Monday 25 September 2017

'Tight' five go on wonderful adventure

Hugh Farrelly

IT is one of the most testosterone-driven activities in sport, but the scrum has always depended on male closeness to be truly effective.

It is all about bonding and binding. The props reach around and behind to get as close to their hooker as possible, the second-rows join up at the hip and put their free arm through the legs and over the groin of the prop in front, while simultaneously forcing their head between the thighs of prop and hooker.

And the back-row? They will tell you how important they are to the overall operation as they press in from the side and back but, in truth, they are just waiting for the ball to move onto the next phase -- scrummaging is all about the front five.

The tighter the better. It's an operation which depends on an embrace not replicated in any facet of life outside of the bedroom and Greco-Roman wrestling mats, and an effective scrum requires closeness, cohesion, timing and comfort with proximity to other males. The scrum has dominated the build-up to Sunday's Heineken Cup clash between Leinster and Clermont -- the critical aspect in the most intriguing fixture of a jam-packed European weekend.

For all the speculation about how Leinster will cope without the injured Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, whether Jonathan Sexton can relocate his kicking accuracy after his blip against the Scarlets and what backline moves Joe Schmidt will produce to unsettle his former charges, none of it matters if the scrum falls apart. If Clermont get on top in the tight five, Leinster are done for. Simple as.

Their task is not helped by the array of grizzlies that Clermont will role out on Sunday. Thomas Domingo, Lionel Faure, Davit Zirakashvili and Martin Scelzo will not be modelling man-bags on 'Xpose' any time soon, but they are props who know how to fashion a destructive scrum. Mario Ledesma is acknowledged as one of the finest scrummaging hookers in the game and behind the front-row lies the meat and muscle of the likes of Thibaut Privat, Loic Jacquet and Julien Pierre.

It adds up to a tight five that is the equal of any in European rugby, but, while that paints a pretty grim picture for Leinster, Schmidt's men have some cause for optimism.

Firstly, they are fully aware of the importance of the scrum. After their troubles against Clermont in last season's quarter-final and utter destruction by Toulouse in the semi, Leinster drew a line in the sand and identified the scrum as an area that had to improve.

Which led to the second source of positivity -- scrum coach Greg Feek. Former defence coach Kurt McQuilkin was the key management figure in Leinster's march to Heineken Cup glory two years ago and, in Feek, they have another Kiwi who will have a profound influence.

The ex-All Black knows what he is about -- the reason why he was co-opted into the Ireland set-up for the November Series. It's not a quick-fix situation, remodelling a scrum takes time, patience and practice and it was encouraging to see Ireland's scrummaging improve over their four matches last month ending with an excellent showing against the powerful Puma eight.

The other key factor is Wayne Barnes, Leinster's capacity to survive will hinge on the referee's interpretation of what is taking place. Cian Healy knows Barnes from the summer Test against New Zealand, last season's Six Nations joust with France and the facile Heineken Cup win over the Scarlets this time last year.

Dynamism

Mike Ross also knows Barnes from his time in the Premiership with Harlequins and the front-row must stay on his right side to have a chance. Hooker Richardt Strauss fits the 'pound-for-pound' bill as his explosive displays this season belie height and weight statistics that have seen him likened to a Satsuma in a world of Jaffa oranges.

The South African has done more in 11 games this season than his toe-troubled countryman CJ van der Linde (who looked to be fully mobile again for South Africa last month) did in two seasons. Strauss is noted for his dynamism around the field, but punches above his weight in the scrum also and his capacity to resist Ledesma, work with the loose-head and attack Clermont's tight-head side will be pivotal. Equally crucial will be the drive from the second-row which would point towards a Leo Cullen-Nathan Hines combo.

Put it all together and Leinster have the capacity to hold their own at scrum-time and if there is a platform for Jamie Heaslip and Eoin Reddan to start calling the shots, then they have a chance of recording a victory that would rank among their finest in Europe. The heave is on.

Irish Independent

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