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Saracens fan Ben Ireland analyses why the Men in Black's scrum is a weakness that needs improving
Last week I looked at the sorts of things which make the Saracens lineout function so well, bearing in mind the importance of winning set-piece possession. This week, attention turns to the scrum.
The scrum is a big bone of contention in the modern game because a) the number of resets slows the game down massively, and b) the Australians aren’t very good at scrummaging and they like to moan about it.
The fundamental purpose of the scrum is as a contested means of restarting the game after an error – so if you have a weak scrum, you will lose out on valuable possession.
In addition, nowadays there is also a high chance of penalties being conceded, and an important psychological dimension when it comes to other physical exchanges around the pitch.
It’s no wonder that tightheads, the men who anchor the scrum, are reported to be the highest-earners in the game.
Generally speaking, the aim of the loosehead prop is to be an irresistible force, and that of the tighthead to be an immoveable object.
The loosehead wants to drive his opposite number upwards, by boring his right shoulder inwards, using his left arm bind to pull the tighthead out of position, and then driving through powerfully.
The tighthead’s job is essentially to resist that, either by sheer strength, or by using his right-arm bind (often illegally) to drag the loosehead downwards and stop him from getting his own bind.
You want your loosehead to be the more explosive of the two, with the tighthead more barrel-chested with more core strength.
The loosehead is normally taller, needing longer arms to reach for the bind, and the tighthead preferably having a shorter, squatter back so he is harder to work out of position.
So, how do Sarries stack up?
Well for a start, we have players of roughly the right build, which is pretty fundamental.
Both Mako Vunipola and Rhys Gill are explosive players, but both struggle to find their left-arm binds - which isn't easy with skin-tight shirts, but is necessary nonetheless because it is an easy penalty offence.
On the tighthead side, both Matt Stevens and Petrus du Plessis are in the traditional mould and cope well, whereas Carlos Nieto tends to rely more on hi-jinks (binding on the arm, boring on the hooker).
On a purely physical level, though, our front row is not one which is likely to dominate – rather it looks a little vulnerable.
One advantage we have developed as a pack though under the tutelage of Alex Sanderson (and formerly the consultancy of Cobus Visagie) is that we scrummage low, to compensate for our lack of weight - in fact we scrummage extremely low, lower than almost any other team.
The advantage is that to match our height the opposition often have to compromise their ideal body positions (and when two sets 800+ kgs collide, ideal body positions are pretty important).
We also have a real dynamism to our scrummaging: all of our props like to cover the ground of the hit very quickly, to try and gain a short-term ascendancy; again, this compensates for our relative lack of bulk and power.
We rarely look to dominate sides. Instead we use tactics which make the opposition uncomfortable enough not to challenge us.
The problem with scrums, though, is that they rely hugely on the focus of all the front row players.
Props tend not to be the sharpest tools in the box (speaking as one myself) and this puts a lot of onus on the hooker - usually the scrum leader - to ensure that focus. The trouble is I have a feeling Mr Brits' mind is often just as errant.
This shows in the fact we lack consistency in the effectiveness of our scrums - often conceding penalties or especially free kicks, and in fact our level of ball retention (82%) is the worst in the league.
So the scrum isn't the strongest part of our game - in fact it's often something of a weak link.
But that becomes excusable when you consider the strength and efficiency of other aspects of our forward play - about which I'll talk more in the next couple of weeks.