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FEATURE Swashbuckling Hurricanes and Harlequins show scrum still matters

Swashbuckling Hurricanes and Harlequins show scrum still matters
1 month ago

When the Hurricanes are mentioned, scrum dominance is probably the last notion that springs to the mind of rugby’s ‘average joe’. The same would also ring true of those West London fancy dans, Harlequins. Spectacular counter-attacking tries from their own half? Oh yes. Warrior chest-thumping in the set-piece grind? Not so much.

Reliability at the set-piece has been one of the missing ingredients in a historical comparison between the Hurricanes and their great rivals from Christchurch, the Crusaders. When you think of Hurricanes icons past and present, they tend to be backs or occasionally, back-rowers: Beauden Barrett, Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, and the great man himself, Jonah Lomu; a pair of Savea brothers who could have happily swapped positions, the all-world centre partnership of an educated bull [Ma’a Nonu] and the smartest snake on the planet [Conrad Smith].

When the topic switches to the Crusaders, the focus tends to shift towards the lower numbers of the team: Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody and Chris Jack; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Matt Todd in the back-row, happily playing off the power in front of them. The Crusaders have been more solid up front, that bit closer to Test standard in the tight five. In terms of Super Rugby titles, that has translated to 10 for the red-and-black, set against the Hurricanes’ solitary success back in 2016.

The Hurricanes pack and set-piece were in impressive form during the weekend’s victory over the Chiefs (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

If the pattern is overdue for a change, the portents thus far in Super Rugby Pacific suggest it is well underway. The Canes have the best scrum efficiency in New Zealand and rank second overall behind the Melbourne Rebels. Their scrum features a 94% own-ball retention rate, a +12 penalty differential in their favour, and only four penalties conceded in the first eight rounds of competition. Any side which is averaging only 0.5 scrum penalties conceded per game will not be spending too much time in its own half of the field.

When Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson and his forwards assistant Jason Ryan cast the net nationwide for their new All Blacks of 2024, they may be surprised – as proud Cantabrian coaches – just how many of those Wellingtonian forwards shoulder their way into the discussion.

Maybe for the first time, the usual backline suspects such as Jordie Barrett, Cam Roigard [when fit] and Ruben Love will be outnumbered by forwards, with the entire front row of Xavier Numia, Asafo Aumua and Tyrel Lomax all squarely in the national frame, along with back-rowers Peter Lakai and Brayden Iose.

The criticism of Aumua has always been whether his accuracy in the tight phases can match his dynamism in the open, just like his predecessor in the capital city, Dane Coles. If Aumua wants to move from number three to number one in the All Blacks rankings, he needs to prove beyond any reasonable doubt his lineout and scrum work can be better than the men ahead of him, Codie Taylor and Samisoni Taukei’aho. With the help of Numia and Lomax alongside him, he did just that in the round eight clash against the Chiefs. The Hurricanes trio are now the most compact and formidable scrummaging front row in New Zealand.

Scrummaging begins with attitude, and a willingness to battle for the inches. The ‘cascade effect’ of the first scrum on the refereeing perceptions of subsequent set-pieces never ceases to surprise, and so it was with James Doleman at Sky Stadium.

 

It’s only about six inches of forward body flex by Lomax and the rest of his front row, but that is enough to win the penalty, the first of six awarded to the Hurricanes scrum.

Most of those sanctions occurred near the Chiefs goal-line, leading to the ever-increasing threat of a yellow card on tight-head prop Reuben O’Neill, and a succession of feeds promoting on Numia’s side.

 

If anything will leave an indelible imprint on the referee’s unconscious, it is the sight of a tight-head’s feet leaving the ground involuntarily, with the culprit left sitting sheepishly on the roof of the set-piece. By the end of the scrum, TJ Perenara was begging feverishly for a penalty try to be awarded, and he had a strong case.

Two more penalties followed before the Hurricanes finally put O’Neill out of his misery by scoring a try down the undefended short-side.

 

The power Aumua is adding in the middle should not be underestimated. In both cases he has the strength to split the bind between the strongest-scrumming hooker in New Zealand, Taukei’aho, and effectively play a two-on-one with Numia against the beleaguered O’Neill.

The next penalty advantage deep in the Chiefs’ red zone underlined how a dominant scrum can promote on one side and take the opposing back-row out of the game.

 

With O’Neill crushed in the vice between Aumua and Numia for a third time, there is nothing either Cortez Ratima or Damian McKenzie can do to stop Brayden Iose scoring from only four metres out. Penalty advantage from scrum represents a free no-risk play, and the Hurricanes later used it to convert their best try in the 57th minute. Five penalties garnered and three tries scored directly from scrum dominance is fair return by any standard.

Hurricanes head coach Clark Laidlaw and his scrum assistant Jamie MacKintosh would probably have echoed the sentiments of Harlequins director of rugby Billy Millard after the men from the Stoop had won a breathless 12-try encounter by a single point, 42-41 in the 30C pressure cooker of Union Bordeaux-Bègles’ Stade Chaban-Delmas.

“It [the scrum] was immense,” said Millard. “We are trying to look after them, as big boys in that heat, but we just couldn’t take [the starting front row] off because they were keeping us in the game. Not just keeping us in the game – they were leading the game for us.”

Like the Hurricanes, Quins are frequently perceived as a free-flowing outfit most comfortable cantering in the unstructured prairie outside set-piece. But their second and most recent English Premiership title, achieved in 2021, coincided with Quins fielding the most robust front-row in the competition, with Joe Marler and one of either Wilco Louw or Will Collier flanking Welsh scrummaging aficionado Scott Baldwin. Of course, the ‘coincidence’ was no such thing.

A generous whiff of that 2020-21 optimism returned in the boiling heat of the Gironde. All three of Marler, Baldwin and Louw may have been absent, but Will Collier was still making his presence felt in no uncertain terms.

 

 

Had they not overlapped with a generation containing England stalwarts Jamie George and Dan Cole and their 193 combined international appearances, Collier and his hooker Jack Walker would have won more than the six international caps they currently share. At the age of 32 Collier’s international number is up, but Walker is five years younger. He is one of the Premiership’s best-kept secrets and he may yet be the stabilising rock in a new cycle – one with rather more than its fair share of young footballing dynamos, such as Theo Dan and Curtis Langdon, who is only a year Walker’s junior.

It is impossible to visit one of the rugby-obsessed towns in southwest France and expect to win without a convincing scrum, and Bordeaux is no exception to that rule. When you can scrum like the Quins in those two clips, it is as if the machismo of the entire municipalité takes a hit. The psychological impact is profound and unsettling for the home side.

In both cases it is the power of Walker’s work through the bind between UBB rake Maxime Lamothe and his tight-head Ben Tameifuna which does the essential damage. As soon as Lamothe’s right arm comes off, even a man as big and powerful as the 145KG Tongan is cooked, powerless to resist the dual challenge of both Walker and young loose-head Fin Baxter on his own.

Quins won five penalties and one free-kick at the scrum overall and it stitched their effort together, not least in those critical exit situations close to their own goal-line. When reserve props Ugo Boniface and Carlu Sadie came off the bench, they came on in the same old way, and they were sent back in the same old way by the starting trifecta of Baxter, Walker and Collier as the English line held firm.

 

Just like any other area of the game, refereeing perceptions can rapidly pick up their own rolling momentum.

 

The Quins bench front row of Simon Kerrod, Sam Riley and Dillon Lewis is on the field and there is nobody obviously at fault when the scrum collapses, but the West Londoners reap the benefit of a doubt first established in referee Andrea Piardi’s mind by the men they replaced.

There are fewer scrums in the game of professional rugby than there have ever been – only one scrum set for every two lineouts and every 12 rucks in the current iterations of Super Rugby Pacific and the Investec Champions Cup – but the scrum still matters, especially at the sharp end of knockout tournament play.

The set-piece matters even more when it becomes a strength for teams whose rugby values tend to come to life in other areas of play. Neither the Hurricanes nor Harlequins have a celebrated history of set-piece dominance, but the evolution of strong scrums at both the Cake Tin and the Stoop will encourage visions of silverware at the end of the year for both. Xavier Numia, Asafo Aumua and Jack Walker may yet find themselves in direct opposition on England’s summer tour of the shaky isles – who knows?

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