If you take last week’s first test in isolation it would seem that England have the upper hand at scrum time against Australia.

Throughout the match, Australia gave away 3 scrum penalties, whilst England conceded 2 penalties and a free kick. Not a massive difference really. However, one of Australia’s infringements resulted in a yellow card for Sio, indicating that Romain Poite thought that England were dominant and most of the scrum resets were caused by Sio going to ground.

Rewind to last year and it was England on the sharp end of scrummaging lesson where Australia’s dominance at the set-piece translated into (or ran alongside – I’m not suggesting winning the scrum battle was the cause of their dominance) complete dominance of the match.

Watching those matches and seeing how the packs have changed their scrummaging techniques, it seems we are in the middle of an arms race, where one side finds a technique to get the upper hand and the other then goes on to find a method of countering.

The ultimate aim in a match is to convince the ref your side is infringing less that the other side.  No more, no less.  Players are no longer looking to safely win their own ball or challenge the opposition by pushing straight.  They want to force the opposition to infringe. Infringements result in penalties.  Penalties result in points.  Repeated penalties result in yellow cards. The laws of the game are written that way.

If you think of the possible outcomes for a team for each scrum they are probably ranked in this order for desirability. OPP means on opposition put in, OWN means on own put in

  1. Gain a penalty and opposition prop gets a yellow card (OPP)
  2. Gain a penalty and opposition prop gets a yellow card (OWN)
  3. Gain a penalty (OPP)
  4. Gain a penalty (OWN)
  5. Win the ball cleanly (OPP)
  6. Gain a free kick (OPP)
  7. Reset scrum with ref tending towards favouring you (OPP)
  8. Reset scrum with ref tending towards favouring you (OWN)
  9. Gain a free kick (OWN)
  10. Win the ball cleanly (OWN)

Results 11-20 would be a mirror image with the opposition winning the ball  / pen / FK.

There are other outcomes and some depend on the position on the pitch, but these are the most common.

Outcomes 1-4 are certainly positioned right.  Results 5-10 are a bit more uncertain.  Is it better to win your own ball outright, or better for the scrum to be reset with the ref more likely to give a penalty on the reset scrum.  You could even argue that 7/8 are more favourable than 5, but the really telling thing is that winning the ball cleanly on your own put in is just about the least favourable winning tactic.

It’s not great for the game, it’s not great for the spectacle and it’s not what the fans want to see, but the laws mean that getting a penalty or getting the ref onside are the primary drivers for this scrummaging arms race.

The Arms Race so far…

World Cup – 2016

Australia dominated the scrum to such an extent that we wondered what Graham Rowntree had been teaching them and how Dan Cole and Joe Marler were considered international props.

Australia’s tactic in this game (and indeed before the game through the press) was to tell everyone that Marler always bores in illegally, and then to construct a scrummaging scenario where it looked like he did just that.

As Marler was pinged again and again for boring in we were all shouting at the screen that the Australia front row were shifting sideways to create that impression.  Someone boring in to the extent that Marler was is never doing so deliberately, or even through lack of technique.  It’s because the scrum is moving sideways and his initial forward shove is pulled round with the movement of the scrum.

Whether it’s cheating or not, the Wallabies pack got the ref onside early on and it was impossible for England to bring that back, at least until a new looesehead was introduced in place of Marler.

And before anyone calls me out on this, I’m not suggesting Australia only won because they cheated at the scrum.  Cheating at the scrum from both sides is a given, and I admire the team who can cheat the best with the fewest penalties. They won because they were better in all areas on the day.

1st Test – 2016

England’s challenge for the first test was to look at what happened before and come up with a way to counter it, not get pinged for boring in and get the ref to believe Australia were at fault.

The way to not get pinged for boring in is to create a scenario where the opposition is not able to make that sideways movement away from the opposition loosehead.  England seemed to achieve this by taking the contact at “set” but then allowing a slight backwards motion to unbalance Scott Sio on the Tighthead side.

In the first scrum Dan Cole was too obvious and got pinged for hinging.  Subsequently he got it just right.  His bind always stayed legal but he shifted the angle of his arm pressure to create downward pressure on Sio.  Combining that with Sio’s foot position (too far back) and allowing Sio to move forward slightly on the engagement meant that Sio couldn’t keep his feet. However, in all other scrums Cole didn’t hinge so that his arse was sticking up in the air, and thus gave the impression he was trying to keep Sio up.

via GIPHY

It was telling that when Poite went round to that side of the scrum after a reset it was one of the few times that the ball was put in and won in a “proper” scrum completion.  Whether that was because Sio adjusted his position so he didn’t go down while the ref was watching, or because Cole didn’t force him to ground because the ref was watching is a matter of debate.

After few more dropped scrums Poite was under the clear impression that Sio was the weak link.  In the scrum that Sio was yellow carded England pushed pretty straight and Cole didn’t “assist” Sio to the ground. By this stage Sio knew he was under pressure so probably had to move his feet forward to stop himself going down, leaving him open to a straight shove.  With England showing obvious forward momentum when the scrum went down is was easy and obvious for Sio to have a 10 minute sit down.

via GIPHY

Both sides can argue about the illegality of the the moves.  I’m sure Australia fans will be screaming that Cole was illegal and not taking the pressure, whereas England fans will condemn Sio for bad positioning and going to ground too easily.

Onwards

I’m not condoning or condemning the tactics from either side in either game.  To me this is one of the reasons Rugby Union is the greatest game. You have a battle of skill, speed and strength with the opposition, but you also have this tactical battle that’s played out through the impressions that the ref gets. England weren’t ready for Australia’s tactics at the RWC, and Australia weren’t ready for England’s counter attack in the first test.

The fact is both sides will look at what happened and try to anticipate what the opposition will do to counter their tactics. Going into the 2nd test, Sio has been dropped, so immediately that throws things up in the air. There will be no hangover from the 1st test in terms of referee impressions, so Australia start with a clean slate.  On the other hand Craig Joubert will have watched the 1st Test closely and have formed his own impressions about who was at fault.  If he thinks Dan Cole played a part then it could be a rough night for the England pack.

In addition, Michael Chieka has chosen to be present for Eddie Jones’ briefing with Craig Joubert on the eve of the match.  I’m sure Jones will seek clarity on how the scrum will be refereed, and Chieka will know exactly what Jones finds out.

I’d like to say the meeting with Joubert will convince everyone to scrummage straight and the stronger pack will get the upper hand allowing the game to be played in a fluent way.  That’s unlikely though and exactly what the next tactics will be, and who will win the battle  remains to be seen.

The next tactics the coaches need to give their sides is the ability to predict and counter different scrum moves, adjusting the action / reaction accordingly.

For the layman it’s easy to see how this happens for a lineout – there are different calls that translate into different movements by the lifters and jumpers aimed at distracting and hiding the actual throw and catch.  Each linout is a single event that leads to an outcome. and if there’s an offence it can be (fairly easily) seen.

In the scrum it’s more difficult to see how you progress through a set of planned moves in subsequent scrums to build a narrative that effects future scrums.  Which side is most successful with this narrative will gain a major advantage.

Whatever the outcome, expect plenty of reset scrums, plenty of penalties and plenty of analysis after the event.