Allan Massie: We need a heel against King Charles’ head

Richie Gray scoring against Ireland. Picture: AP
Richie Gray scoring against Ireland. Picture: AP
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Mr DICK in David Copperfield has an obsession with King Charles’ head; it gets into everything he tries to write.

Regular readers of this column may have come to think that the set scrum is now my King Charles’s head. Perhaps it is. Nevertheless, if, like Brian Moore, the former England hooker, I keep banging on about it, this is because the way the laws relating to it are drawn up and interpreted threatens to ruin the game. Moore says the scrum has become a farce. He is dead right.

A set scrum is formed to restart the game after a minor infringement – a knock-on, forward pass, accidental offside – or when the ball has not emerged from a ruck or maul. The ball is put into the scrum by the non-offending side, and this has always given them, and been intended to give them, a small advantage. For years the International Rugby Board (IRB) has re-jigged the laws to encourage a quick clean heel and enterprising back-play.

It has done so in vain. Such heels are rare, and fly-halves seldom receive a pass straight from the scrum. More and more, it is evident that the scrum is now regarded less as the means of winning possession than as a way to be awarded a penalty. A dominant scrum will hold the ball and push forward till opposition heads pop up and they get the penalty. If a side has the weaker scrum, then, at least at the elite level of the game, a knock-on in their own half will probably cost them three points. This is ludicrous.

If the IRB doesn’t address the problem of the set scrum at the earliest opportunity, it is failing in its duty to the game. Even without a change in the law, enforcing the law which orders a scrum-half to put the ball in straight might be a start to sorting out the mess.

New brooms proverbially sweep clean and Scott Johnson’s first training squad certainly has a different look, even if he hasn’t exactly swept the old away. Indeed, the selection of ten uncapped players rather obscures the fact that, for the most part, it is the mixture as before, minus the wounded and retired. It is unlikely, I would guess, that more than two or three newcomers will be in the match-day squad of 23. The surprising omission is Alasdair Strokosch, whom Andy Robinson liked to have in his team.

Well, even in the absence of the injured Ross Rennie and John Barclay, the back-row is the one part of the team where we have a rich choice. Johnnie Beattie’s return from the wilderness is welcome, even if I suspect he is less likely to start against England than when Italy come to Murrayfield a week later. In his Glasgow days he was always a better player in attack than defence, and the likelihood is that we shall have to do an awful lot of defending at Twickenham.

The rich representation from Glasgow and the thin one from Edinburgh are a fair reflection of the two clubs’ respective form. On the other hand, it is mildly worrying to find that three of the six forwards from English clubs come from Sale, bottom in the Aviva Premiership and who have won only three of their 18 Premiership and Heineken Cup games this season. Of course, a player may shine in a losing side, but reports suggest that even Richie Gray’s form has suffered. Well, perhaps the prospect of getting stuck in to the English at Twickenham in a fortnight’s time will buck him up. We certainly need him at the top of his game.

With the Scottish clubs’ thoroughly disappointing part in the year’s Heineken coming to an end on Sunday, Johnson will be hoping that there are no more injuries. Ross Ford is listed as an active member of Johnson’s squad, but, since he has been out for weeks now, it seems unlikely that he can start at Twickenham. Dougie Hall has recently been first-choice hooker at Glasgow, but there is very little to choose between him and the younger Pat MacArthur, the former being more powerful in the wretched set scrum, the latter more active in the loose.

Meanwhile, one feels that Edinburgh, away to Saracens tomorrow, might as well go out to enjoy themselves and try to play an attacking game. They might even score a try or two if they manage to give Tim Visser the ball in even a little space, something he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed for weeks now.

A bit of adventure might do something for their reputation and give them a boost for the last weeks of the League. I can’t think they have much hope of success if they persist in the tactic of one pass, take it up the middle into the tackle, etc etc. You can play that sort of game successfully only if you have a dominant front five – and they don’t have that.