England’s pack under scrutiny at Rugby World Cup after scrum was pushed off own ball by supposedly inferior Fiji forwards
A game in and already England have a rallying point to crowd round. How they react will go some way to defining their progress or otherwise from Pool A. It happened just shy of the half-hour mark in Friday’s win over Fiji. Such is the incident’s notoriety that there should not be need for too much introduction. Nevertheless, let’s set the scene.
England have just been torn apart by some typically Fijian brilliance by Nikola Matawalu, who failed to score a solo try only because he dropped the ball in stretching for the line. Relief surged round Twickenham. England were awarded a five-metre scrum. They had survived the demonstration of what Fiji do; now they could resort to what they do.
And they were shoved off their own ball. By Fiji. By a front row drawn from the second division of French rugby (Campese Ma’afu and Sunia Koto) and the even lowlier Romanian league (Manasa Saulo). This was not supposed to happen, nor was the try that followed. In the context of a series of warm-ups against France, in particular, and Ireland that had posed its own questions, the unthinkable is being thought. Is the set piece a point of weakness in England’s armoury? As weaknesses go, it would be about as crippling as they come. But why is it becoming an issue? How?
The focus of the postmortems, inevitably, is honing in on Tom Youngs who has stepped in as Dylan Hartley’s replacement. Hartley has now served his latest sentence and is, technically, available. Had Stuart Lancaster taken the dreaded hooker gamble, the one so readily embraced by Wales and Australia among others, and selected Hartley in his squad, how much of a boost might his return have been when the scrum sessions crank up again on Monday?
Dan Cole, England’s tighthead, was quick to defend his Leicester team-mate, going so far as to say that he prefers packing down with him to doing so with Northampton’s erstwhile captain. “I prefer Youngs,” he said the morning after the night before. “Yes, he’s shorter and might have a bit less ballast, but technically he’s very good. Because he came from centre, he didn’t have any bad habits. He worked hard with Mefin Davies and George Chuter at the club. He’s one of the most powerful guys in the squad. Tom Youngs all the way.”
It’s an opinion that could spice up Hartley’s next visit to the England camp, whenever that may be. Perhaps the three men will have had a chance to work through their differences by then when Leicester and Northampton next meet – perhaps they won’t – but the comment reveals a spikiness of opinion that may or may not be harnessed as a strength in the weeks to come.
Mako Vunipola, too, made a curious comment when asked for his opinion on what we might now label That Scrum. “Yeah,” he said, “that didn’t help when the second-rows didn’t want to step over the ball and kick through. It happens.”
Another point of difference between England’s spluttering set piece and the one they have come to rely on is Geoff Parling’s presence in the engine room, who was brought in for his lineout expertise in the absence of Hartley.
Cole was quick to come to Parling’s defence, too (Leicester team-mate that he was until recently): “I’ve got no issues with Geoff behind me. I know he’s going to be pushing 100% of the time, and that’s what you want from your second row. I don’t care whether you’re 30kg or 130kg. It’s all very well having someone massive, but if they’re not going to do it consistently, you don’t know where you stand.
“Would I love a 150kg, 6ft 10in lock behind me who’ll make me look really good? Yes. But you have got to work with what you’ve got. Geoff and Courtney [Lawes] – we played with a similar second row in the Six Nations and they have done a great job. They’re doing a great job. We had that one bad scrum on our line.”
Yet, in this modern rugby world, one slip is all it takes for the questions to rage, if not within the camp, certainly without. Cole acknowledges that others will have noticed. “Wales and Australia will be licking their lips, realising that they can take us on there, a traditional English strength. We understand we’ve got to be better.”
The rallying point, then, has been set. It may be too reductive to posit the absence of Hartley as the root of England’s set-piece ills, but it has certainly altered the dynamics. So far, the adjustments cannot be deemed a success. If nothing else, England’s scrummus horribilis should ensure there is no let up on the approach to next Saturday’s game against Wales. There is an obvious problem to work on. The concern is that it was not supposed to be this one.
- The Guardian