Analysis: Scrum Issues versus Lions

Scott Allen July 1, 2013 42

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Looks good from here

Looks good from here

In the second test between the Wallabies and Lions, seven of the fifteen scrums awarded were decided by the referee. Fifteen points were scored from penalty goals from those scrums which had more impact in the match than any other area. The scrum may well be what decides the third test and therefore the series.

So, what can the Wallabies do better to make sure their chances of winning the series are not derailed by a scrum penalty? In this article and part two I’ll try to explain how scrums really work which will help show you the areas the Wallabies need to work on.

Scrums are a highly technical area – they are not just sixteen big guys pushing hard against each other. Some will feel these articles are too long – others will point out that I haven’t discussed other key points, which I acknowledge but there is just too much involved to cover it all.

There are two components of scrummaging – how the forces work and the dark arts.  If you understand how the forces work you can understand the basics of what’s happening in a scrum. However the dark arts aren’t something that can be explained or even really taught – you learn them from experience and in reality you never stop learning them so I won’t even try.

The forces involved in scrums really come down to two key things – body shape / height and the angles involved – simple really isn’t it!

The Horizontal Angles

A good scrum involves the whole pack working together to generate force from the back of the scrum all the way through to the front. The laws of physics mean that the force from the back of the scrum can only be transferred through the middle row, into the front row and ultimately through to the opposition if that force is all being directed on the same general horizontal angle.

The Wallabies have not been getting their horizontal angles coordinated all that well between their front row and middle row in this Lions series as shown in the following image from the scrum where they went backwards as though they were on roller skates in Brisbane. By contrast you can see how the Lions middle row and front row were driving much closer to the same horizontal angle so were able to transfer all their power through to the Wallabies.

Wallabies' angles are all wrong

Wallabies’ working on different horizontal angles

As you can see the force from the Wallabies scrum was generally going up so wasn’t counteracting the horizontal angle of the Lions drive. With Hooper’s force directed down any weight he’s adding isn’t really being applied effectively.

If a prop gets their shoulders below their hips the force coming from behind them is no longer being directed towards the opposition and is wasted. Here’s an example from the second test in a scrum where Ben Alexander dominated Mako Vunipola.

Vunipola penalised for hinging

Vunipola penalised for hinging

The same applies if the shoulders are above the hips so props must focus on keeping their backs close to parallel to the ground as must all four players in the middle row, not just the locks. If the Wallabies can improve in this area the props will be able to use the power coming from behind more effectively as they did in the scrum above.

I’ll touch on some of the vertical forces now but will cover the majority of that in part two. Due to the offset of players in the front row the tighthead prop has to deal with the force coming from both the opposition loosehead and hooker. The extra force on the left side of the scrum is why you mainly see scrums wheeling clockwise as shown below.

Scrum naturally wheels clockwise

Scrum naturally wheels clockwise

The opposition loosehead seeks to take advantage of the extra force being applied by attacking the tighthead. The best way for a loosehead to destabilise a tighthead is to get under him so that he can’t keep his back parallel to the ground and transfer the force from behind him to resist the forces of the two on one he’s facing. There are three steps for a loosehead to achieve this.

First, on engagement the loosehead must get his head down and under the tighthead so that the back of his head is on the tighthead’s chest. Here’s an example of Tony Woodcock doing exactly that. As you can see this manoeuvre puts the loosehead in a very awkward position angling down towards the ground.

Woodcock 1

Loosehead angles down to get head under tighthead

Second, the loosehead can’t stay in this position as they can’t transfer the force coming from behind them unless their back is on the same horizontal angle as the players in the middle row so they must use their bind and strong abdominal muscles to lift up so that their back is parallel to the ground. This lifts the tighthead up so that he is angling slightly upwards and is in a poor position to channel the force coming from behind him. The video below shows you in more detail how this is done.

Woodcock 2

Then uses bind and strong core to pull back up

Third, once the loosehead has regained their position they drive forward with their back parallel to the ground exactly as required by the laws. Because the tighthead is in a poor position to defend the force he either goes backward and stands up or folds in towards his hooker, or a combination of both.

Is this legal? No, I suppose it’s not as the shoulders are below the hips until the loosehead can lift back up so they’re driving flat. However, every good loosehead uses this technique including Benn Robinson as you can see below from the second test against the Lions.

All the best looseheads do it

All the best looseheads do it

If the opposition loosehead is successful with this manoeuvre, it’s pretty much game over – it doesn’t matter what your own loosehead does as your scrum is going backwards on your tighthead side and the scrum starts wheeling clockwise. The more your loosehead drives forward the further the scrum wheels clockwise!

Hence the importance of the tighthead prop. The reference to a tighthead holding a scrum up does not (or should not) refer to holding the scrum up off the ground, it refers to holding the right side of the scrum up where it started.

Regardless of what the law says, this is how looseheads scrummage, the referees allow it and it’s what Alexander will be faced with in the third test, so what does he need to do to counter it? He knows what the Lions will be trying to do and it’s not an option to hope the referee penalises the loosehead – that’s too much of a lottery. Good tightheads know that the best way to stop the loosehead is to attack them.

I’ll look at how a tighthead uses their body shape / height to attack the loosehead on page 2.

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Discussion

  • cheap hooker

    Love it. Makes me want to shift across the front row to LHP. Consistently the best articles on the site. Great work Scott.

  • Who?

    Fantastic as ever. I’d wondered what the infringement was, didn’t hear it clearly on tv, didn’t have a reverse angle replay. But that cleared it up beautifully. :-)

  • wilful

    Can’t read this without hearing your voice.

    The scrum shall remain an utter mystery to me. And it is not attractive for the casual viewer of the game.

  • Whiggety

    Love the analysis, but I’m a little confused… didn’t the Wallabies dominate the scrums in the second test? How many of those 15 points went to each team? And how many turn overs?

    • Pablito

      They won a couple, lost a couple and a couple were pretty even – no one dominated it in the second test.

    • Scott Allen

      Stats tell us that Wallabies won 88% on their feed whilst Lions won 57% on their feed.

      However, as with all stats you have to look beyond the headline numbers. Lions fed 7 and won 4. 2 of the 3 they lost were halfback errors where scrum didn’t even get a chance to win the ball.

      Of the 15 points scored form scrum penalties the Lions scored 9 and the Wallabies 6 so the scrum actually worked against the Wallabies.

      • Dougs

        That said, after years and years of the Wallabies being completely dominated at scrum time it’s a relief to finally get a couple of scrum wins our way, though I think the injuries to key Lions personnel have had more to do with the relative parity of the scrum contest than anything we’ve done.

        Fantastic article Scott, really enjoyed it. I was an openside flanker in my schoolboy days (never at a high level), and was always mystified by the scrum even though I was attached to the side of it. Repeatedly got an ear bashing from my prop too for not pushing hard enough, he was not satisfied with my explanation of having to make it to the breakdown first…

  • Dan Cottrell

    I wonder the difference when we go to Crouch Bind Set. The changes in height and angles will be the same but without the “hit” how much ascendency will a good prop now get?

    I think the leg shape, hip angle and shoulder-hip angle are so key – square is good but is it best?

    • Rodrigo Rezende

      I’m not a specialist but I think we’ll sorely miss that crushing hits. A big part of the magic surrounding the scrum will be lost with it

  • Jivin

    Hooper’s technique looks terrible compared to Warburton’s and even Mowen’s. Knees well in front of hips. Most of the biggest wallabies scrum fails I’ve seen have been defensive ones where the flankers seem far more interested in what the opposition backs might do than in lending a shoulder. Does it make much of a difference?

    • Scott Allen

      Yes, again will detail more on that in part two

  • Rugby_Union

    I felt that Vunipola ‘working out’ Benny A was actually illegally boring in to the scrum. Anyone else get that impression?

    • Scott Allen

      I’ll show you why that’s not what was actually happening in part two

      • Rugby_Union

        Thanks for the reply. And I will look forward to part two

  • Pablito

    This is brilliant. Far and away the most interesting analysis on any rugby site I’ve found.

    Think you will probably discuss this in part 2, but here’s another couple of takes on Sat’s scrums from Brian Moore and Dean Ryan

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/rugbyunion/international/britishandirishlionsrugby/10151333/Lions-2013-No-winners-in-this-scrum-lottery.html

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2013/jun/29/lions-tactics-board-gatland-vunipola

    • Scott Allen

      I agree with their views – will include some illustration of the issues in part 2.

  • Davy

    Why can’t the referee ensure the scrum half puts the ball in straight, that the scrum is set square and stationary and no one pushes early.

    • Blinky Bill of Bellingen NSW

      I’ve been asking the same thing for years mate.

      Seems the most common answer is ‘easier said than done’. And with that I can kind of go along with the pushing early but square and especially ‘ball in straight’ is surely do-able?

      I’ll now shut-up lest it becomes glaringly obvious that I was an 11 & 15. ;-)

    • Scott Allen

      Edict on law for feed being straight being enforced is included in conjunction with new trial laws.

      It should have been policed but hasn’t to date – hopefully they will follow through on this next season.

  • nick_bish

    Alexander is in fact an especially fascinating case. I probably have a higher opinion of him than Scott! Although he is often higher than his opposite number [with the straight right leg as Scott points out], in my opinion it is often only at the ‘touch’ command. At ‘set’ his body height has dropped and he frequently impacts on engagement in a superior position to the loose-head.

    In the next scrum from the first Test [two resets at 18:00 & 18:28 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bt7OkVn4CWc ] Alexander is in better position and through Corbisiero on both resets.

    In another example from the first rugby championship game against South Africa last year http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbKGL4bjetc at 60:58, Alexander is higher in the first part of the command sequence than ‘the Beast’ but significantly lower at impact. He really is good at getting his second step in before the loose-head and this happened two or three times in the game.

    Corbisiero is rated [by Adam Jones at least] as the best loose-head scrummager in the UK, so his return will be significant in Sydney. It promises to be a battle royal with Romain Poite, the doyen of scrum refs in charge!

  • Nutta

    Scott

    Sometimes I agree with you, sometimes I don’t. But what you are doing here is shining light for the masses where darkness should remain. For the love of God man STOP.

    For fks sake man, I’m 40yrs old, I have no speed, no ball skills and so the only reason I still get a gig is because I can do 3 things – scrum anywhere up-front, throw a lineout and maul.

    I LIKE being the only bastard in my club who knows what’s happening in a scrum. I APPRECIATE that whilst the young pups charge out to play 1st grade these days, if our No9 is getting crappy ball, or if their No8 is charging off the back because their platform is too neat, or if we need to pull a 3pointer late in the 2nd half to pinch the win then it’s ME who gets the tap on the shoulder – and I get to grizzle about it in mock antagonism whilst a few of my older colleagues nudge each other and snort about Nutta having to go out in the cold whilst we ALL dream of the days when we still had knees that worked and could actually run faster than a rampaging slug

    If you keep telling folk what’s actually going on I’ll lose 1 of my last 3 remaining arrows! And so help me if I have 1 more limp-wristed fairy-arsed back make a reference to one of your articles at training I’ll put violent hands on someone.

    So the jokes over dude. It’s been fun. But knock it off before you do any lasting damage to the mystique of playing up-front

    And by God, if you start doing expose on mauling I’m coming to find you…

    • Scott Allen

      Nice but let’s play nice and share!

      I have a mate who’s in a similar spot – can scrum, knows more than most have forgotten about scrums but due to age and lack of other skills and fitness – still playing and only occasionally gets that tap on the shoulder.

      Those bloody backs – hope some of the forwards read the articles too.

      Now on those mauls …

  • drrea81

    Great job on trying to clear up some of the dark arts. As we all know that scrummaging is a lottery and highly dependent on the referee can we get some analysis of Poite and what his scrum preferences/tendencies are???

    • Scott Allen

      Will try to get some time to look at that later in the week.

  • FatProp

    Having been fortunate enough to have a few scrum sessions coached by Andrew Blades, I can attest to the fact that he is an absolute stickler for correct setup (body height, binds, alignment etc) before the engagement. Blades’ comments were always along the lines of if that part is not done right, there is a very good chance you scrum will be smashed.

    Scott – with that in mind, any thoughts on why Deans+Blades persist with Ben Alexander? His setup is consistently terrible and he seems to operate effectively from a handicapped position before he has even engaged in the scrum. Do they think that his after-engagement power is sufficient to compensate? I know Deans is a fan of his workrate around the field, but I can’t help but be mystified with the ongoing penalty lottery that Alexander creates at scrum time.

    • Scott Allen

      I cannot help with a definite answer to this question!

      I have been at scrum sessions run by Andrew Blades I agree he is a fine technician but I haven’t seen him correct setup issues that existed in those sessions so am pleased to hear he does.

      That makes all that much stranger that Alexander isn’t either corrected or not selected. As others have pointed out he does correct himself sometimes so he can do it but does not in the vast majority of scrums he packs.

      As you obviously know, no matter how much post-engagement power you have if you have a good prop opposite you, they’ll expose you during the hit and if you are caught high, you can’t really come back.

    • kinlaw_62

      Isn’t the point that he IS right at engagement most of the time? It’s like a bowler approaching the crease or a tennis player serving. It doesn’t matter what they look like before the delivery, it does matter what they look like as they deliver the ball. Scott showed an example where he got beaten all ends up by Corbisiero, but presumably the Wallaby coaches [with all the analysis they get] feel such examples are less typical than the majority he gets right.

      • Who?

        He’s right when he wins the hit. Winning the hit’s critical for him, as his body position improves (his body height lowers) the better the hit he gets. If he misses the hit, he’s caught high and out of position. With a better starting position, you have a better chance of not being caught out of position.

        • kinlaw_62

          Presumably he can’t win the hit if his body mechanics aren’t right!? Chicken and egg…

        • Who?

          Not quite. As Alexander engages, he doesn’t drive from the bent knees, he falls forward and rotates around the hips to keep his back straight and level. So his hips get lower the further forward he gets, rather than his knees straightening as they do for many props. If he wins the race to the hit, he gets further forward, and his body position is therefore better.
          At least that’s what I’ve seen from the way he engages. Certainly open to correction.

        • kinlaw_62

          Sounds like it’s getting complicated!! Are you saying he’s doing something wrong to get the right result?

          IMO all props work out the method that suits them best over the course of their careers and I’d guess BA is no different, seeing as he’s now won 50 caps for his country.

        • Who?

          Effectively, yes. He’s doing something that, when he wins the hit, works well. But it leaves him vulnerable if he misses it – more vulnerable than he needs to be.

        • kinlaw_62

          Well I don’t think there are any props in international rugby who are allowed to recover from a poor hit nowadays – the refs jump on them too quick! So we’ll have to disagree about Alexander, but thanks nonetheless – enjoyed the convo…

  • Sydney Tom

    The Lions will have Corbisiero back in time for Sydney, and that will be a whole ball game with Poite refereeing. The great mystery is why the Lions have omitted Evans from their Test side. It would be too Welsh, with him and Faletau?

  • old weary

    Great stuff.

    One question – what has changed so dramatically since the last tour? Watching scrums from back in 2001, rarely would they collapse and penalties be given. Is it just a facet of the professional era coming through or something else? Do you think we would be able to get back to the days when games were not decided by penalties for scrum infringements that the vast majority of punters don’t really understand.

    • Scott Allen

      A lot of what has changed is the how the ‘dive’ from the loosehead to get under as part of the engagement has become a key feature of scrums.

      In part 2 I’ll show why the new trial laws will eliminate this and will fix a lot of the issues that occur in today’s scrums.

      • Jivin

        You can’t help but wonder what that’ll do to the careers of various props around the world. It may benefit Alexander’s career, for instance, if there is no hit for him to lose. Conversely it may damage Robinson’s (although I recall Al Baxter saying fatcat was very good at recovering from a lost hit). Big looseheads like Sheridan may get a new lease on life.

        Interesting times ahead for scrummaging.

        • Jivin

          Actually forget Sheridan, what’s it going to do to all those big saffer packs who’ve been contained in recent years by a reputed tendency to scrum too high?

        • Who?

          I reckon that reducing the hit doesn’t take away the importance of body height. Alexander sets up high, but he drops a long way on the hit. Reduce the hit by requiring a bind before engagement (a change which really hasn’t received much coverage, to my surprise), and there’s less room moving forward for Alexander to get low. That will be true for many taller props. If you’re setting up high and relying on the hit to get you lower, it’s likely you’re going to end up scrummaging higher, and shorter blokes like Adam Jones and Benn Robinson will continue to get better body height and find themselves in great positions to make life very awkward for their opponents.

          But hey, I’m no prop, that’s just my best guess at this stage! I did have a conversation with one of the guys who was involved with the Reds A team in the recent tournament where they trialled the law, he thought it worked well.

          And hey, under the current laws, what’s the solution that good refs use when they’re facing too many resets? They move the front rows closer. It was a Saffa ref I first heard using the term ‘temple to temple’. It’s still a hit, just not so big a hit that you hit the deck before you can bind. The new changes should fix that. It’ll beat the current situation, where half the time the packs have a big enough gap that the props can’t reach to touch, and the refs never get them to re-pack for that. Then they wonder why they have resets…

  • Lyndon Kilori Tia

    Fantastic article. Immensely helpful

  • BJ

    Question: why is the dominant scrum automatically awarded a penalty? I can’t think of any other facet of play where this occurs. You can be dominated in the lineout, breakdown, or maul without being penalised. Go backwards in a scrum and the whistle blows.

  • Trojan

    Great article Scott thanks. The frustration is that so many points result from penalties at the scrum as you say, this should not decide matches. Your comment about refs allowing the loosehead to bind that way is true but it is through ignorance, which shouldn’t happen, especially at this level, it is also dangerous and nobody should coach a looshead to start with his head below his hips, thats how necks get broken. To see Alexander start with straight legs is unbelievable for an International Prop, it usually comes from lack of fitness resulting in him not being ready for the scrum because presumably he knows better, but that can’t be true can it?

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