Analysis: the Scotland scrum vs Marler

Analysis: the Scotland scrum vs Marler

Analysis: the Scotland scrum vs Marler

For the first time since anyone can remember, Scotland will enter a Calcutta Cup match this Saturday feeling that their forward basics – the set-pieces of lineout and scrum – may be more solid than those of their England counterparts under Eddie Jones.

I believe that there are real grounds to support this feeling. South African Josh Strauss will add further physicality and leadership to the Scotland forwards at #6 – and Strauss was a player of Springbok quality before he left South Africa – while Free Stater W.P. Nel was one of the two top scrummagers at tight-head (along with Puma Ramiro Herrera) during the recent World Cup. Add in the Gray brothers in the engine room and you have the makings of an imposing unit, a force to be reckoned with.

Since his debut against Italy in the warm-ups to the World Cup, Nel started in six games and Scotland won 14 penalties from scrum while he was on the field – 11 of which can directly be attributed to Nel’s activity on the Scottish tight-head. It resulted in one try scored and 6 penalty goals kicked, three other prime positions in the opposition red zone, and two potential yellow cards against the opposition loose-head for repeated infringements (Matias Aguero for Italy and Scott Sio for Australia).

Let’s take a look at how Nel operates, with the benefit of some clips from the World Cup quarter-final against Australia.

Scott Sio has been (rightly) credited with much of Australia’s improvement at the scrum since the 2015 Rugby Championship, but he comes off second best to Willem Nel at these four Scotland feeds.

If we take a look at Nel’s mechanics, we can see that:

  1. At ‘set’, his hips are in the same plane as his shoulders, he is completely square to his opponent and he is not binding on the loose-head’s left arm (32:40 & 45:20) – these are all refereeing triggers and Nel is presenting a picture perfect ‘look’ to Craig Joubert. His core stability is therefore excellent because of his technique.
  2. Nel sets up with a very low left-arm bind on his hooker. As the scrum forms at 31:57, he is actually pulling down on Ross Ford’s waistband and his left arm is almost vertical. This gives Nel much more mobility in the shoulders and increases his ability to turn inside at an angle as the scrum develops.

Over the four scrums it is fairly clear that there is no great difference in power between Sio and Nel. It is W.P. Nel’s technical ability that keeps forcing mistakes out of Scott Sio. At the two scrums where the activity on Nel’s side is most clearly visible (32:00 & 45:20), the same process is repeating:

  • After the ‘set’, at 32:07 the impact of Nel’s engagement and square positioning have already forced Sio’s hips out towards touch. Where Nel and Johnny Gray pushing behind him are aligned on very much the same angle, Sio is driving in while Kane Douglas is pushing out, and the two Aussie second rows begin to split as the scrum unfolds. Although Sio comes back strongly in the second half of the scrum -and the refereeing call was probably 50/50 – he does so at an angle and without control.
  • Nel’s technical advantage is even clearer in the next scrum at 45:20. Sio’s head is being forced down on to his chest and outwards toward his left shoulder, and as in the previous scrum he has to take a step outside to relieve the pressure at 45:26. The result is a third collapse (and penalty) on his side.

At the 49:20 scrum, Sio again over-extends and loses his core stability before Nel. Had Romain Poite or Jerome Garces or Wayne Barnes been the official in charge, I have no doubt that the penalty would have been awarded and that Sio would have been sin-binned for ten minutes for repeated infringement – which could well have changed the fate of the entire game!

Why could this be an influential factor?

The English loose-head Joe Marler is under scrutiny for ‘angling’. He was penalised twice for this in the Scotland fixture last season and of course was the victim of a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign during the World Cup – engineered by none other than our esteemed editor Matt before the group game against the Wallabies! (the truth will set you free – Ed.)

With Marler feeling the heat, W.P. Nel is just the right man to force the issue and bring the England loose-head back under the microscope.

  • Whig

    Thanks for the analysis, love these!

    At 32:11 (0.46 on your video) the aerial shot clearly shows Nel angling in with his hips out wide and his 2nd row split. Ended in a penalty to Scotland. So not all of it is superior legal technical dominance. Correct me if I’m wrong?

  • would you start Marler or Vunipola, Nick?

  • Hi Nick – my take on the Scot scrum vs Aus wan’t far off yours – the Scots did a great job (although that second scrum was Nel popping when his second row disconnects)

    For me it wasn’t quite so much about Nel vs Sio, rather than the angles and skill the scots pulled across the scrum.

    And if you’re going to apply the tight head angling defence to Marler, you’ll need to do the same for Sio….

  • Dan Cottrell

    Excellent insight as always Nick and very succinctly put. The key for me is the perception aspect. Nel’s squareness is crucial. Also, Joubert is tall and can see over while Lacey for Saturday will be looking more at the outside binds that the inside shoulders.
    The other factor must be the Murrayfield pitch. If it cuts up then scrummaging will be a lottery. With all that pressure having to go somewhere, it won’t be a pretty site. Anyone know if they’ve sorted it out?

    • yes, it’s now a Desso pitch (think it was in for last 6N actually), so should hold up to the rigours of Test Rugby

  • mxyzptlk

    Interesting how much the ref can play a role in prop selection. Apparently Gatland is keeping Gethin Jenkins on the bench against Ireland because Jerome Garces is refereeing. (And as of Saturday morning, Schmidt is asking Garces to not go into the scrums with any preconceived ideas.)

    Or maybe this is Gatland’s way of gently shoving Jenkins out the door. Who knows.

    Have to wonder, though, if Garces knowing Gatland doesn’t think the Welsh scrum will get a fair look will affect how he perceives the set piece, or anything else.

  • RobC

    Hi Nick,

    Ive just had a chance to review the videos in detail. imo:

    ooops sorry. Missed the first scum 19′. Corrected the numbering

    1. yep. Easy decision, which I think won the Ref over.

    2. After SCO gets an initial shove, WB push back on both sides. Side on replay, Sio was clearly not over extended, he was marching forward. Nel buckled and shouldered Sio down.

    3. SCO won the engagement with WB TH pod pushed back. Sio collapsed, rather than retreating

    4. Sio was out of the count on this one

  • yes, i’d agree with that. I think Mako is a good impact player – his ball carrying is good late in the game – counters Billy or Launchbury going off.

    Also think Marler is also very underrated around the park, his a good carrier, works hard at the breakdown and is a deft distributor as well (especially if they use the whole screened passing formation Sarries and Bath use).

    He’s also an excellent lineout lifter.

  • All props angle, of course. But it’s also true that there are different cultures between teams and nations when it comes to the scrum.

    Talking to an elite scrum coach (and ex international prop) a couple of months ago, his point was that there are different schools of thought when it comes to achieving (perceived) scrum dominance. England and Wales have of late built a strong reputation on using angles to win the appearance of dominance, in lieu direct go forward. Until recently it’s worked very well for them.

    I’m all for fewer scrum penalties (what Aussie wouldn’t be!) but that doesn’t mean carte blanche for setting up with your hips so far out your flanker can’t bind to his lock (Joe!)

  • ‘An English prop is stigmatised’ – cry me a river!

    More seriously – if Joe is being pinged off the park for angling out as dramatically as he is, then that’s clearly something he and the rest of the English pack need to get better at ensuring doesn’t happen. I don’t think we can just say ‘it’s because he’s so good and misunderstood, refs shouldn’t penalise overt angling’

    Not all performing packs had the same problem and indeed the English one struggled throughout the RWC, including against Fiji.

    Finally – I’m not sure most are saying Joe was a poor prop who’s been dished up. Rather he’s probably a good one who needs to adjust, and that he’s part of a pack that got the balance of guile and power out of whack.

  • I think the issues with the English pack were magnified because;

    A: it’ traditionally a huge part of the English game
    B: the turn around from dominance to getting taken apart was so fast it was like a first round KO.
    C: we were failing elsewhere so the set piece was our go too

    Personally i think Rowntree was with England just that little too long, a lot of what we saw with the Lions 2013 was there for all to see in the 2015, and the issues like angling etc.. were just handled better this time around by the other teams.

  • Matt made the exact same observation about that same scrum to me back at the world cup.

    I think it flags the mindset England found themselves in towards the end of the world cup – it was very negative, they dug themselves into a hole.

  • mxyzptlk

    Any comments on how Jerome Garces reffed the choke tackle by ignoring it? That took a tool away from Ireland’s defensive kit. They adapted, but we might have seen a different outcome had Ireland managed to win a few more scrums.

    (And you’ve written on psychology and literature? Anything one could find on the interwebs?)

  • Swansea Till I Die!

    I think we do then a disservice by saying it’s pre-conceived ideas alone. The truth is more likely to be that the refs have seen far more examples of platy that has been penalized from some players and thus have a much better reference in their minds to what that player looks like when in those situations.

    If for example a prop has been regularly penalized for angling in then there will have been many pictures of him in that situation, making it easier to spot. In contrast a less experienced (or at least less penalized) prop would perhaps get away with it a little more.

    The Jenkins issue is also effected by the fact that he isn’t the most effective scrummager anyway so is genuinely likely to have issues regardless of preconceived perceptions. What he brings in the open has over the years more than compensated for that but with scrums becoming more technical again due to the removal of the hit it is only going to become more of a problem for him.

  • RobC

    Sorry to come in late into this gents. imo the issue with Eng’s RWC scrum is not about technique or Refs.

    Bomber totally changed their S&C in the lead up to RWC by suddenly focusing on speed and fitness. It ruined all the years of prep and depowered their team in all forms of contact and contests.


Nick has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and latterly Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Since then, three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for, or won national sports book awards. The latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union. It is entitled “The Iron Curtain”. Nick has also written other books on literature and psychology.

More in Analysis