Allan Massie: Scottish rugby renaissance must have its roots in scrum
THE first South African try last week was as soft a one as you are likely to see in international rugby. When the ball trickled out of the scrum off the boot of the English blindside flanker, his Springbok opposite number picked it up and strolled over the line. He surely hasn’t scored as easy a try since he was playing in the under-11s.
There were however three interesting things about it. First, it should probably have been disallowed on the grounds that the ball hadn’t been touched by any front-row player. Second, the ball was able to make its way unimpeded because neither hooker struck. Third, the English scrum-half, Ben Youngs, put the ball in straight; the poor lad risks being drummed out of the Scrum-Half Union for this blatant disregard of common practice.
One gathers that the IRB is about to amend the laws relating to engagement at the set scrum. Sadly, if reports are correct, the only change will be the removal of the “pause”, so that the referee will now say only “crouch – touch – engage”. I doubt if this will be enough to cure the ills that now afflict this important part of the game. For one thing, we shall still have too many free kicks awarded for “early engagement” because referees’ timing of their instructions will still not be absolutely consistent.
The purpose of the scrum is, or should be, to provide good ball to the backs at a time when there is space on the field, the 16 forwards being otherwise engaged. This requires a quick heel, with the ball preferably being released to the right of the No 8. One rarely sees this today, even though the ball has seldom been put into the scrum down the middle of the tunnel, as the law still requires. Indeed, one sometimes thinks that, at least in the professional game, the scrum is seen principally as a means of winning a penalty or a free kick. So, instead of striking, hookers take part in an eight-man shove.
The time taken in setting, and all too often re-setting, the scrum irritates spectators, understandably. During the Six Nations, the BBC television team has taken to posting information on “scrum time” on the screen. Actually, while each scrum may take longer than in the past, far less time is occupied by scrums than used to be the case. This is because there are fewer of them. The authors of “Thinking Rugby: The London Welsh Way”, an excellent book published in 1979, wrote that there were “more than 50 scrums in most games”. At the top level today, there may be no more than ten or a dozen. This is first because handling has improved, so that there are fewer knock-ons, second because the present tackle law means that there are fewer occasions when the ball is buried, and becomes unplayable, at the breakdown.
Good and effective scrummaging remains important, whether you are playing for a penalty or intending to win quick ball. One of the most satisfying features of the two Scottish victories this summer has been the quality of our set scrum. Euan Murray’s resurgence has been splendid, while Ryan Grant had performed so well that Allan Jacobsen may be wondering whether his summer’s rest was quite such a good idea. The Samoans may have given them a tougher test by the time you read this, but if they have come through it successfully, we may look forward more optimistically to the future. No recent match demonstrated the value of supremacy at the set scrum than the England- Ireland one on the last day of this year’s Six Nations. The English eight were so much on top in the second half that it might have been good tactics for England to knock the ball on, so that they could have another go at the Irish scrum. The authors of that London Welsh book remarked that the 1971 Lions had “devastated the New Zealanders in the set scrum” Everyone old enough to remember that series recalls the brilliance of the Lions backs – Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mike Gibson and co – but they owed a lot to the quality of ball the scrum provided. “The tour,” as the book has it, “emphasised the importance of scrummaging technique and Ian McLauchlan’s ignominious hoisting of Jazz Muller (all 18 and a half stones of him) out of several scrums indicated what could be done by an extremely able technician to a very big man”. The Mighty Mouse would have been giving away about three stones in weight.
The Scots have rarely been dominant in the scrum in recent years. Indeed, more often than not, we have struggled to hold our own. A lot of attention has, understandably, been directed at our failure to score tries, but getting the upper hand in the set piece is very often the first step towards winning matches. The scrum coach, Massimo Cuttitta will have been have been laying emphasis on this. If we are at long last to see the renaissance of Scottish rugby we have been longing for, then the big men up front are the ones to kick it off.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North