Mind Games: Gone are the days of the front row kings – is it time for a scrum lekgotla?

2015-02-16 09:00

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It did not require the helter-skelter of Super Rugby to set off the first alarm bells of the new season.

That disturbing clanging in the background became evident in faraway north London and Toulon even before the Super XV kicked off.

The Bulls and Sharks arranged warm-up matches against Saracens and Toulon, respectively, but while both South African sides won their games, there was an undeniable flaw in both their constructs: the scrum.

Up against opposition that was inferior to the best the two European powerhouses can put out, both the Bulls and the Sharks battled in the scrums. Once again the question was raised: “What has gone wrong with South African scrummaging?”

The scrum has long been held as a bedrock of the South African game. So it was worrying that the Bulls’ pack was dominated when it came to locking horns. The Sharks, fielding two first-choice Springbok front row forwards in Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira, fared little better.

The Bulls fielded a massive pack that included Springbok props Werner Kruger, Trevor Nyakane and Marcel van der Merwe. This suggests two things: either South African sides no longer work as hard at scrummaging as they used to or their technique is faulty.

The two South African teams struggled with all aspects of the scrum: getting the binding right, finding their footing, resisting the twisting and pulling of their opposition, timing the hit right and being alert to – and able to – repel a secondary shove.

You don’t need much of a memory to recall how Argentina manhandled the Springbok scrum in their Rugby Championship match in Salta last year.

Having the occasional poor scrum happens, but the Boks were dominated for the duration of the game. And though things improved in subsequent tests, it was never more than to parity.

Historically, South African sides are accustomed to building a winning platform on the backs of their solid scrummagers – series victories against the 1960 and 1976 All Blacks were put down to destruction wrought by the likes of Piet “Spiere” du Toit (grandfather of current Sharks lock Pieter-Steph) and Johan Strauss – but that appears to no longer be the case.

The tighthead, who in effect scrums against four opponents, has to be the anchor, and although Jannie du Plessis has been a loyal soldier, it’s been a long time since South African rugby could point to a truly commanding No 3.

Balie Swart does a lot of work with various provinces and the Boks have a scrum coach in former international Pieter de Villiers (a South African who played for France) in their management team.

But there is no denying that the fable of the brute South African front row forward is wearing thin – throwing up the awkward reality that opponents view the scrum as a South African vulnerability.

A number of players – Coenie Oosthuizen, Trevor Nyakane, Frans van der Merwe, Marcel van der Merwe, Pat Cilliers and Werner Kruger – have been given a chance at tighthead but have either had bad luck with injuries or simply failed to make the grade.

An indication that Heyneke Meyer knows something needs to be done is that he took the Lions’ formidable No 3, Julian Redelinghuys, on tour last year. But he was not given much of a look-in and the coach has now run out of time for experimentation, with only four official tests and two warm-up games left before the World Cup.

Perhaps it is time for one of those symposiums in the bush we so love staging – what about a “skrumberaad”?

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