Sunday 22 July 2018

'Scrummy Irish' prove to be leaders of the pack

Scrum success: Ireland forwards prepare for a scrum Photo: Getty
Scrum success: Ireland forwards prepare for a scrum Photo: Getty
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

England arrived at Twickenham on Saturday looking to bully Ireland up front, but those days are long gone. With a pack as destructive as the eight Joe Schmidt has moulded, it was the visitors who turned the tables on the 2017 Six Nations champions.

The tone was set from the first minute when James Ryan, with the help of Jacob Stockdale, drove Maro Itoje backwards as soon as he gathered Johnny Sexton's kick-off.

Tadhg Furlong: No 1 tighthead Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong: No 1 tighthead Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland's current group of forwards, including those called upon from the bench, are a hugely effective unit that now cause opposition teams sleepless nights.

Greg Feek's impressive work since becoming scrum coach in 2014 is paying rich dividends and the IRFU's foresight to introduce an Elite Scrummaging Programme the year before has helped to develop an abundance of options.

When it comes to winning their own scrums, the top teams usually average 92/93pc, but Ireland's win-rate is better than 100pc if you factor in the scrums they've won against the head.

The emergence of Tadhg Furlong as unquestionably the best tighthead in the world has of course helped Ireland build strong foundations off the set-piece, but it is also worth acknowledging Cian Healy, who has rediscovered the kind of form that had people talking about him as the number one loosehead around.

The Leinster prop was perilously close to having his career cruelly cut short by a serious neck injury, but his resilience to bounce back and hit these kind of levels again has been remarkable.

Locking down the scrum has allowed Schmidt to launch his intricate strike plays, which played a key role in Ireland's successful Grand Slam campaign.

Ireland lost just one scrum out of their 37 across the competition as well as winning a couple against the head, which is a fair achievement for a pack that refuse to take a backwards step.

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Schmidt's side were so dominant at scrum-time, because in last year's Six Nations they won all 31 of their scrums.

Respond

Argentina were the only team to shove Ireland off the ball back in November, and while they did so just the once, Schmidt's pack would respond by winning two off the Pumas' ball.

One hundred percent records against Fiji, admittedly not a scrummaging superpower, followed an outstanding display against South Africa.

Casting the mind further back to the summer's tour of America and Japan, Schmidt was handed an ideal opportunity to test different options.

This gave Healy the platform to re-establish himself as Ireland's first-choice loosehead, with Leinster team-mate Jack McGrath away on the Lions tour, where he also impressed.

"He really grew when I saw him in Japan on tour, and he just started taking charge," Feek said of Healy's resurgence. "It was just a natural thing. He talked and everyone listened. They all responded and it looked like he flourished on that.

"I admire him for how he's managed to get to this point now, and he deserves to give himself the most credit."

Andrew Porter and Ryan also made their Ireland debuts on the summer tour and have gone from strength to strength.

When Furlong missed the win over Wales through injury, Porter was immense and proved that Schmidt could rely on him. That switch from loosehead to tighthead now looks like an inspired decision by the coaches.

The power that Ryan has been generating behind the front-row has also been crucial to Ireland's scrum.

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That's something that Paul O'Connell spoke about recently when asked about the power and indeed strength-in-depth of the Ireland front-five.

"It is amazing at the moment," the former captain said. "I think everyone used to talk about the enforcer in rugby in the number four lock. That's gone out of the game really.

"It is just about being technically excellent at the breakdown, at the scrum, at the maul, at maul defence. Obviously they are big, very powerful men but technically they are excellent.

"The prop situation is amazing from where we were five years ago. There is a queue of tighthead props.

"I think it goes back to that South Africa game when we won that first Test and Joe made five changes for the second Test. It's all been about building depth in the squad.

"For the first time ever, Ireland have really good depth in the squad."

To think that Ireland's scrum was as potent without the considerable bulk of Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip makes what they have done over the last 12 months even more impressive.

Australia will offer another tough examination of their scrum in June, and winning a series in the southern hemisphere is the next step for this group of players.

Those who were involved in South Africa two years ago will still feel they left a series behind them, and to go to Australia and win, would further the case that this pack are primed to drive Ireland to a realistic crack at the World Cup next year.

Irish Independent

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