The week of a Six Nations game invariably relies upon the perceived area of greatest weakness in the opposition for lively debate. When Ireland and England go through that process, you can be sure the scrum comes up for mention.
In Twickenham last February, the lack of tight head cover was exposed when Mike Ross had to leave the field in the 36th minute and Tom Court was shoehorned into a position he isn’t comfortable in. England destroyed the Irish set-piece and won the game 30-9.
All but three of England’s points came directly from the scrum.
For a set of forwards, dominance at the scrum really lays down a marker for the whole game.
The new rules allowing two props on the bench will help Ireland; David Kilcoyne looks like a real star in the making and is brilliant backup for Cian Healy. The problem is that with BJ Botha, Nathan White and John Afoa being the first choice tight heads for their provinces, Irish-qualified players in the position are short on game time.
Michael Bent, fast-tracked into the system, has so far struggled to get to grips with the northern hemisphere style of scrummaging, which is far more technical and challenging than the southern approach. Declan Fitzpatrick is our back up and while he stepped up to the mark in the first test in Auckland on the summer tour when Ross was injured he has had very little game time this season due to injury.
Word from England is they will start Dylan Hartley at hooker in an effort to target the Irish front row and gain a psychological and tactical advantage there. Hartley is a decent scrummager but no better than Rory Best, who is technically very good. It’s a big blow to England that they are missing Alex Corbisiero at loose head, who is a much stronger scrummager than his replacement Joe Marler.
Marler is brilliant around the field and was in the academy at Harlequins when Mike Ross was playing in the senior side. This is the weekend he looks to come of age.
Ireland have made a lot of progress under their scrum coach Greg Feek. He is not just concerned with the props and hookers, he focuses on everybody working together, especially on timing. Whereas a few years ago everybody was striving for maximum “speed of engagement”, most top class scrums now understand the importance of unity at the point of contact more than speed. They seek to arrive as 8 (900kg) v 6 (775kg) because if you do that it’s irrelevant if they arrive a bit faster — you’ll still be able to resist the hit and be in a better body position and more stable for the remainder of the scrum. If you watch both scrums on Sunday, the one dominating will be the one with everyone’s feet on the ground and everybody moving in sync.
While a successful scrum is a unit issue, the tight head is the key man and Ross is a brilliant tight head. The tight head position is very difficult because he has to scrum against two people — both the hooker and the loose head. The job of the tight head is to ‘sever the connection’ between the loose head and the hooker on the opposition. If you think about this logically, it’s impossible to beat two men in a straight-up battle, so you just use technique and intelligence to overcome your opponents. It’s also key for the tight head to understand his role with the rest of the scrum. It helps that Healy and Ross play together for their club. Ross is famous for his work in the video room, analysing opposition scrums and devising strategies to counteract their strengths and expose their weaknesses. He has a database on his iPhone of all the props he has played against. He updates it after every game. He is also excellent at thinking on his feet and reacting to change mid game, even mid-scrum. Ross will try to put all his force down Marler’s right side and in the process he will separate him from his hooker which will make it a one-on-one contest.
He has what every good tight head needs, and that’s experience. His bad days have nourished the good days. The scrum battle will be massive on Sunday and both sides may have the ascendency at certain times but if Ross avoids injury, our scrum will provide Ireland with enough ball to win.
Picture: THE VITAL COG: The bad days have nourished the good days for Mike Ross; his scrum performance will be vital to Ireland’s hopes against England. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
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