As you can see in our 2009 highlights package, we’re pretty frikken proud of our Wallaby scrum. Minus a few dodgy ref calls earlier in the season, they’ve taken apart nigh on all-comers, blooding a brand new tight head prop along the way. But how can we quantify how well they’re doing? Below are some pretty fascinating stats, within which lie a few tales.
The stats come from Gary Gold’s blog Rugby IQ. Gary’s the Springbok Assistant Coach and ex forwards coach of the Stormers. He writes an excellent post, backed up with stats and reasoning that really gives you an insight into how these guys are viewing the game. Even if I don’t agree with that vision.
In his latest post Facing the Real Problems, Gary reasons that in the average test match there are, per team; 60-70 breakdowns, 65-75 ball carries, 30-40 kicks in open play, 17-20 lineouts, 85-95 tackles, and only 8-10 scrums. On top of this, 50% of tries are scored on turn-over ball, which leads him to say:
“Do you see now what I am getting at? Do you see which areas significantly affect the outcome of a match and those that do not have as significant a bearing, although all are still incredibly important?”
In other words “in the big scheme of things, scrums are the least of our problems” (my paraphrasing).
As an Australian reading this, a wry smile creeps across my face. Surely the Wallaby team for the majority of the noughties provided the controlled experiment that proves this Eddie Jones-esque logic tragically flawed. Gold accepts that being dominated in the scrum is a physical and psychological blow. See the Aus v Eng 2007 RWC QF debacle as a perfect example.
However, there’s another reason why I believe Gary really wants to think hard before going down this route; in a word – reputation. For in many failed scrums it’s a crapshoot as to what’s gone wrong, and refs watching it in real time with a single viewing thank their lucky stars when one team’s poor past performances are of such public note. It’s taken at least 3 years and the jettisoning of experienced personnel for the Wallabies to start to shift the mantle of “weak scrum”. If the Boks don’t mind it, they are more than welcome to it!
Having minimised the scrum overall, Gary then gets stuck into what are truly a fascinating set of stats (below).
You can read his take on the Saffa scrum stats in his blog, but here’s what he has to say on the Wallaby scrum:
“Significantly, however, we (South Africa) are second on the list in terms of actually getting the ball out – i.e. the least re-sets. Of course, it’s nothing to boast about, but it does show just how small the margins are in international rugby, yet it is significant that Australia are clearly the worst. This suggests, as has been suspected for years, that Australia are perennial scrum collapsers should they not get the hit they require, and have the most resets.”
What he’s looking at is the % reset stat on the Wallabies own ball, which says that about 31% of Wallaby scrums are reset, versus an average of just over 20% across all nations (it’s misleadingly worded). It won’t surprise you to know that I see it differently to Gary’s interpretation.
With the Wallaby scrum having become so much stronger over the past two seasons, my contention is that few opposition scrums can handle the power that the Wallaby pack is exerting, at the height it’s exerted. So many times this season we’ve seen the opposition tight head collapse, legs splayed backwards. Or the loosehead crumpled, with head bent over into his chest. In the first case they’ve overbalanced forward and lost their footing, in the second they’ve not been able to hold their back-hip alignment at that height.
Why do they do this? As a prop, if you allow a scrummager like Benn Robinson to get under you, you’re gone. His short powerful legs and rod straight back, with a timed shove from the rest of the Wallaby pack, will either force you to stand straight up or simply lift you off the ground. There were plenty of examples of these outcomes over the season, probably none better than the flying lessons Fat Cat gave John Smit.
But if you’re not believing your eyes (see the video at the bottom) and my reasoning for the strength of the Wallaby scrum, look at the opposition scrum stats. The Australian scrum comes only second to France in the proportion of scrums won against the feed, at 12.8%. Even more significantly, across all of the nations in this table, there are only 4 tight heads won, and the Wallabies took 3 of them. (Interestingly, South Africa seems to have taken the mantle of “serial scrum wheelers”, a weaker scrum tactic?)
Unfortunately though, pre-conceptions take time to dispell, and the meantime the impact is huge. In the “Own Ball” stats above, Australia loses the highest percentage of own-ball scrums, at 12.2%. This deficit comes from the Wallabies having the highest proportional penalty and free kick rate against them of any team, driven by 11 full or bent arms.
Where did they come from? In just 3 tests this year – against France and then New Zealand in Auckland and Sydney – Al Baxter was penalised 6 times. We’ve previously discussed how these were more driven by perception than reality, but the statistical reality is that with 6 fewer penalties, Australia’s own scrum loss rate falls to just 6.1%, second behind Italy, who has 4.9%. You can see why Al stayed at home this spring.
In post tour interviews it was good to hear Benn Robinson describe the Wallaby scrum as a “work in progress”, because indeed it is. But for me, one of the most seismic shifts for the Australian scrum this season was from presumption of guilt, to a presumption of innocence from referees. We’ll take it, even if Gary won’t.