Scrummaging still all-important in rugby
A 'DARK art' is the common conception of many who watch rugby props scrummage and wonder what on earth is going on away from the referee's gaze, but the belief that these skills are part of a bygone era has been thrown out by the best exponents of scrummaging in Scotland.
Sandy Carmichael, Ian McLauchlan and Hugh McLeod were among the most feared props of their generations, and all watched and winced at the British and Irish Lions' failure to cope with the South African front row in last weeks' first Test. After changing the tighthead Phil Vickery and hooker Lee Mears with Welsh pair Adam Jones and Matthew Rees, and promoted Scot Ross Ford to the bench, the Lions coaches share the belief that the tourists' set-piece holds the key to whether they can save the series by winning the second Test in Pretoria this afternoon.
Carmichael is 62 now, but he believes that scrummaging remains as crucial a part of rugby union in the 21st century as it did when he faced up to the Springboks and All Blacks with Scotland and the Lions nearly 40 years ago. Yet, he worries that modern coaches are missing the point, and failing their teams by not 'up-skilling' their props in the art of scrummaging.
"If anyone was in any doubt that scrummaging is still an important part of rugby, you only had to watch that first Test," he told The Scotsman. "That was a shameful exhibition from a tighthead prop. Phil Vickery should have been taken off after half an hour at most. The wee Welsh prop (Jones] took control when he went on because he was smaller and technically better.
"Vickery has got away with poor scrummaging for too long, but to be taught a lesson playing for the Lions is shameful." Analysing Vickery's display, he continued: "What got me was that he never changed anything in the game; he never changed his feet, his body position.
"I have coached props over the last 20 years, and if they are in trouble I tell them to use the shoulder to drive straight, change your feet to vary the target for the other guy, make it harder for them to get at you, but to lay yourself wide open every scrum the way Vickery did is unacceptable. He must have been panicking every time he went into a scrum; I'd hate to have seen the colour of his shorts at half-time.
"But you saw the importance of the scrum when he went off and with Jones holding them in suddenly the Lions back row was able to attack and the backs got ball. If you move the scrum, their backs are having to walk backwards and so aren't going forward when they get the ball – at best they're standing still – whereas on your ball going forward means you're giving your guys the opportunity to really pick up momentum.
"In the 1973 Barbarians game against New Zealand, remembered of course for the great length of the field try, the scrum was crucial. The All Blacks had a fantastic back row that day, one of the best in the world, but we pushed their scrum every time, so their back row couldn't get their backside up.
"Running around the field, off-loading, showing up on the wing and all that is one thing, but at the end of the day the tighthead has to do his scrummaging first. It's the same now as it was 40 years ago, and 80 years ago, and if the Lions don't shape up this weekend in the front row they'll get done again."
Carmichael won 50 caps from his debut as a 23-year-old against Ireland in 1967 to a last game against the Irish in 1978, and played on the British and Irish Lions tours to New Zealand in 1971 and South Africa in 1974, the one and only occasion where the Lions were unbeaten.
Talk of 'The Beast', the Springboks' 18-stone loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira who made a mockery of Vickery, makes the same impression on Carmichael as it did on Euan Murray, the Scotland prop who turned the young 'Bok inside out at Murrayfield in November, but who was ruled out of the Lions tour before the first Test by injury.
Carmichael said: "The Beast is not something incredible. You think of the 'beasts' we came up against – like French prop Gerard Cholley, who was around 19st, compared to me at 16 stones.
"Then we used to hook the ball as well, and every time I hooked one against him he punched me. I would just smile and say 'I've got the ball'. He was a great scrummager and we toured South Africa together for a World XV, and when one of our guys was getting beaten up by a Western Province player, Cholley pushed through and put three massive punches into this guy's face – we actually ducked. You didn't mess with Cholley."
Carmichael forged a great partnership with McLauchlan in the Scottish front row, and the pair were key parts of the winning Lions tours of the 1970s. Carmichael had helped set a high standard in 1971 before his face was smashed in three places ahead of the first Test by a Canterbury player he still knows the identity of, but refuses to reveal. McLauchlan subsequently took over.
In 1974, the Scots' partnership was broken by the formidable England prop Fran Cotton, but Carmichael was credited with having played a key role in maintaining the winning run through midweek as South Africans strove to bring down the tour with vicious assaults on the Lions' forward power. Now, 25 years on, the Lions have suffered little in midweek, other than the loss of Murray, who was already being seen as an outsider for the Tests by the management. The Scot could perhaps do with an ally like Carmichael had in McLauchlan.
"Murray can be a bit up and down, bit hot and cold, sometimes strong, sometimes weak," said Carmichael, "but he could be a great Scottish prop if he believes in himself; he is that good.
"Myself and Ian didn't start out great scrummagers, despite what 'Mighty Mouse' (McLauchlan's nickname) will tell you, but battling each other made us. We met up in the West of Scotland 2nd XV in 1962, but he went to Jordanhill and we used to knock the s*** out of each other – boring, dropping, poking eyes, the lot. I remember a Glasgow Cup game and we'd been doing all the damage in the world to each other, and came off the pitch, shook hands and said we'd never do that again. That was the turning point and we became a real partnership after that."
He concluded: "The game is very different now, not the same brutality thankfully. But, good, solid scrummaging is still at the heart of a good rugby team. Sadly, too many props have lost the ability to scrummage effectively these days. The South African (Mtawarira] knew exactly what to do with Vickery last week – he bored straight into him and if he really had been a beast, Vickery's ribs would have snapped.
"It's up to Jones and the front row to restore the Lions reputation this week. What should have been a weakness for us to exploit now has the potential to kill the whole series dead. And that would be an embarrassment to us Lions props."
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