First published:Fri, Sep 20, 2013, 09:00 by Liam Toland – The Irish Times.
New scrum laws have taken down the high-impact tighthead monsters. I love them! So will Australia and New Zealand now try to influence the IRB to depower the scrum technicians?
Under the new scrum laws, when Toulouse met Castres Olympique recently, the younger, lighter loosehead prop Cyril Baille (left) of Toulouse got the upper hand against powerful tighthead Luc Ducalcon, with Ducalcon dropping his bind and hitting the deck. Photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images.
The purpose of the scrum is to restart the game post minor infringement. The purpose of Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones in the third Australia- Lions Test was to demolish the Wallabies, especially on Will Genia’s put in. The purpose of the referee is to manage the laws of the game.
French referee Romain Poite has come in for much criticism this week but he must be commended for affording a dominant Lions scrum maximum damage in a match of enormous consequence. Other referees might have viewed it differently.
So much was the emotional and physical effect on the Wallabies I found myself shouting from the stands; ‘Knock the ball on, Lions’.
In these conditions where referee and scrum dominance meet, once within Leigh Halfpenny kicking range any scrum would have resulted in three Lions points.
If only the refereeing was thus in New Zealand when Ireland last toured.
In the short weeks since the ANZ Stadium the laws have changed and I love them!
Dropping his bind
The French tighthead in the Castres Olympique pack is a formidable force and tried, as expected, to bully Baille. But as the laws were being refereed Baille got the upper hand, with Ducalcon dropping his bind and hitting the deck.
Typical of any prop under pressure he looked to the referee, expecting a “hearing”. It never came. Like many of the really big boys, due to his scrum struggle Ducalcon’s influence around the park was vastly diminished.
Until recently, due to the crooked put in, the scrum was an eight versus eight contest, with power allied to physique over the channel on the hit combined with a steady follow through the inevitable winner.
Ducalcon and many larger tightheads are trying to achieve high impact. But now the striking hooker, initially on both legs, must do so with just one leg on terra firma, creating an 8 v 7.
The old-school way was for the other pack to target the tighthead in a pincer movement, intended to force him up through massive pressure in the knowledge that the hooker, in order to strike, is on one foot and binding slightly differently.
This process ideally occurred as the ball was travelling in, making the number eight and subsequent attacks very vulnerable. All the while the opposition loosehead is trying to get under the tighthead and power him up.
In the past, massive tightheads had one major ploy; win the hit while ensuring good feet placement. With the new laws this option is now defunct and a different set of skills brought to bear. Tightheads will now have to manage the height of the evolving scrum without a hit.
To prevent the above happening a very different prop may be required, needing huge strength but also flexibility and a certain stature; a Nicolas Mas, perhaps.
The opening half of Bayonne v Racing Metro was full of massive, bruising encounters, with Bayonne’s 136kg tighthead Neemia Tialata chief amongst them. Right on the 17 minutes, he packed down against Davit Khinchagishvili, a full 24kgs lighter, and in the three seconds of the evolving scrum Tialata slipped his bind and hit the deck.
His weight and height had no value on the Racing scrum, with Jonny Sexton converting the penalty.
Four minutes later Bayonne suffered three dropped scrums and another penalty.
None of the above penalties mentioned were 50-50 referee calls to get out of Dodge but the result of an evolving contest.
Stade Français and loosehead Heinke van der Merwe powered to several scrum penalties on their way to demolishing Biarritz.
In fact the van der Merwe’s powerful scrum performance indicates a new impact bench environment, where the brilliant ball-carrying of Mako Vunipola may become a luxury too heavy to carry.
No doubt Ducalcon, Tialata and co will spend the coming months trying to figure out a way around the scrum laws.
Coaches throughout the world will be devising strategies to maximize or minimize the perceived threat to their needs; where physique loses out to technique what is the retort: cheat?
French rugby is full of monsters like 130kg Karena Wihongi but the laws are having an instant impact on their value. This, and strong refereeing, should help Stephen Archer and many other developing props who can now go beyond surviving the hit and simply scrummage.
Influence the powers
How will the Southern Hemisphere, especially Australia and New Zealand, react and will they try to influence the powers to depower the technique of the scrum? What an opportunity the Irish have in welcoming Australia and New Zealand to Aviva and their scrum!