Scrum culture gains from extra push
In the run-up to the Ireland versus Argentina Test, scrum coach Greg Feek was chatting to James Ryan about the nuts and bolts of the young fella's trade. With second-rows we tend to pick up easily on the more glamorous side of their business, if you can associate such a job with a bit of glitz. So lineouts and carries are the unavoidables when figuring if he was good, bad or indifferent in a match. Tackles too are a bottom-line issue, and if they are offensive and in full view then all the better. But scrummaging?
The reality is that most who paid out a fair whack to be in the Aviva last Saturday, and a fair few who paid nothing to report on it, wouldn't have had a rashers whether Ryan packed down on the tight or loosehead side of the scrum. And the implications of either.
In this Test there were 13 scrums, excluding resets. You might find this business mind-numbing, but in between time taken up, energy expended, penalties awarded and momentum derived, it's a critical part of the game. So Feek was delighted that when he struck up this conversation with a 21-year-old in line for his fourth cap, and his first start in the critically important position of scrummaging behind the tighthead, he was talking to a nerd.
"It was a big (selection) call," Feek says of Joe Schmidt's decision to start him. "But talking to him I just went, 'Ok.' He just oozed it. The scrum culture. Loved it. Brad Thorn, he was the same. He (Thorn) just loved scrummaging. He would come along to the extra sessions that we did in Leinster, Tadhg (Furlong) and Marty (Moore) were there at the time and he'd be helping out. He just felt it was an area he really enjoyed. It's funny, getting your head squeezed in between two guys? Some guys love it."
Sexing-up this very practice is next on Feek's agenda in the drive to promote the scrum culture in this country. Already he has been pretty successful.
On Saturday in Thomond Park, Munster will go back into Champions Cup action, against Leicester Tigers. It is one of the great match-ups in European rugby: two clubs who make a virtue of bread and butter, of dipping into the brute force drawer to impose your will on the opposition. If you look at the roster of front-rowers in Munster's squad, there are six internationals. Naturally enough, not all of them are fit, one of whom is James Cronin, who is going through the horrors on that front.
He seems to have passed on some of the bad luck to his replacement, the 22-year-old Liam O'Connor, who debuted last season and had 10 games under his belt running out in Irish Independent Park last night. In general his timing has been perfect, for just as he was making his way through the age-grade sides with Munster and Ireland, a whole new approach was being taken to scrummaging across the board in this country. However, leaving the field last night on a stretcher doesn't augur too well for his immediate future. That will mean dipping into the system to see the effect of Feek's scrummaging depth charge: so good news for 24-year-old Brian Scott, who has also benefitted from the emphasis on prop production.
Feek's timing hasn't been too shabby either. He had graduated from Leinster to Ireland around the time the IRFU were reckoning they didn't need a national scrum co-ordinator/guru as well as a scrum coach to look after the senior team. Why not get him to do both? The union high-performance manager Collie McEntee was already all over the plan like a rash, so Feek got on the road to sound out the small army of men for whom the scrum is a passion.
"The key thing was about the relationships and getting some trust," Feek says. "Sometimes I think there's a little bit of holding back stuff. You're worried about giving things away. So first of all you actually need to feel open enough about discussing it and what you're feeling. I come from a New Zealand environment where sharing information is part of it, so I was like: 'This is what I found.' Sometimes it just takes a bit of that, though people might be wondering: 'Well, what's the ulterior motive there? Is he trying to milk everything we have?'
"You don't know what people are thinking and you can see there's apprehension. But after a while, I suppose it's like the gift of giving: you get it back. Then everyone starts discussing stuff. You throw it on the table and decide what the most important things are and can we agree, and you go boom, boom, boom. Collie McEntee was a big part of that process. We liaised a lot in that three years on the detail and while you can get too caught up on the detail it is important.
"You have to agree on some key principles that if the guys want to play for Ireland this is what they need to be doing. These are the key things we're looking at."
The fine detail is best left to the scrum nerds, whose Christmas party would be likely to end up with practical work on the dance floor. What has been unlocked in the last four years of this exercise is a flow of ideas and information from men who previously were considered to be in the train-spotting class. Allied to the recognition from World Rugby that two props rather than one on the bench was a safer and smarter way ahead, the door was wide open for young players to specialise genuinely, and make progress if the coaching support was there.
Feek is keen to point out that in every province now there is a network of coaches steaming ahead. Conor Twomey, whose experience would cover UCC, Ireland under 20s and Munster underage sides, is part of that group.
"It's all about focus, and once you focus on any problem it's always a good start," Twomey says. "We have 12 technical sessions a year in Munster for guys in the under 18 to under 20 group. We had one guy travelling from Dingle to Cork for it. You'd have guys from Bantry and Clonmel driving to Cork; guys from Ennis going to Limerick. So the net has been cast wide and coaches would be ringing you saying: 'Come and have a look at this guy.'"
The places you look might start in schools, or youth rugby, but the best seat in the house is on any given Saturday in the AIL, which is where Munster's Liam O'Connor got an invaluable grounding with Cork Con.
"The AIL, to me, is something we've really tapped into," Feek says. "Aaron Dundon (now Ulster) was coaching in Clontarf a few years ago and I asked him could he be a good source for me about anyone you've played against or seen, and two examples of that would be Ivan Soroka (Clontarf) who went to Connacht and Eric O'Sullivan (Trinity), who Tony Smeeth thought very highly of, who went to Ulster. People are watching that competition and it's not just me or Joe or whoever. There are these other guys who know what to look for because on the programme we'd spend a lot of time on talent ID and what we're looking for in a front-rower. All the guys around the country have a good handle on it, and I trust them as well. Sometimes it doesn't work out, between family situations or injuries or whatever, but the thrill of being able to give these guys a crack and see where they get to is exciting."
The success of the programme is seen in the way holes are filled around the country. There are 44 front-row players across the four provinces who already have senior game-time, or are on the verge of it. Only two of them - Rhys Marshall in Munster and Schalk ven der Merwe in Ulster - are not Ireland-qualified. That excludes Academy lads who are still a distance away from the senior side, but who are getting AIL or 'A' team experience, or both. Of the 44 almost half have benefited directly from the scrum programme which has seen the introduction of a scrum coach to every representative underage side in the country.
The next step is to broaden the focus a little, so that it's not exclusively a front-rower's club. Feek was struck for example by Paul O'Connell's obsession with being a major contributor to the scrum effort.
"Paulie has a passion for scrummaging that's huge," he says. "He loved it. And in his last couple of years he was wondering what he could work on. And I'm thinking: 'Jesus!' That's where the scrum culture comes from: if you've got your hooker, whose just as important as the tighthead, but if you've got one of your lock forwards who's your captain and looking for work-ons and driving messages and buying into what you're doing it's great.
"I think, for us, the next level is the second-rows, and that connection to the front-row and trying to hone in on that a bit more. A lot of them know how important it is but sometimes if you're working on the scrum you might put more into the front-row than those guys, but if you can cater for them more it would be good."
Feek's analogy is that growing your own veg beats buying them in the supermarket, for a few reasons. The evidence would suggest we've gone from fallow fields to a bumper crop.
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