How English game plans to fix its scrum problem

Players compete for the ball in a scrum during the Six Nations international rugby union match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium in south-west London, on February 10, 2024

The recent move to regenerate some of the atmosphere around the Twickenham matchday experience was admirable, so you can imagine the organisers screaming into their hands as another slow scrum last week left those in attendance with enough time to wonder what to have for dinner.

Having said that, we are only a few months removed from one of the most exceptional scrummaging performances in recent memory by South Africa to win their Rugby World Cup semi-final against England, flipping the whole contest on its head. In the big moments the set-piece can now matter more than ever as highlighted last week by England’s tighthead Dan Cole, who at the age of 36 has participated in more scrums than you have had hot dinners.

“In international rugby there are less scrums but they are of higher importance, which is why teams do not want to give an inch there, and you have seen in the first couple of weeks of the tournament they can sometimes be a bit messy and slow,” Cole says, arguably being kind.

“I know the reaction over the first couple of weeks of the Six Nations hasn’t been great, but obviously [the scrum] can be a massive turning point in the game. Look at the world champions, for instance, and how they use their scrum.

“It’s tough, because every scrum is heightened. You are playing international rugby and so you are not going to be playing against any mugs; everyone knows what they’re doing and everyone is good. It’s trying to maximise that. I know there is a lot of debate around the scrum and it is about making it as competitive as possible within the role of the game.”

Keeping the polarisation of the Springboks’ dominance and the scrum snoozefest at Twickenham in mind, when better to learn more about how the Rugby Football Union is preparing the front-rowers of the future.

Nathan Catt is England’s pathway scrum coach, working with both men’s and women’s age-groups, and also part of the England ‘A’ coaching staff for the game against Portugal at Mattioli Woods Welford Road. A 12-year veteran in the Gallagher Premiership with Bath, making 170 appearances, Catt’s job is now to mould the props of the future.

When front-row prospects come into the Under-18s set-up for the first time, Catt and the coaching staff are looking for three key components. The first is the potential for size and strength, which seems obvious enough. Then there is mindset; the fight to compete and dominate collisions. The final element is skill acquisition – how quickly can they learn. One notable quality missing from that list? Technical ability.

“Personally, I don’t think they need to be unbelievably great scrummagers at under-18s. We can teach them that over the next three years. The important part is those physical and mental characteristics,” Catt explains to Telegraph Sport. “When you get to school level you take your best ball-carrier and stick them at No 8. So, by the time you get to under-16s, under-17s, all the best forwards are at No 8 - mobile ball-carriers, the most abrasive players who influence the game the most.

Dan Cole, Jamie Blamire and Joe Marler scrummage during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on August 01, 2023 in Bagshot, England
Dan Cole: a true scruammaging veteran - Getty Images/David Rogers

“Then you realise that actually, while they might be a very good player, they might be an average back row who will not make the cut there but they could be a really good front row. Potentially, they will not get to 6ft 2in and won’t run the 100 metres in 11 seconds - but maybe they can run it in 13 seconds and weigh up to 116, 117 kilograms (around 18 stone). They could be a really good front-row forward - and pretty much most of the elite front-row forwards now are ex-back-rowers in this mould, particularly the looseheads and hookers.”

Ellis Genge, the England vice-captain, is a perfect example of that evolution from back row to front row, having made the move at the age of 16. It means that even at national level at under-18s, occasionally coaches are dealing with raw front-row prospects “learning on the job” and “starting from scratch”, as Catt puts it.

The under-18s is about “general scrum understanding and shape”, before skills are refined at under-20 level. Few props in the latter age bracket are regulars in the Premiership, with Sale’s exciting Asher Opoku-Fordjour a notable exception. Once the shapes are sorted, front rows can focus on “tactics and problem-solving”.

Will a monster French or South African pack not just wreck any carefully planned strategies? Well, yes. “Ultimately, if you have a 100kg prop against a 130kg prop, and one squats 120kg and the other squats 240kg, there is going to be a point where technique probably doesn’t matter that much because they are just too much bigger and stronger,” Catt admits. “The higher the level you go, everyone’s technique is pretty good. It’s the smaller nuances.”

For Catt, his scrummaging success stemmed entirely from perfecting his shape before the engagement. He would watch tape of Marcos Ayerza, the great Leicester and Argentina prop, and try to replicate him. Then, after a strong performance of his own, Catt would take clips of his best scrums and use those as a benchmark.

Ellis Genge of England runs with the ball whilst under pressure from Tommy Reffell of Wales during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on February 10, 2024 in London, England
Ellis Genge moved to the front row aged 16 - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

“When I had a bad scrummaging performance, I could then revert back to my best [efforts] and see whether my foot was too far forward or my elbow was too low, whatever the part was which was wrong compared to me at my best. As you get used to your set-up and process, you are much better at feeling if you have got it slightly wrong.

“In a game, a tighthead might be rolling and it can take you 60 minutes to work out how to fix it. Even if it goes horrendously, you build up the repertoire to know how to handle that experience again.”

A current training week for the under-20s consists of reviewing and previewing on the Monday, with front rows working in one-on-one or three-on-threes while the rest of the pack do weights and resistance exercises to build up “a ‘spirit level spine’, that perfect scrummaging body shape” as Catt puts it. On Tuesday the intensity goes up to 50 per cent, and by Wednesday the pack come together and are into live scrums - crucially eight-on-eight rather than simply against the scrum machine. Catt explains: “I don’t know how well the machines replicate the actual eight-on-eight, just because of the binds and the foot movement. I personally think body on body is better now.”

Obviously, Catt loves scrums as much as anyone, yet like Cole he also sympathises with the public. “I completely get when you are watching three resets, you have been sitting there for five minutes and nothing has happened.”

And yet as Cole and Catt both emphasise, scrums have never been more important, providing “a genuine contest where there is no hiding” that can “obviously decide matches”, as Catt puts it. For that reason we should try to enjoy them. Just (safely) make them a touch faster, please.

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