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Analysis: Ireland and England's scrum battle bodes well for the Lions

It was a true back-and-forth contest in Dublin on Saturday evening.

WE PROBABLY SAW the core of the Lions front rows on display at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Tadhg Furlong and Dan Cole will be the Test tightheads, but deciding who starts and who is on the bench is going to be an incredibly tough call.

On the loose side, Jack McGrath, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola will all likely tour, while Rory Best, Dylan Hartley and Jamie George are the hooking contenders along with Ken Owens of Wales.

Ireland’s Jack McGrath Cian Healy Tadhg Furlong and John Ryan after the match Ireland's quartet of props after the win over England. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Three of those four will probably be selected initially and, as is often the case during tours, the remaining man will be called upon at some point. All of these outstanding players made for an absorbing scrum contest at the weekend as Ireland hosted England on the final weekend of the Six Nations.

It was back and forth; Furlong got the better of Marler in a couple of first half drives, before Marler gave it back with interest to the Leinster man.

McGrath looked to have the slight edge on Cole, before the Englishman got on top when Cian Healy came off the bench.

On occasion, both sides were taking liberty with their angles, boring in across players, but it made for a fascinating battle.

To start with, we’re going to look at the issues England had with their hooking. It was something we flagged up before the game, and on a number of occasions their scrum stalled because of their struggle to get the ball back to Billy Vunipola’s feet.

Unlike during their game against Scotland, this time England tried to pre-hook the ball, something Ireland do to great effect. This involves the hooker lifting his leg before the ball is fed, with the scrum-half placing it in behind it. It’s not legal, but referees have long since given up penalising it.

We can see below how Ben Youngs taps Hartley’s hand with the ball to let him know to be ready, and to lift his foot. This is something he only did occasionally against Scotland.

1 initial

And on that trigger, Hartley brings his right leg forward so that Youngs can drop the ball in behind it, allowing him to hook to the back row.

1 foot up

On this occasion it was a strong hook, and England retained possession quickly, but on several occasions they really struggled to navigate the ball’s passage to the back row.

Later in the half it was an issue, and the poor hook led to the Irish scrum putting them under pressure, and in turn England were on the back foot, coughing up a turnover from a choke tackle.

We can see below again how Youngs taps Hartley on the shoulder to give him the signal, and that Hartley brings the leg up. But on this occasion it looks quite rushed, with Hartley appearing to try hook his leg back before the ball has arrived in the scrum. He didn’t look comfortable.

6 feed

Ireland take advantage, with both McGrath and Furlong doing well. If we start on McGrath’s side, we can see how he and Cole line up together initially, with both square, straight and steady.

6 initial

But with England having issues with the put-in, Ireland take advantage, and McGrath’s excellent drive puts Cole on the back foot. We can see how he’s slightly off balance, with his right foot just off the ground, and as a result his weight transfers onto his left.

6 cole foot

It causes Cole to turn in slightly, but he does remarkably well to remain on his feet and not give away a penalty.

On the other side of the scrum, Furlong attacks the gap between hooker Hartley and loosehead Marler, splitting the two players.

He forces Hartley to pop up into the air and lose his bind on Cole, as we can see below. We can’t see the angle of his drive but, given the direction the scrum moved, there’s a good chance he angled in across Hartley illegally.

6 hartley pop

The hooking issues continued. Sometimes the ball would come in and out swiftly, but on other occasions, it got caught up.

The problem England were having is that if they threw the ball directly into the second row, they still had to drive Ireland slightly back to allow the ball reach the back row. And on some of the occasions when they tried to hook it, the hooker’s strike was either too weak to send it fully down the channel, or the channel wasn’t kept clear.

In the example below, Youngs has just fed the scrum, but once again it gets caught behind the loosehead’s feet before stopping dead. Watch the time on the clock – 47:22.

10 reset feed

A full six seconds later (which is a long time to be scrummaging), the ball is still sitting at Mako Vunipola’s feet, trapped in the same position. England are trying to walk over it, Ireland aren’t budging.

Eventually, Billy Vunipola reaches in and pulls the ball out, stretching so far in that he could have a future calving cows.

10 billy the vet

Mako Vunipola was lucky he didn’t concede a penalty later in the game, as he collapsed a scrum while trying to step over a ball that failed to get through the channel.

Below, we can just see the tip of the ball inside the yellow circle, just poking out behind Vunipola’s left leg.

13 ball stuck

With the ball trapped under his feet, he tries to move in at an angle, which would allow the second and back rows to stand over the ball and retrieve it. He collapses onto his knees, but with the ball available referee Jerome Garces lets play go on.

13 mako collapse

Compare the above struggle with a typical example of Ireland’s scrum, which we see below.

Best gets the tap and lifts his foot up, but his strike is consistently perfect and there is always a clean channel for the ball to pass. It moves through the scrum like a rocket.

4 feed

Of course, turnovers will be conceded on occasion, but it’s rarely down to a struggle getting the ball to the number eight.

We saw earlier how Furlong disrupted England by splitting Marler and Hartley, but that was the second time in the game he managed to do it.

On the first occasion, it actually backfired on Ireland. As we can see below, the Irish scrum starts moving forward rapidly, with CJ Stander struggling to keep the ball at his feet, eventually getting turned over.

2 full

We’ll look at James Haskell’s role soon, but first we’ll look at Furlong.

It’s difficult to get a clear picture, because he’s on the far side, but the first idea we can get of some disruption is when Hartley and Niall Scannell begin to slowly pop up.

2 hookers

And as they advance forward, we get an idea why. You can see below how Furlong’s body is almost parallel to Scannell and McGrath, shearing right across the English front row.

2 furlong

With the Irish scrum moving forward quickly, that made the ball difficult to control for Stander at the back of the scrum, with Haskell eventually turning it over.

However, it’s hard to see how he was allowed do it.

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If we freeze it below, Haskell breaks from the scrum incredibly early.

By this stage, Ireland have only just started to get a nudge on England, the ball has just landed at the feet of CJ Stander, and Garces hasn’t even told Kieran Marmion to use it.

2 haskell disengage

Haskell will probably claim that the ball was out of the scrum when he eventually steals it, but as it’s happening, Garces can be heard to shout “Use it! Use it” at Marmion.

Telling Marmion to use it would imply the ball is still very much in the scrum.

Furthermore, even if Garces was happy that the ball was out, it’s baffling how he allowed Haskell to roam an acre offside to steal it.

2 haskell robbing ball

Despite Furlong getting the nudge on Marler above, the England loosehead gets one back later in the half.

For reference, we’re going to look at where they start from, just inside the English half, with the yellow line marking the centre of the scrum.

8 initial

England march Ireland back, before the scrum starts to wheel on Furlong and Marler’s side.

We can just about see how Marler still has a long bind on Furlong, while his head appears to still be outside Furlong’s body, which would imply that he’s driven straight.

8 marler

McGrath may have marginally got the batter of Cole (it was very close!), but Cole was certainly on top against Healy when he came on in the second half, winning a big scrum penalty off him in the English 22.

12 near side.gif

It’s an outstanding drive from Cole. He keeps his back and head at the same height, pushing in small steps off his front studs.

You can see how Healy is struggling initially, with his bind short, and his elbow pointing to the ground.

12 healy bind

Eventually the pressure is too much, and his bind and knee drops.

12 healy collapse

If you were scoring the scrums from this game, you’d probably score it a draw.

Ireland won their ball back easier, while England were more explosive when they got the opportunity.

And with the bulk of those front row players set to travel on the Lions tour, it bodes well for them having a real crack off an average New Zealand scrum.

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About the author:

Neil Treacy

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