In Part 1 of my Wallabies Fightback series I looked at the Wallabies’ first phase backline plays. I believe that a central part of the Wallabies’ game plan should be attacking more with our backline on first phase from set pieces.
It’s important that any component of a game plan links to other parts of the game plan so before the Wallabies can attack more from first phase on set pieces we need to be sure we can not only win our set pieces but win clean ball that establishes a solid platform.
In part 1 I showed the first phase set piece opportunities the Wallabies had within 60 metres of the try line in the first two TRC matches. Of the 27 opportunities I identified, seven of those came from scrums and twenty from lineouts – roughly a 1 to 3 ratio. In international rugby around 20 per cent of all tries are scored from a possession starting from a scrum whilst 30 per cent are started from a lineout – roughly a 2 to 3 ratio.
Today I’m going to look at the Wallabies’ scrum and in Part 3 of this series I’ll look at the lineout. When I started writing this piece I expected it would be relatively short but in trying to do justice to the topic it turned out to be quite the opposite. I hope you can find the time to get through the whole article and the accompanying video.
We all know that the Wallabies’ scrum has not been strong during most of the professional era. We’ve had brief periods in which the Wallabies were competitive, and even a few where the Wallabies had a dominant scrum. The last of those was in 2009 on the Wallabies end-of-year tour when Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander were the starting front row with Tatafu Polota-Nau coming off the bench. Click here to see some video highlights I put together of the front row’s performance against Wales in 2009.
In 2012 the Wallabies have obviously decided to build their scrum on keeping together the Waratahs front row combination that performed quite well in the Super Rugby competition, so we’ve seen a starting front row of Benn Robinson, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu.
In the series against Wales the Wallabies’ scrum was really poor. Benn Robinson in particular looked out of form and the Welsh dominated at scrum time. Click here to see my video analysis of the Wallabies’ scrum against Wales in the third Test.
In the two TRC matches so far against the All Blacks the Wallabies coaches have had to change the front row around to accommodate injuries. In TRC 3 Stephen Moore replaced Polota-Nau and Ben Alexander replaced Kepu. Interestingly, this brought the 2009 starting front row back together – Robinson, Moore and Alexander.
So how has the Wallabies scrum performed in those first two matches? I have to say it has continued to be poor.
Rather than look at statistics for scrums won compared to scrums lost or even which team the referee penalised, I’ve looked at scrum performance by analysing in detail each of the 35 scrums packed in the two matches.
In my opinion the Wallabies scrummaged well in only 42 per cent of those scrums. They were dominant in only 20 per cent of scrums and achieved parity in another 22 per cent. The All Blacks were dominant in 58 per cent of scrums. Add in that 22 per cent of scrums where there was parity and the All Blacks scrummaged well in 80 per cent of scrums, almost double the Wallabies’ rate.
In TRC 1 the Wallabies were dominant in two of 18 scrums (11 per cent) and achieved parity in another five (28 per cent) for a good performance rate of 39 per cent.
In TRC 3 the Wallabies were dominant in five of 17 scrums (29 per cent) and achieving parity in another four (24 per cent) for a good performance rate of 53 per cent. So there was improvement from the first match to the second, but performing well in 53 per cent of scrums is not good enough.
What contributed to that improvement? The first factor is the All Blacks’ front row – they had a significantly weaker scrum with Wyatt Crocket starting for the injured Tony Woodcock (whom I regard as the best loosehead in world rugby – he’s not a myth in my opinion). When Ben Franks came on for Crockett that situation changed, as Franks is a really good scrummager.
In determining other factors I looked at which side of our scrum performed best in each match.
In the first match when the Wallabies scrummaged poorly it was the tighthead side under most pressure – in five of the 11 scrums (46 per cent) the tighthead side was in trouble and in another three both sides were in trouble (27 per cent), so 73 per cent of poor scrums involved problems on the tighthead side.
In the second match when the Wallabies scrummaged poorly it was again the tighthead side under most pressure – in five of the nine scrums (56 per cent) the tighthead side was in trouble and in another four both sides were in trouble (44 per cent), so in every scrum where the Wallabies scrummaged poorly the tighthead side was in trouble.
Overall 17 of the Wallabies’ 20 poor scrums in the two matches (85 per cent) involved problems for the tighthead side while only seven of the 20 (35 per cent) involved problems on the loosehead side.
In each match the Wallabies conceded one tighthead and on both occasions it was the tighthead side that was the problem.
In the second match New Zealand conceded a tighthead when Andrew Hore was penalised for standing up. Unfortunately for the Wallabies this was only achieved by Ben Alexander boring in on Hore and whilst he may have got away with it on that occasion, a more observant referee would have penalised Alexander — so the fact that a turnover was achieved shouldn’t give the false impression that it offers something to build on for the future.
Another factor was an improvement in scrummaging by Benn Robinson. I still think he’s the best loosehead the Wallabies have but I believe he needs to work much harder on his fitness to regain his place as one of the best looseheads in the world.
I’ve made no secret of my views that Stephen Moore is a better hooker than Tatafu Polota-Nau by some margin based on all aspects of the game, and the differences in their scrummaging performance in the two matches again confirmed that for me.
In analysing the performances of Polota-Nau and Moore it would be easy to say that it is no coincidence that the improvement in the Wallabies’ scrum from the first match to the second came with Moore starting in the second match. I’ve looked further than just the headline numbers to see whether either hooker made a difference, either through a dominant performance or through poor scrummaging.
With the All Blacks feeding the scrum the Wallabies hooker isn’t striking for the ball – there’s no point as the ball is not fed anywhere the tunnel these days so the hooker effectively becomes a third prop. In the first match with the All Blacks feeding Polota-Nau went down on his knees in three of 11 scrums (27 per cent) and stood up on another – that’s 36 per cent of defensive scrums where Polota-Nau was a passenger in the scrum. In one scrum with the Wallabies feeding Polota-Nau was isolated and driven out of the scrum. That’s five of the 18 scrums he packed to in the match (28 per cent) where Polota-Nau scrummaged poorly.
In both matches Moore packed into 23 scrums and stood up in one scrum. That’s four per cent of scrums where he scrummaged poorly.
Observing the scrums from a distance it’s not possible to tell which scrums the hooker may have been dominant in.
Whilst I’m sure that some people will claim I’ve come up with an analysis to support my own views, I don’t see hooker as the problem area in our scrum, and Polota-Nau is a good player who should be part of the Wallabies 22 whenever he’s available.
I believe there are three problem areas for the Wallabies scrum that should be a priority for attention. The first is the fitness of the front row; the second is a lack of depth of front-rowers; and the third is at tighthead.
The fitness of the front rowers is not an issue for them alone – it’s clear that most of the Wallaby forwards are walking too often and whilst some of that may relate to a lack of mental application, it appears from watching them that there needs to be an increased emphasis on conditioning. This is of course not just an issue for the Wallabies – much of the conditioning work needs to be done whilst the players are with their Super Rugby teams. There obviously needs to be better cooperation between the Wallabies management and those of the Super Rugby teams for players who are in the Wallabies mix, so that players arrive at Wallabies sessions fit enough to play the team’s game plan.
The depth of quality front rowers in Australia is a concern. Whilst there are a number of promising prospects coming through the system it’s my view that many of them have been selected primarily based on body size and shape rather than for their technical ability. It’s great to have big, strong players in the front row but a smaller player with good technique can be even more effective. Benn Robinson is a perfect example – you’d hardly identify him for his physical size and shape yet when he’s in form his technique allows him to dominate most tightheads.
Patricio Noriega was a good scrummager but much of his scrum coaching at the Wallabies revolved around the physical requirements of the scrum. I believe the Wallabies’ last period with a good scrum at international level was a result of Michael Foley’s time as assistant coach. Foley is a very technical coach and the work he did on the technique of the Wallabies’ scrum in 2008 paid dividends in 2009. It was no surprise to me that with Foley as the forwards coach at the Waratahs, their scrum looked very good technically. If we are to establish depth in Australia’s front row stocks there needs to be a technical emphasis, and that needs to be driven by the ARU on a national basis.
The third issue I see for the Wallabies is at tighthead – the tighthead is the rock you build your scrum on. Due to the offset of the front rows a scrum naturally wheels clockwise even if all players push completely straight. This natural wheel works against the tighthead who effectively has to deal with the force coming from both the opposition loosehead and hooker. The first goal of the tighthead after the engage is therefore defensive — to hold that force and not be moved backwards. To do this he has to get a low body height and be rigid to be in the best position to resist. The first goal of the loosehead after the engage is attacking — to disrupt the tighthead so he cannot resist the force. To do this he aims to get under the tighthead and lift him enough that he is not in a good low position to resist the force. Once this occurs the tighthead goes backwards and the natural wheel takes over, which destroys the scrum.
As my numbers for the first two 2012 TRC matches show the Wallabies scrum is struggling on the tighthead side, even more so in TRC 3.
In TRC 1 and for most of the series Sekope Kepu played tighthead for the Wallabies. In the past he’s been used on both sides of the scrum by the Wallabies and as I’ve shown in a previous video analysis he struggles when playing loosehead.
In TRC 3 Ben Alexander started as tighthead and in fact played the whole game there. Whilst his form in 2009 at tighthead was good I haven’t seen that form since.
The problems for both players are, not surprisingly, technical. They are both setting up too high and not driving their hips down and through when they engage. As a result they are both caught high quite often which gives the opposition loosehead to much room to get in underneath them resulting in the tighthead not being able to resist the force coming from the opposition loosehead.
In previous articles I’ve made the point that a good scrum relies on the whole pack working together. In particular the lock and flanker on each side must work with the prop they are binding on. Both the lock and the flanker must stay bound on the prop and provide as much force as they can – otherwise the prop has no force to transfer through to the opposition.
Given the importance of the tighthead side to a stable scrum, the force provided from the tighthead-side lock is critical. This means that tighthead lock is a specialist position – you need your strongest lock on that side of the scrum – it’s not a case of players having a preference as to which side they pack on. You need to select a specialist tighthead lock who trains for that role, whereas on the loosehead side you have some flexibility in the player you select probably with more of an emphasis on lineout capabilities.
The Wallabies have a number of tighthead locks in and around the system – James Horwill is clearly the best of these, not just in terms of his scrummaging but for his lineout work and general play. With his absence through injury Nathan Sharpe and Sitaleki Timani have filled the role in 2012. Rob Simmons is not a tighthead lock so whilst the choice between Timani and Simmons generates plenty of discussion, Simmons will only make the starting team if a specialist tighthead lock is available. I’ve seen no difference between Sharpe and Timani as tighthead locks in 2012 when it comes to scrummaging. Whilst much has been made of the tighthead that the Wallabies conceded in TRC 1 when Timani was off the field and Simmons was on, it was actually Sharpe who packed at tighthead lock in that scrum, and whilst it was the tighthead side of the scrum that was the problem as you’ll see in the accompanying video, it was Kepu that was the problem, not the lack of force coming from behind him. I haven’t seen any evidence of problems with our tighthead locks’ work in the scrums in 2012. The issues on the tighthead side have all been as a result of the tighthead prop.
In the accompanying video I’ve shown how the body height and body shape of both Kepu and Alexander has been poor. These issues can be addressed through better flexibility and conditioning to allow the prop to start with his hips in a lower position. Conditioning work can also improve the players’ core strength which is crucial in resisting the force coming through from the opposition prop.
However, the biggest issue is technical – no matter how much force comes through from behind him the prop cannot transfer that force to the opposition if he cannot maintain a flat back. With an arched back the force does not go through to the opposition, it goes downwards and is wasted. Both Kepu and Alexander have the same technical problem in this regard. It can be fixed (and in a relatively short period of time) but it takes plenty of hard work and commitment to maintain a good body shape in every scrum.
In my opinion Alexander can improve his technique but he is not really a tighthead and should not be selected in that position for the Wallabies. Similarly, Kepu is not a loosehead and shouldn’t be selected in that position for the Wallabies. James Slipper is someone who can play both sides but I think he should be considered a tighthead who can play loosehead – he is probably the best bench option the Wallabies have in the system. Of course in 2013 the Wallabies will have to select a full front row on the bench under the coming experimental laws so this will change the dynamics again.
Given the importance of the tighthead side of the scrum I believe you have to select the best technical prop you can on that side of the scrum – for me that’s Dan Palmer, and I hope once he’s back from injury he’s given the role.
Get it right on the tighthead side of the scrum and you can build a platform to attack from – then if you can’t score a pushover try, release the backs with first phase plays from the scrum.