Scrums on the rugby field are an iconic image of the game and the work of The Front Row Club was the theme of my coaching column in RugbyMag in 2012.
As a former hooker I have insider knowledge of this set piece play and the article tried to help those new to the game get an understanding of some of the advantages that can be gained from this type of restart.
The hooker and two props are collectively known as the Front Row Club. Anyone who has ever played in any of these three positions is automatically a member. It is an exclusive club where the “dark arts” are performed at scrum time.
Scrums are far more than simply a pushing contest. They are a test of strength, speed and technique. A powerful and technically sound front row is an extremely valuable asset to any rugby team. Conversely, a weak and unstable front row can seriously undermine a team’s winning aspirations.
Front row players provide the steady platform of the scrum from which backs can launch attack plays. It is almost impossible for a flyhalf to plan effective attacks from retreating scrums. If your scrum is going backwards, the ball will not travel back to the No. 8’s feet quickly. Instead the ball will get tangled up in boots and legs that are in the process of walking backwards. The No. 8 and scrum half will struggle to get the ball out of the scrum, while the front row is under increasing pressure and all they want is the ball out and the scrum over.
The enjoy forwards who advance at every scrum and work as a unit to dismantle their opponents will enjoy a huge psychological boost. This can have a massive impact on any game of rugby. This is the reason that scrums always have been and always will be a big feature in the sport of rugby. Every scrum issues a challenge to both front rows. It is certainly not a time for forwards to “switch off” and take it easy. It is a personal and collective test. Props must have the mind set of they will not be beaten. They will not take a backwards step and that they will not back down.
Only when you have a dominant front row can your team really enjoy the huge benefits that go with this. On the other hand, should your team be lacking up front, things can go horribly wrong.
The Six Nations Rugby Tournament 2012 showed how vital scrums are to a team. Wales were crowned Grand Slam Winners by the virtue of the fact they beat every other team. My native Ireland were handed a stern lesson in the importance of front row play, by England, at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day.
Ireland’s tighthead prop, Mike Ross was injured early on in the game. Tom Court replaced Ross. Court mainly plays loosehead prop but was forced to play tighthead due to Mike Ross’ injury. This matters.
Tight head prop is the most technically difficult position to play on a rugby team. A loosehead prop simply cannot assume the role of a tighthead and expect to have an easy ride. (Not that Tom Court thought like that.)
Ireland’s front row and scrum disintegrated, resulting in nine penalties against them, including one penalty try. This, in turn, handed the result to England who produced a powerful and technically superior front row performance. The defeat also highlighted a significant problem for Irish rugby. There is a severe shortage of tighthead props.
Here Martin Castrogiovanni one of the World’s best tighthead props explains the importance of body position.
Working as a tight unit, a front row that technically and physically overpowers the opposition front row can dictate the game. Front rows that retreat backwards, usually pop up out of the scrum. This is a penalty and referees will penalize scrums that are under pressure. Having the ability to extract a penalty from your opponents almost at will, ensures at least good field position, three points on the scoreboard, or at best a penalty try. Dominant front rows can have devastating impacts on games and leave the score in no doubt. My former Leicester Tigers teammate, Dan Cole, was England’s tighthead prop that weekend and deserves plaudits for his impressive powerful and technical scrummaging display.
As a former front row player, I really enjoy watching good scrum displays. One of the most important features of having a strong front row is being able to provide your backline with optimum attacking angles. Depending on the location of the scrum on the pitch, the fly half will plan an attack play. If the scrum is on the right hand side of the pitch, ideally, the flyhalf will want his loose head prop to advance a few steps in the scrum. This is very important. If the loosehead prop on the attacking team can drive the opposite tighthead back a few steps, this will create an angle in the scrum. The scrum cannot turn more than 90 degrees but anything up to this is allowed.
By creating this angle the loosehead prop has ensured that his openside flanker and No. 8 can get off the scrum very quickly and be directly involved in the ensuing play. The opposition back row is in trouble. Their tighthead prop has taken a few steps backwards. The back row players are further away from play and will be slower to the next phase of play than the attacking back row. Back row players are big tacklers and are expected to tackle anything to the inside of the flyhalf. If they cannot get to that position as a result of an angled scrum, that provides a perfect attacking opportunity for the ball carrying team.
What may seem like a very small part of the game can play a significant role in the result.
Hookers set the height of the scrum. It is important to set a low height. All front row players bend into a powerful, squat like position, ensuring that your feet are under your body and that your hips are low, with your back straight. The speed on the “engagement” call is critical. Front rows cannot pre-empt the “engage” call but they must try to beat their opponents to the contact. This will automatically give the attacking front row the platform they need to get their binds up and their feet planted underneath them. Props must ensure that they chase their feet on the engage call.
You can generate no power with outstretched legs. There is a fine line between pushing before the ball comes in and generating forward momentum upon engagement. If one front row is very dominant in the scrum, ideally, the hooker should seek to have the ball played into the scrum immediately on contact and the pack can simply walk over the ball.
Props, especially tight heads are a valuable commodity in world rugby. The highest paid player in England’s Aviva Premiership is in fact a tighthead prop. This highlights the value placed on a sound scrum and set piece.
I have been asked many times, what other athlete would make a good prop? Without a doubt, I believe wrestlers make ideal props. Wrestlers fully understand the value and importance of incorporating strategic technique to overpower their opponents. Props are the same. Technically, they must know the best positions for their binds, their head, their shoulders and their feet. All of these body parts play a decisive role in weakening opposition front rows.
It takes years of practice and experience to fully understand the nuances of scrummaging as a prop. It is very technical but of fundamental importance to any rugby team.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com