Set-piece dilemma putting Kidney in tight spot
WE were told a story recently about a special fixture that took place back in the 1980s to celebrate the centenary of the Munster Branch.
It was a clash between a Cork XV and a Limerick XV and, though just an exhibition match, the deep-rooted rugby rivalry between the cities produced a ferocious affair with little holding back on either side. Limerick were captained by Munster and Ireland tight-head Ginger McLoughlin (you may have seen footage of him scoring a try in Twickenham) and the Shannon man advocated a direct, up the jumper approach.
As the game progressed, the rate of attrition saw Limerick lose their out-half and they had to go the Cork bench for a replacement. Those were the days of Cork backs and Limerick forwards -- the ratios have come closer together in recent times -- and the story goes that Ginger was none too impressed by the new man's Corinthian approach to the game.
"C'mere, son," said the captain, calling him over. "Don't mind your passing or your running, keep the ball in front of us and we'll take it from there. Those Cork p***** can do f*** all if they don't have the ball."
More than 20 years later, that maxim holds true, and it is an assertion that is founded on forward muscle, most forcibly represented by strength in the scrum. The rugby world is running scared of the All Blacks at present: a super 2010 has placed them beyond the reach of other nations and they are runaway favourites for next year's World Cup which, conveniently, is being staged in their own country, despite some questionable venues and facilities.
So how do you stop them? One tactic with potential to be decisive is to beat them up at scrum time, hoping to break up the game, ruin the All Blacks' possession and kick the penalties won as a result.
Dan Carter is, by some distance, the world's most effective fly-half and Kieran Read the form No 8 but they are front-foot players; it would be far harder for either man to wield a match-deciding influence if the All Blacks scrum is collapsing back on top of them.
The Wallabies arrived in Europe with some of the most inventive backs in the game but were opened up in Twickenham when the English drove them off the park at the scrum. Then, after a mildly nauseating period of self-congratulation, Martin Johnson's side were themselves overpowered by South Africa's forward grunt.
France were destroyed by the Australians' off-the-cuff rugby but it was one of those occasions when the French were not at the races mentally and, after an early penalty try, the scrum was not a factor. However, you can be sure that the nation that produced Gerard Cholley and Robert Paparemborde will not arrive at the World Cup without a scrum to be feared.
At club level, as last weekend's Heineken Cup action testified, the scrum is top of the pile when it comes to dominating and denying opponents. It is no coincidence that the five top-rated sides among the bookies (Toulouse, Northampton, Leinster, Leicester and Biarritz) pride themselves on the power of their scrum.
Those teams have props on their books that are among the best scrummagers in the game -- Daan Human at Toulouse, Soane Tonga'uiha and, for the earlier rounds, Euan Murray at Northampton, Martin Castrogiovanni, Dan Cole and Marcos Ayerza at Leicester, Leinster's Mike Ross, Eduard Coetzee and Sylvain Marconnet at Biarritz, it's a pretty impressive list.
McLoughlin was the man charged with locking the Munster scrum in the 1970s and 1980s -- a job he carried out very effectively, including on one famous afternoon against the All Blacks -- but it was the failure of Ginger's propping successors to provide a platform last weekend that cost Munster victory away to the Ospreys.
After their scrummaging woes in last season's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Biarritz, Munster took action, with Paul McCarthy coming on board in a full-time capacity as scrum coach. McCarthy, who had the ability to play both sides, was part of a Munster scrum that earned a penalty try against the world champion Wallabies at Musgrave Park in 1992, and the signs in the early part of this season were encouraging.
However, last Saturday was a disaster, with the Jones boys and Paul James wreaking havoc, costing the visitors points in scoring positions and contributing to Ospreys scores. Munster tight-heads Tony Buckley and John Hayes were in all sorts of trouble against James and Duncan Jones, and this has worrying implications for Ireland.
Based on the November Internationals, coach Declan Kidney has the Munster pair in his top three tight-heads along with Tom Court, who is also providing loose-head cover behind Cian Healy. For some time now, Hayes, understandably at 37 years of age, has looked to be struggling and, while Buckley deserves credit for a strong performance against Argentina at the end of the November Series, Saturday was a significant backward step.
Despite concerted calls for Ross to get a run in November, Kidney did not use his former Munster charge in any of the four games. As his captain Leo Cullen noted after Leinster's destruction of Clermont, Ross has been around the block (he turns 31 today) and is in the form of his life.
Dismissed by commentators preferring glib one-liners to proper analysis, Ross has won over all the mockers and doubters at this stage and, though late to the party, even the most myopic of commentators recognise the worth of a powerful tight-head.
The question now is does Kidney keep faith in Buckley and Hayes or peruse the evidence and go with the strongest scrummaging tight-head?
At provincial level, Munster have work to do get out of their pool, with victory in Toulon now essential and the scrum will dominate their thoughts ahead of that trip to France.
If they can secure parity at scrum time, Tony McGahan's men are more than capable of replicating their superb performance in Perpignan last year. Their troubles at this set-piece against the Ospreys directly contributed to errors elsewhere as failure to convert attacking scrum positions saw them try to force the issue further out.
Leinster just need to keep doing what they are doing. Cian Healy is benefiting from Ross' power on the far side while Richardt Strauss is doing his bit at hooker. Former All Black Greg Feek is responsible for the Leinster scrum and the cohesion of the operation has been impressive.
As for Ulster, BJ Botha's strength on the tight-head side has been a significant factor in their progress through Pool 4 and the speculation regarding his availability at the end of the season could have implications for Ireland.
Tom Court is ready to fill the No 3 jersey but if Botha did move to Leinster or Munster, an Irish tight-head would unquestionably lose out.
Nor should Jamie Hagan be forgotten in Connacht. If the former Leinster man continues his improvement in tight and loose, he has to come into consideration at national level -- there are Irish Wolfhounds matches coming up against Scotland (January 28) and England (February 4) which hopefully will be used to glean new information about Ireland's scrummaging options.
McLoughlin was the go-to guy at tight-head when they claimed the 1982 Triple Crown but Ireland head into the new (World Cup) year with uncertainty surrounding the No 3 jersey. It needs to be sorted out because, to paraphrase Ginger, "we can do f*** all if we don't have the ball".