SCOTLAND hooker Fraser Brown broke rank yesterday and admitted the bleeding obvious: that top level professional sport is not played strictly within the Corinthian spirit, and that teams go into matches looking to bend – and maybe even break – the rules in order to get the upper hand.
The omnipresence of media managers and PR gurus in the modern game is such that it is increasingly rare for a player to say anything which might be construed as off-message, but when asked about Fijian skulduggery last week at maul time, and the possibility that there might be some more this week, Brown gave a refreshingly frank and honest answer.
“There are so many things for referees and officials to try and spot,” he said. “If you can get it set up and be very dynamic there, then it is very hard for other teams to stop it legally. The difficulty for referees is where that balance is between teams living on the edge when trying to stop it, and being illegal.
“I think at the weekend we could have had a penalty try at one of those mauls,” he continued. “That’s the referee’s interpretation – which is the same across the whole of the pitch. You can sit here until you’re blue in the face arguing about decisions one way or the other. The important thing is that when the referees have dialogues with the coaches and players before, during and after the game, that it comes across really clearly why they’ve made the decision. If there is a clear reason given, then you can’t really argue with that.
Turning his attention to this weekend’s clash against South Africa, he said: “They’ve got a strong maul, we’ve got a strong maul, both of us will have strong set-piece defence – you’re just looking to have a fair competition in all areas. They’ll try and cheat, and we’ll try and cheat, and whoever comes out on top will probably win.”
Brown added that he and his team are not particularly concerned about the fact that the Scotland pack will be outweighed by the Springboks.
“It’s interesting, it’s a stat people like to pull out about the weights of the packs – but it’s how you use it, to be honest,” he said. “Our tactic at the weekend was to move Fiji around and try and be more clinical in areas like scrum and maul, and try to exploit weaknesses we had identified during the week.
“It will be no different this week. We’ll review South Africa and there will be certain areas we look to exploit them, whether they’ve got a big pack or not. We’re focusing hard on our own technique and tactics and how we can utilise our skills best.
“South Africa is always a massive challenge up front – but also across the whole park. They are the most physical team you can play and that has to be matched from one to 23. It is not just a forward battle, it is going to be a big battle in the centres and out wide as well – a different type of challenge to last week.
“I watched the last 20 minutes of it [their game against France last Saturday] and I’ve seen bits and pieces while reviewing this week. It was an interesting and good game. Both teams had opportunities to win it, but South Africa were really clinical in injury time, they executed three line-outs, got penalties and then they got over the line. It was a physical game – South Africa went pretty direct in that last 20 minutes to try and get the win, and they were successful in the end.”
“It is a sign of a good team that can come back and win games from situations that the don’t look like they are winning from. South Africa have been to New Zealand and won this year, and arguably they could have won back-to-back when New Zealand played in South Africa. They could have won at Twickenham and they had a big battle this week against France.
“They are playing a brand of rugby that is more synonymous with how South Africa used to play than in the past four or five years, with very powerful carries up front, real tempo. Up front, we know what his coming – good scrum, good maul, good set-piece and big powerful runners, so we’ll have to look at how we try take away their gain-line and momentum.
“Then, in attack, it will be about how we generate quick ball for ourselves. We know what’s coming and we have prepared well for it.”
A stat has been doing the rounds on social media this week that in 246 Test matches played by Scotland between 1992 and 2017, the hookers scored just 14 tries, while in the last 16 matches when Gregor Townsend has been in charge they have managed 15 tries, with Stuart McInally grabbing five, George Turner getting four, and Brown and Ross Ford on three each.
Brown scored on Saturday, and was very close to claiming a brace but his close range breenge was chalked off because of a Jamie Ritchie obstruction.
“You always want to score but it is the referee’s interpretation,” he reflected. “The TMO came in and wanted to check and sometimes that is just the way rugby is. Sometimes you will score when it wasn’t a try and sometimes you will get it chalked off when it could have been.
“We’ve got a good maul and set-piece which gives opportunities for hookers to score tries at the back of that, because that’s the way it’s set up. We have dangerous guys all over the field and the way we play rugby creates opportunities for people to score tries,” he added.