by DAVID BARNES
IT is easy to be wise after the fact, but the only real surprise about Scotland’s scrum woes against France last Sunday is that it was any sort of surprise at all. The writing has been on the wall since the moment it emerged that the team would be without loose-heads Alasdair Dickinson and Rory Sutherland plus tighthead WP Nel for the Six Nations.
Scotland were in the same boat during the November series, and just about got away with it, playing 20-year-old Zander Fagerson, who had 11 minutes of international experience as a late replacement against England last year, at tighthead, and the lightweight and untested Allan Dell, ordinarily third choice at Edinburgh, and who had only started eight matches for the club since moving from South Africa three years ago, at loose-head.
But the Six Nations was always going to be a major crank up in intensity.
According to the SRU, Dell has managed to pile on the best part of a stone in three months. He was listed as 16st 10lbs before November and is now apparently tipping the scales at 17st 8lbs. Which begs the question: If it has been that easy for him to bulk up then why did nobody think to get him on the Weetabix before now?
Despite this metamorphosis, Dell was still giving away more than a stone to opposite number, Tadhg Furlong, when Scotland met Ireland in their Six Nations opener a fortnight ago, and he looked like a rag doll being flung around by a bull terrier in the first two scrums. The alarm bells started ringing after just a minute when he was penalised for standing up under intense pressure; and the sense of impending doom escalated several notches when he popped out the side of a scrum to concede another penalty just three minutes later.
But Ireland didn’t ever quite get round to really capitalising on their clear advantage in this key area. When they fought their way into a really powerful position around the 12-minute mark, they twice inexplicably opted to kick a penalty almost laterally for the line-out, instead of packing down.
To Scotland’s great credit they managed to get the ball away under heavy pressure five yards from their own line a few moments later; but Fagerson was penalised for collapsing another scrum on the opposition’s ball five minutes after that. All of which added up to four scrums in the first twenty minutes from which Scotland conceded three penalties.
Astonishingly, there were only two more scrums in the whole match, in the 23rd and the 45th minutes. Ireland had the put-in for both and on each occasion they went on to score tries before the next stoppage in play, after several phases of low-risk one-out attacks.
Ireland were tactically inept, focusing on low risk ball retention in the narrow channels when their scrummaging domination should have encouraged them towards a much more fluid off-loading game safe in the knowledge that even the down-side of a knock forward gave them the not unattractive proposition of having another go at Scotland’s troubled set-piece.
Worse still, Connor Murray persistently kicked long, giving Stuart Hogg an opportunity to counter attack; whereas kicking short had a better chance of forcing a scrum from the scramble to reclaim the ball – and it did not matter a jot whether it was a Scotland scrum or an Ireland scrum.
The Scottish back row were, of course, outstanding; keeping the scrum count down by mopping up and exploiting any Irish handling errors before the referee had need to blow his whistle.
The game is changing at the behest of the professional coaches and players. Ball retention is king. Scrums are now about power and penalties rather than strength and technique. The average number of scrums in a Six Nations encounter has dropped from 24 in 2002 to 12.8 so far in this championship [according to Accenture, the Official Technology Partner of the RBS 6 Nations]; but six scrums in an international match – as happened against Ireland – is surely an anomaly.
Eight days later it was fast and furious in Paris. French instinct to offload under Guy Noves was bolstered by belief that any mishaps would only result in an opportunity to attack the Scottish scrum.
Scotland survived the first time the two packs locked horns deep inside opposition territory, when the French were content to get the ball back and clear downfield; but there was a sign of things to come when the visitors ended up back-peddling frantically on their own ball at the next scrum after nine minutes and Josh Strauss ended up knocking-on as he tried to rescue the situation at the base.
France helped themselves to a free-kick, three consecutive penalties, and then a ten-yard gain in the next five scrums – before Simon Berghan replaced Fagerson at tight-head in the 59th minute and contrary to most expectations managed to steady the ship by taking it as low as he legally could to neutralise French power.
Scotland got through the next five scrums, including two high pressure set-pieces five yards from their own line. They did concede one penalty in this period, when replacement loose-head Gordon Reid’s knee hit the ground before the French had put the ball in, but in the context of what had gone before this was a pretty a decent return during a period in the match when the game could easily have got away from Scotland – especially after the hosts had brought on Xavier Chiocci and Rabah Slimani, who are generally regarded as the best scrummaging props in the French squad.
Scotland disintegrated in the final scrum of the match in the 73rd minute, but Berghan had done enough to suggest that he can survive as Fagerson’s understudy at this level.
And so to Wales – and it is not going to get any easier.
At loose-head Vern Cotter does have some limited options in the shape of Gordon Reid, Alex Allan and Jon Welsh (who we should not forget was a pretty decent loose-head for the first 27 years of his life before he was persuaded that it was in his own and the national interest to convert to tight-head four years ago), but it seems likely that he will stick with Dell on the strength of his performances in the Autumn Tests and the hope that the torrid experiences against Ireland and France will fortify him for the Welsh onslaught.
On the tight-head, he has to stick with the constantly improving Zander Fagerson and Simon Berghan showed enough in Paris to suggest that he might at least survive at international level.
Cotter will, however, feel the need to bulk up, and sacrifices elsewhere might very well need to be made. Ross Ford for Fraser Brown is tough on Fraser Brown, but is an obvious call given Ford’s size and experience. More controversially, the Gray brothers are similarly loose and Richie might well give way to someone more suited to the heavy graft the Scottish scrum now needs, although the obvious candidate of Grant Gilchrist is still some way short of his best after two injury ravaged years.
The loss of Josh Strauss’s brute strength to mop up at the base of a back-pedalling scrum is a huge loss, and Ryan Wilson will be under huge pressure when filling that role. He might lack Strauss’ bulk but is a born competitor, and will fight tooth and nail to hold his ground.
Greig Laidlaw’s absence could prove to be a blessing in disguise. He will be a big miss in terms of game management and goal kicking – and an argument can surely still be made for his going to New Zealand with the Lions this summer to captain the Wednesday side – but both Ali Price and Henry Pyrgos have slicker services.
In the longer term, reinforcements are on the horizon. Murray McCallum – who was the Scotland Under-20 loose-head last season – is currently in the process of making the move to tight-head in the unforgiving environment of a struggling Edinburgh team – and seems to be taking the transition in his stride.
The current under-20s have come up short in both their matches so far during this Six Nations, but their scrum has been impressive in both outings, with Stirling County’s tight-head Adam Nicol a powerful force in the set-piece. He is the only home-based member of the Scottish pack not on an academy contract, having opted instead to focus on his geology degree at Glasgow University – but he still has ambitions to play the game professionally and has already turned out for Glasgow Warriors this season, when he acquitted himself well as a second half replacement against the Ospreys back in November.
Fergus Bradbury [younger brother of Magnus] is Nicol’s understudy in the Under-20s, and the 18-year-old certainly seems to have the bulk and raw power to promise a bright future – although he may chose to focus on developing as a loose-head.