EASY SCRUM, EASY GO

(L to R) WP Nel, Ross Ford and Alasdair Dickinson - Scotland front row prepare to lock horns with the French pack. Scotland v France, RBS Six Nations, Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, Scotland, Sunday 13 March 2016. ***Please credit: David Gibson/Fotosport***

THE official scrum stats did not do the Scottish pack justice on Sunday. In fact, they did the home team a grave disservice in terms of reflecting the full extent of their domination of this increasingly obscure but enduringly important facet of the game.

According to the match data provided by Accenture, Scotland had eleven scrum feeds, of which they won nine but lost two, giving them a success rate of 82 per cent. France, meanwhile, were awarded one scrum, which they won, to give them a 100 per cent success rate.

As Mark Twain once pointed out: “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” And the cold, hard reality of Sunday’s encounter is that Scotland’s superiority at scrum time provided the bedrock to the team’s success. While the flash and dash of the likes of Stuart Hogg and Duncan Taylor may have captured the headlines, there would undoubtedly have been a very different outcome without the success the home team enjoyed when the big boys at the front locked horns with each other.

Of the nine scrums Scotland won, only three concluded in the traditional manner of the ball being moved onto the next phase of play through either a scrum-half pass or a number eight pick-up. Of the other six scrum successes, four were penalties and two were free-kicks.

The first of those penalties, in the 21st minute, gave Greig Laidlaw an easy opportunity to put Scotland’s noses ahead with his second successful kick of the afternoon, after they had fallen behind to an early Gulheim Guirado’s try.

Scotland were also awarded a penalty at the first scrum of the second-half, which allowed Hogg to step forward to slot a monstrous 53 yard kick which pushed Scotland into a nine point lead, and provided a huge momentum boost with all the psychological benefits which accompany that.

The fourth scrum penalty in Scotland’s favour came in the 73rd minute and was once again well within Laidlaw’s range. The diminutive scrum-half did not need a second invitation to extend his team’s lead to 29-18 – effectively killing the game as a contest.

The bottom line of all this is that Scotland picked up nine invaluable points directly from scrum penalties. We are speaking in hypotheticals here, of course, but without those decisions going Scotland’s way, you could make the argument that the score might have been 20-18 going into the final seven minutes – and that would have been a very different game scenario.

Add into the equation the events in the 63rd minute, when the score was 21-18 to Scotland, but the home team’s energy levels were clearly waning. With France encamped deep inside Scottish territory and looking increasingly dangerous, there was a sense of growing dread spreading through the stands at Murrayfield that a three point advantage would not be sufficient unless the pressure release valve could be located and utilised at some point soon.

There was inevitably a massive sigh of relief exhaled all round the stadium when Yoann Maestri clumsily got himself offside as Virimi Vakatawa attempted to burst through the home midfield, giving the Scots a scrum under the shadow of their own posts.

The French had just replaced both props but the new boys did not fare much better than the men they had taken over from, with referee Glen Jackson immediately awarding a free-kick against the visitors for an early engagement. Hogg rifled a clever clearance right down the middle of the park, forcing opposite number Scott Spedding to clear to just short of the halfway line.

That field position provided the ideal launch-pad for the thrilling assault on the French line which ended up with Hogg’s cheeky overhead flip to the unmarked Tim Visser, and the try which took Scotland out of French reach.

The problem, of course, is that these penalties were subjective, based on the opinion of Jackson – an official whose credibility is undoubtedly boosted by his history as a high level player with Bay of Plenty, the Chiefs, Saracens and the New Zealand Maori.

While it is perhaps unfair to point out that as a former fly-half, he perhaps did not spend too much of his playing career looking closely at what the heavy boys are doing in the deepest, darkest recesses of the tight exchanges – there is no escaping the fact that asking a referee to be judge and executioner on this notoriously troublesome issue is unfair. There is too much interpretation involved.

For example, there was two resets before Jackson awarded that penalty to Scotland at the start of the second half. When the first scrum went down, the referee can be heard stating that he believes it was due to “just a slip” by Dickinson. The second collapse was on the other side of the scrum from Jackson and he states: “Far side. I can’t see what’s going on there.” Replays from various angles are inconclusive, but it seems just as likely that WP Nel slipped his binding as his opposite number, Jefferson Poirot.It would not have caused a scandal if a penalty had been awarded to either team after either of those collapses.

Jackson eventually lost patience, and awarded the penalty to Scotland after the front-rows popped up at the next reset. As a rule of thumb, the referee giving the benefit of the doubt to the team in possession has some logic, but it is not a formula a team can rely on as part of their game-plan.

Certainly, Brian Moore (the BBC match commentator on Saturday who might not be everyone’s cup of tea but has earned the right to hold an opinion on what is going on at scrum time after 65 Tests at hooker for England and five Tests on two tours of duty with the Lions) had doubts about some of the decisions which went Scotland’s way.

Whilst the overall tone of his observations on the referee was unequivocally positive, and he was generally full of praise at the way Scotland played, he did state that Alasdair Dickinson should have been penalised for collapsing a scrum under the shadow of his own posts in the 25th minute. Jackson opted to reset instead, and the Scots were able to hold strong for Hogg to clear the danger. If the French had been given the benefit of the doubt then the three easy points which were up for grabs would have put them 8-6 ahead and changed the complexion of the whole match.

And it went both ways with Moore. When Dickinson was penalised in the 49th minute for driving “down and in”, Moore disagreed strongly. He pointed out that Scotland were going forward.

“There is no reason for the Scottish loose-head, Alasdair Dickinson to turn in when he’s driving forward. If you’re straight you do not turn your body sideways – not least because it hurts and you can’t push,” he reasoned.

Those were not the only scrum decision the former hooker expressed his doubts about, and while his experience as one of the greatest front-row forwards in English rugby history does not automatically mean that he has a monopoly on the truth, it does help illustrate how a potential banana skin could lie in wait for the Scots in Dublin on Saturday.

Bitter experience tells us that it is highly conceivable that on a different day, with a different referee, the interpretation of what is happening in the deepest, darkest recesses of the scrum could very easily be entirely different.

The last time Scotland won back-to-back Six Nations games was in 2013 campaign, when (after a limp opening weekend defeat to England) they picked up a convincing 34-10 victory over Italy at Murrayfield and a tighter but even more satisfying 12-8 home win against Ireland – with a dominant scrum a key factor in both results.

The starting front-row in those days of Euan Murray, Ford and Ryan Grant [remember that guy!] would all be British and Irish Lions at some point.

Next up was Wales at Murrayfied, and the Scots went into the match with high hopes of at least matching the reigning champions at the set-piece, but they were penalised off the park by the referee [none other than Craig Joubert!], which killed the game as a sporting spectacle and completely undermined the home team’s chances of securing an unprecedented third consecutive championship win.

There was a lot of head scratching and confused looks afterwards when trying to explain why it had all gone so wrong for Scotland at scrum time.

“We tried to do what the referee wanted but every time we did, something else would happen,” said hooker Ross Ford at the time. “We’ve got a good scrum when it comes to a pushing contest. We just have to be smarter about ways teams will try and get around that.”

It should be a major concern that only three out of the twelve scrums in last Sunday’s match did not end with a penalty or a free-kick because it means that the single facet of the game which makes rugby union unique from all other sports – the contest for possession – has been reduced to little more than a lottery.

Not to mention the boredom factor of watching so many scrums being reset two or three times before the game can move on.

And it means that Dickinson, Ford, Nel and the rest of the Scottish pack will be acutely aware that while they are the cocks of the north at the moment, they could very quickly be reduced to Irish stew on Saturday afternoon if French referee Pascal Gauzere does not see things the same was as they and Jackson did last weekend.

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David Barnes
About David Barnes 1209 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.