Andy Robinson was asked if playing Samoa in Apia on Saturday represented the biggest challenge for Scotland on tour but he dodged the question. “It’s the next challenge,” he said in response, but the original proposition might have been right in at least one respect.
Whoever they select, Samoa will field behemoths at prop, huge, heavy men who will take some shifting however good the Scots’ technique is.
Census Johnston (6ft 3in and more than 20 stones) plays his rugby for Toulouse in the Top 14, a league that puts a massive emphasis on the set scrum, while Logovi’i Mulipola (6ft 4in and just under 20 stones) turned out last season in Leicester colours who aren’t known as faint hearts when push comes to shove. Euan Murray and Ryan Grant look up against it and that’s presuming that both men are fully fit and healthy.
“Size isn’t everything,” says Scotland’s Italian scrum coach Massimo Cuttitta, and he should know since he fills up most of an armchair in the foyer of the Tusitala Hotel in Apia. It’s the same name the Samoans gave Robert Louis Stevenson (the teller of tales) and Cuttitta is happy to tell the story of how the set scrum went from being an area of concern throughout most of the Six Nations to becoming, arguably, the Scots’ most potent weapon on tour.
Against Australia, the scrum won the crucial winning penalty in the dying minutes and the big men marched the ball over the Fiji line from a five-metre scrum against Fiji – or they would have do so had a hand not flapped the ball out. The spotlight may be on Tim Visser after his two-try debut but the players’ player of the match award went to tighthead Euan Murray, who is looking the player he threatened to become four years ago when he destroyed Tendai “the Beast” Mtawarira at Murrayfield.
Effectively, the Scots do their damnedest to split the opposition loosehead’s shoulders from his hooker, which is why the tighthead is so important. “Andy Robinson got the message on to the field for the eight-man double shove against Fiji. When you have an edge in one department and you are near the opposition tryline, it can lead to points. The Fiji scrum was dead after that.”
I don’t know how much Cuttitta is paid by Murrayfield but he probably earns his keep and both Italy and Ireland were chasing him just recently. Instead, he has committed to another two years as part of Robinson’s coaching team. Oddly enough, he is prepared to share the secret of scumming and to do so for free. “The engage is 90 per cent of the scrum,” says the man whose job it is to know these things. When Cuttitta talks about Scott Lawson being “faster” than Ross Ford, he doesn’t mean across the ground. Instead he is talking about that split-second after the referee calls “engage” at the scrum and over two tons of beef smash into each other.
It’s a vital area of the game. Every team wants to “win the hit” (ie smack into the opposition before they smack into you) and exactly how Scotland achieve this is where Massimo clams up like a Mafia wise guy on the witness stand. For obvious reasons, referees penalise teams who jump the gun but, according to the scrum guru, Scotland have not conceded a penalty here for more than a year. Getting his men to win the hit whilst keeping strict discipline is what makes Scotland special and Cuttitta isn’t going to shout his secrets from the rooftop. The interesting aspect of Scotland’s dominance at the bump and grind department is that it comes without some of their most notable scrummagers being present. Jim Hamilton’s sheer bulk is missed, David Denton adds a couple of stones worth of grunt compared to John Barclay and Allan Jacobsen is rested this summer. Cuttitta referred to “Chunk” as one of the best looseheads in world rugby a few years back and the little Edinburgh man obviously remains a favourite.
“Jacobsen is still one of the best scrummagers that we have,” insists Cuttitta. “The fact is that we have three loosehead and three tighthead props who are all at international standard. There isn’t much between them.”
And he goes on to give the roll call: Grant, Jacobsen and Jon Welsh on the left side of the scrum, Murray, Geoff Cross and Moray Low on the right-hand berth. “With have lots of options and there aren’t many countries in the world than can make that claim. Andy [Robinson] can now pick according to his game plan. If he wants more mobility he can go for Grant and Cross, although Murray has been very good around the park on this tour, and if he wants pure scrummagers he can pick perhaps Murray and Welsh. Coaching the front row forwards takes a long time,” says the Italian, “but we have a good crop coming through and some good young ones too.”
Cuttitta name checks Robin Hislop, from Edinburgh, and the Glasgow duo of Gordon Reid and Gordon Hunter. But there are more immediate things on his mind, with the vast bulk that Manu Samoa can call upon uppermost in his thoughts. “Samoa are very physical and very big,” he says. “They have a very good tighthead and a very good loosehead.”
It’s just as well Scotland have a very good scrum coach.