Is it possible to win a rugby game with a struggling scrum and your forwards are getting bullied around the field by the opposing pack? The simple answer is no. Your scrum, and by definition your forwards, need to dominate, or else they are dominated. Game over.
The Set Piece is Key in Rugby
How many times have we read comments like “the scrum is going to be where the match is decided”? Whether it's Premiership rugby, Pro12, Top14, SuperRugby or even local club games, you can be pretty sure that the scrum will always be a focus of the pre and post match analysis.
Even in the lead up to the most recent edition of the Vodacom Super Rugby final, the scrum was singled out as a key target area for the Emirates Lions. In his article just before the final, Brendan Nel said that the Lions were particularly strong in the set piece area. Nel claimed (and rightly so) the scrum had laid the platform for the Lions win over the Highlanders in the semifinal and would again be used as a strong weapon in the final.
Two words stand out in that analysis: platform and weapon.
In the 2016 RBS Six Nations the scrum was also a crucial factor in deciding the outcome of many games. In that competition, Ireland lost narrowly by 10-9 to France. As the score indicates, it was a tight game and the set piece was crucial to the outcome. Former Ireland hooker and current coach of Top14 side Grenoble Bernard Jackman quipped that the set piece was "the key turning point”.
Commentating on the same game Ronan O’Gara, said “it’s back to no scrum, no win” when lamenting the failure of Irelands’s ability to dominate the set piece.
The Aviva Rugby Premiership competition in England is a dream for scrum lovers. With heavyweight teams such as Leicester Tigers, Saracens and Northampton Saints (to name but a few) fans are treated to some of the finest examples of top level scrummaging every weekend. Players such as Joe Marler, Tom Youngs, and Thomas Waldrom are all fine ambassadors for the art.
In all of these games and competitions the set piece is key!
Heave, Push, Gouge (!) and Grunt
The game has come a long way from when the role of both packs of forwards was to heave, push, gouge (!) and grunt their way through a game. The modern forward is a highly mobile and athletic unit. Words such as offload, gainline, linebreaks, and turnover are part of the toolkit of today’s rugby union forwards. And that’s before we even come to their role in the scrum!
In the same way that the physical nature of the forward has changed, so too has the role of the scrum itself. It’s not just a mechanism for restarting the game after an infringement. When used properly it can be a powerful platform from which a team’s game entire plan can be built upon. A solid scrum gives a terrific base from which multiple play options can be explored.
France - Raised to Scrummage
The French will scrum all day! It's a core part of their game and is deeply engrained in their rugby culture. One has the impression that future champion props and hookers are singled out from the earliest of ages to be raised and nurtured in the same way a cattle farmer might select a future champion bull from his heard. These guys are raised to scrummage!
When one speaks to some of the many overseas players in the Top14 they often comment on the time spent in the scrum as being one of the key differences between Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere scrumming. That's not to say that the Southern boys can't handle it! It may take a little time to adapt but the 'Southerners' very quickly get to grips with the European way of scrummaging. Indeed many of them become masters of the European set piece. Just think of guys like Bakies Botha, Gurthro Steenkamp, Juandre Kruger and Uni Atonio to name but a few.
We mentioned above how the scrum can be a weapon or a platform and how the set piece offers a multitude of tactical advantages. But perhaps the most valuable attribute of the scrum is the psychological advantage it offers. Every forward knows that the first scrum lays down the mark. As he steps up to pack down, the rugby forward knows it's a modern version of throwing down the gauntlet. The battle for upfront domination sets the tone for the rest of the team. When a team is on the back foot at the set-piece and breakdown it impacts the performance of the rest of the team. The 9 and 10 won't get quality ball, and the backs won't get the supply of ball they need to execute their game.
Referees and Rules!
As long as the scrum is part of the game - and there is nothing to suggest it won't be - teams need to master it and exploit it to its full potential. Most teams now have full time scrum coaches which is encouraging. Just look at Australia's improvement in the setpiece since the hiring of scrum specialistMario Ledesma. What's most surprising is that Australia waited so long to appoint a specialist scrummaging coach. It's perhaps significant that his appointment came quickly after Michael Cheika (who had spent time coaching in Europe) was named as the Australian head coach.
What's needed now is a consistent set of rules and fair refereeing. Many players - and spectators - are growing frustrated by the amount of collapsed scrums and "blurred" rules surrounding the scrum engagement zone. It's high time this was addressed and fixed by the governing bodies. New scrum rules have been introduced to the Top14 competition for the 2016/17 season so we shall keep and eye on how that evolves. But that's a story for another day! Perhaps we will invite our mate Peter Bracken aka "The Scrum Doctor" to do a guest article for us!
VIDEO - A Treat for Scrum Lovers!
Let us leave you with this video treat. The context is the following: we are in the dying minutes of the Top14 final between Racing92 and Toulon. The score is 21-24 for Racing92 and Toulon are awarded penalty. Confident that they have their opponents on the backfoot they opt for the scrum! The momentum is on their side and they are convinced the can drive over for a last minute scrum to save the game. However, just before they engage, Racing92 bring back Ben Tameifuna who had been substituted earlier. Just sit back and enjoy the resulting scrum....... :)