “One of them I do remember was a penalty; the weight shifted across so much I couldn’t actually hold it. So I was like ‘grand, blow me up’. Then there were a few others, they went down and both of us (himself and Martin Castrogiovanni) went down. So I was like, ‘this will be reset’, and then I stand up to see us trotting back 10. He might have seen something on the other side, or something I did, I don’t know. But you do it, and get back and get focused again.”
A key moment was when Poite penalised Healy as a scrum crabbed across on to his side – almost as if the whole weight of the Azzurri pack were weighing down on him – and then issued a penalty try warning to Brian O’Driscoll and Healy. The Irish loosehead shook his head ever so slightly, clearly not agreeing with the decision, but otherwise pretty much ignored Poite talking to him to refocus on the next put-in.
“Yeah, exactly. Straightaway, you’re not going to not have another scrum, so you gotta get your head to go forward and deal with the next scrum. And I think we did pretty good in that scrum. It was the longest I think I’ve ever been in a scrum, holding it out, but it was good.
“We were happy with that. I think there were two scrums that they held the ball in and just went for that penalty try, and kept pushing us, and that kind of tested our mettle. But we managed to hold the two up and we can take that forward from that game.”
The time taken for reset scrums has led to a ferocious lobby from the world of TV punditry – most of them backs – complete with “a scrum clock” to measure the time wasted in games. Why not “a kicking clock” as well for place-kicks? Not that the ex-backs complain that scrums accommodate props with relative immobility, and so it was that both Toby Flood and Brian O’Driscoll could size up the two opposing props in open play to create and score tries last weekend.
But such has been the volume of criticism towards re-setting scrums referees are resorting more to full and indirect penalties.
Perceiving any kind of advantage toward one team, the referee will invariably side with the more aggressive scrum.
For example, the Sky studio pundits recently highlighted what they saw as the illegal angle of scrummaging of today’s destructive French tighthead Nicolas Mas when tormenting the Leicester scrum in the Heineken Cup in December. But with the Perpignan scrum going forward on the brink of half-time, and opting for scrums from penalties, any referee who penalised a home tighthead for slipping his bind or scrummaging at an inward angle would want to leave his car engine running.
Declan Kidney also made the point this week that from Ireland’s three completed put-ins, two of them ultimately led to a converted try and a match-winning drop goal (though ironically, such were Tom Court’s difficulties at tighthead for the last, when turned and forced to stand, that Poite might conceivably have penalised him). That’s what it’s meant to be, of course, a platform for the backs, which increasingly appears to be lost, such is the number of penalties.
For Roly Meates, the former Ireland and Trinity coach who has served as Leinster scrum coach and has been the leading scrum guru in Irish rugby for decades, this is actually the purpose of scrums. That it has become such a prolonged war within a war, almost to the exclusion of the rest of the game or quality ball, is a source of huge frustration to him.
“In latter years I have been so frustrated that the important thing about the scrum has been, in fact, to pulverise your opposition. The law says that you are not entitled to push before the ball is presented into the set scrum. That is not being implemented. The result is that the quality of scrum ball is poor. If they eliminated pushing before the put-in that would rectify the whole thing, but it would require referees on a world-wide basis to apply it for three weeks and players would then change.”
Meates is one of many who believes in removing the “pause” from the crouch-touch- pause-engage sequence, not least as the timing varies from referee to referee.
Of course, the problems go deeper than that. A referee needs to keep the loosehead scrummaging straight (and not up!) while ensuring a tighthead is able to bind long on the loosehead’s jersey and not on the arm pit or lower.
“The key is simple: get the hit straight and keep them that way,” says one active referee. “Too many refs are visibly nervous while setting up a scrum, which will lead to players ‘interpreting’ the rules as they see fit and refs penalising the resultant failure, not the cause.
“The solution is ref classes with live scrumming – not just theory. At all levels I find an amazing variety of ability in controlling the scrum. At the international level this is nothing short of a scandal. Mr Poite never packed down in a scrum and I would imagine few if any on the IRB panel ever did.”
Continuing on his theme of a worldwide ban on pushing before the put-in, Meates says the game’s laws should account for 90 per cent of the product, and the referee’s interpretation as 10 per cent.
“In point of fact, we’re nearly operating on a 50-50 basis on refereeing interpretation at the breakdown and at the scrum.”
Regarding last week’s game, Meates says: “I think he only looked at one side, that’s my view.”
Healy said of Salvatore Perugini’s scrummaging at loosehead: “You could see he was taking his hand off and sticking it underneath Mike Ross and going in on him and you can see that pretty clearly in the reviews.”
That was Meates’ view too, though he adds: “The coach in me would say that Ross should never let him get into that position to start with.”
The Italian frontrow of Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni boasted a combined 178 caps, as against 57 for the comparatively callow Irish, yet Healy did not feel especially impressed by their efforts.
“No, it almost felt like a loss coming off the pitch, to be honest. I wasn’t happy at all. I felt I’d been penalised a load of times in the scrum, I was pushed back – it’s a real knock to your pride in that sense. It was something that I didn’t get out of my head until I got home and talked to Greg (Feek, Leinster and Ireland scrum coach) and had a look at the videos. I put everything aside then and moved on to this week.”
The French frontrow, along with three more from their pack, survive from last season, whereas Healy is the only survivor from the Irish frontrow and one of four forwards in total. From video analysis of Mas, Healy says: “He does kind of target to go in on the hooker a bit and it’s something we’ve actually been working on to keep that tighthead out as a working unit, with the hooker and the loosehead to kind of pin his head to his chest, in other words.”
Meates describes as “stupid” the idea that “the dominant scrum (is the one) pushing people (up) out the top. France were doing it all day last week. They were getting away with it, mind, which is good.”
Healy smiles as he admits he watched some of France’s scrums against the Scots. “I went through a few bits with Greg, and we looked at how they’re doing it and some of their angles and stuff, and it was an area that we were then looking at ourselves in training and dealing with that.
“But a lot of the focus has actually been on ourselves more so. We know the type of scrummagers that those lads are, they’re short lads and they’re able to get in there, so it’s on us and our angles and how we work together that’s gonna prove strong in that.”
You don’t often see Euan Murray in the kind of trouble he was in against Thomas Domingo last week, with his short, stocky frame (1.73m/5ft 8in and 106kg/16st 9lb), almost the ideal build for a prop.
Meates agrees, and while concerned for Ireland in the scrums tomorrow, he identifies the key to the contest from an Irish point of view as simply scrummaging low; particularly Ross.
“The scrum should slope from loosehead to tighthead anyway; the tighthead should be the lowest one of the three. Ross is in a position where he is able to do that because when you do that the opposition cannot do anything until they lift you up to a certain level. If a scrum is below a certain level, you will lock everybody’s feet on to the ground and they can’t move from that position. So the role of the tighthead is to ensure the loosehead doesn’t get up.”
Ross is far from the finished article, according to Meates, but he is, technically, the best Irish scrummaging tighthead around and can become very good. Healy will be coming up against the Perpignan bull, Mas (1.80m/5ft 11in and 110kg/17st 4lb). Healy is 1.83m/6ft and 110kg/17st 4lb.
With William Servat, a noted scrummager, in between them at 1.85m/6ft 1in and 103kg/16st 3lb, the French frontrow and pack may not be as experienced as their Italian counterparts, but quite conceivably this is the most potent scrum the Irish pack will come up against in this season’s Six Nations.
“Yeah, it could be,” says Healy, more matter-of-factly than fearfully. “There are a lot of strong forwards out there. I kind of love the opportunity, and the challenge. A lot of things have been put down this week, the Irish scrum has been put down a lot and a lot of people are saying everything, so it’s good to be going into a French scrum that had such a dominant week.”The scrum is almost a microcosm of tomorrow’s challenge.
“We’ll be a big underdog in the scrum,” says Healy, “so it will be a nice challenge for us to go out and try to put one over them.”