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Analysis: Mapping June’s scrum battle between England and Australia

Head to head: The tussle between Scott Sio and Dan Cole could be pivotal on Saturday Rugby World

Last summer’s scrum exchanges have shaped the narrative for this weekend’s Twickenham clash between England and Australia


If Eddie Jones’ year in charge of England has taught us anything, it is that the 56 year-old has become an expert at using press duties to set an agenda. Following last weekend’s gritty defeat of Argentina, he wasted no time in laying out the narrative for a face-off against the Wallabies, headlining his post-match media conference by suggesting officials should study Australia’s scrum.

Adversary Michael Cheika has been a willing support act. Understandably reluctant to behave as stoically as he appeared this summer during England’s 3-0 whitewash, Jones’ former Randwick teammate fired into the technique of Leicester Tigers tighthead prop Dan Cole on Monday. A gruff Cheika also revealed that Jones stormed out of a coach-referee meeting in June.

Scrapper: Michael Cheika is eager to settle a score on Saturday at Twickenham Rugby World
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The upshot of this verbal spat will be heightened scrutiny on Saturday’s scrum exchange. Jaco Peyper takes the whistle, and his set-piece decisions could determine a fascinating encounter. When Australia last visited Twickenham, they destroyed the England pack. In June, with very players to those that will feature this time, the contest was fairly even.

The series is mapped on a scrum-by-scrum basis below. Each team’s respective directions of play is marked in the top left corner of each map. On the pitch, a dashed arrow represents a pass or a kick from the base of a scrum. A solid arrow represents a run from the base. The outcome of each scrum (S) is delineated by this key:

PW/PC – penalty won/penalty conceded FKW/FKC – free-kick won/ free-kick conceded GB – good ball PB – pressurised or poor ball

First Test, Brisbane
Australia 29 England 39
Referee: Romain Poite

First half

Rugby World

S1 – The packs go to engage but stand up, with Stephen Moore unhappy that England are moving before the put-in. Romain Poite takes Greg Holmes and Mako Vunipola aside to ensure they do not line-up head to head. He says: “We won’t play like this. You have your gap, you have your gap and there is a way for both, okay?” At the second attempt to set, Poite gives Australia a free-kick as Mako Vunipola edges forward: “Unbalanced, white.”

S2 – This time the first attempt collapses. The re-set does too, with Poite blowing for an Australia penalty. After a scuffle between both sets of forwards, Poite explains that the penalty is due to “number three [Dan Cole] hinging.”

S3 – Poite asks for the scrums to set closer together and for them to stay up. He does not get his request. Scott Sio slips to floor and, at the recommendation of touch-judge Glen Jackson, the Wallabies loosehead is penalised.

Second half

Rugby World

S4 – “They don’t want to scrummage, Greg” comes an Australian shout to Holmes as the packs assemble. The first scrum collapses and Scott Fardy implores the touch-judge to look at Cole’s angle. Poite asks Nick Phipps and Michael Hooper to be quiet. Moore, getting up from the floor, tells the referee that Cole is “facing the other way”.

Poite moves to England’s tighthead side, with Hooper shouting: “watch him drop that bind.” On the second attempt, England flood through Cole’s side and Australia are penalised for “driving in” from their tighthead side. When England kick to touch, Moore asks Poite: “Sir, who was that?” “Number three” is the answer.

S5 – ‘We want to keep it up” says Dylan Hartley before the set. “Three steps, let’s go through ‘em” retorts Hooper. Again the scrum goes down on the side of Cole and Sio. Though Poite is on the opposite side, he stops the clock and brings together the captains, plus Cole and Sio. “The issue is on your side, we didn’t play any scrum. Just be careful from now. We want to play scrum fairly. Stable, feed and we play on afterwards. Alright?” Hartley interjects: “Stable first” and repeats “Make sure we’re steady first,” when the packs reassemble.

England send Australia backwards with a strong push. The Wallabies go down and Poite blows for a penalty to the tourists. Again he beckons over Sio and Moore, showing a yellow card to the former.

S6 – Replacements litter the front-rows by the time of this scrum. Australia have introduced James Slipper, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu, with England bringing on props Matt Mullan and Paul Hill. “Stay closer,” says Poite. “Hilly, change the game” comes a shout from England. The scrum goes down on Hill’s side but the ball is at the feet of Australia number eight Sean McMahon and the Wallabies play the ball. England’s backs are offside – as called by touch-judge Jackson – but Tevita Kuridrani barges over from eight metres on the second phase.

S7 – Luke Cowan-Dickie has replaced Hartley. The scrum is stable initially but collapses three seconds after Phipps’ put-in. Hill is penalised for hinging.

Second Test, Melbourne
Australia 7 England 23
Referee: Craig Joubert

First half

Rugby World

S1 – Craig Joubert makes sure both front-rows are close together prior to engaging. However, Sekope Kepu stands up and the set-piece must start again. The second attempt collapses and Joubert asks Mako Vunipola to work hard on his bind. The third set also goes down, but the ball makes its way to the back and Nick Phipps passes left to find Bernard Foley.

S2 – The scrum collapses, with numerous voices shouting “Sir” at Joubert. But the ball is at the back and Billy Vunipola passes to Ben Youngs to restart play.

S3 – Joubert speaks to Dylan Hartley and Stephen Moore at length before this scrum, clearly referencing the messiness of the two previous set-pieces. Dan Cole and James Slipper fold in on the first engage and there is a re-set, the scrum shifting a few metres towards the touchline because the turf is cutting up. On the second attempt, the set-piece is rock-solid, lasting seven seconds before Phipps feeds Samu Kerevi.

S4 – Cole seems to make headway through Slipper, who is forced under the England tighthead. Joubert penalises Slipper for breaking his bind.

S5 – Though Slipper initiates another collapse and Scott Fardy breaks off, Joubert urges England to play on. Billy Vunipola, under the impression that the half is over, kicks out. He is mistaken and Australia can play the lineout. Only a monumental defensive stand holds out the Wallabies.

Second half

Rugby World

S6 – An obvious early push from Australia hands England a free-kick.

S7 – Michael Cheika has made changes, loosehead Toby Smith and tighthead Greg Holmes joining the fray. The first scrum attempt is extremely unstable on the initial engage and Joubert orders a restart, telling Moore that his side cannot shove early and informing England they must absorb the hit. The second scrum goes down, but Ben Youngs plays the ball.

S8 – George Kruis leaves the field just prior to this scrum. Courtney Lawes comes on, scrummaging on the loosehead side. As Maro Itoje moves behind Cole on to the tighthead, Australia push through that side to win a penalty. Joubert’s ruling is that Cole has dragged down the scrum.

S9 – Cole receives extensive treatment from England’s physios prior to this pivotal scrum five metres from the try-line. Tatafu Polota-Nau has replaced Moore, too. Again the set-piece goes down on Cole’s side, with Smith looking to have the ascendancy. However, the ball is already at the base and Phipps passes it away before a whistle comes. England rush up and force an immediate turnover.

S10 – Matt Mullan and Paul Hill are on and a re-set is required following some instability. The second attempt is a mess, but Danny Care passes the ball away to Ford from the back of a collapsed set-piece.

S11 – Jamie George has joined proceedings. On the engage, both Mullan and Holmes appear to collapse inwards and the ball dribbles out on that side but following a melee on the floor between Care and Nick Frisby, Joubert calls for another England put-in. The second attempt creates a similar shape, with packs actually splintering off from one another. Joubert sees no infringements and blows for an Australia put-in when, bizarrely, Hill falls on the ball at Billy Vunipola’s feet and knocks on.

S12 – Frisby feeds and the Wallabies are sent backwards by a drive that is angled through Mullan. Joubert penalises Scott Fardy for breaking his bind on that side and the game is over with Farrell’s successful kick.

Third Test, Sydney
Australia 40 England 44
Referee: Nigel Owens

First half

Rugby World

S1 – Nigel Owens marks the scrum, tells Stephen Moore and Dylan Hartley to “get to the left of it” opposite one another and stay put. “We’ve had a long discussion about this,” says the Welsh official. “The standard starts from the first scrum.”

“Mako, stay in the fight” comes an English shout. Owens calls across to the left to ask his touch-judge to “watch the shoulder for me, please,” before asking Nick Phipps: “nine, middle, please.” On engage, Australia drive forward and Owens awards a free-kick to England. “Hold – control the hit,” says Owens, unhappy with the amount of movement prior to the put-in.

S2 – England opt to take a scrum. “Here we go, Coley” shouts George Kruis. “Middle please, nine,” repeats Owens to Ben Youngs. Dan Cole and James Slipper hit the floor and Owens signals for an Australia penalty. “Off the arm,” Owens says, highlighting Cole’s bind. “Get the pressure off the arm.”

S3 – “Big scrum, Coley,” is Chris Robshaw’s shout. “Shoulders up, boys,” adds Dylan Hartley. After marking the scrum for both hookers, Owens addresses James Slipper: “Keep that bind long, hit up. Keep your knees off the ground. I appreciate last time you came back up and that was not the reason for the collapse. Shoulder out.” There is a false start on the scrum’s assembly but the second attempt brings a solid scrum until it goes down with Australia going forward. However, the ball is at the back by then and Owens tells Phipps to use it. “Just a slip, play,” confirms the referee.

Open dialogue: Nigel Owens was in constant communication with both sides in Sydney Rugby World

S4 – Owens has some requests for touch-judge Mike Fraser: “Give me the call, Mike, okay? Watch the binding, watch his side.” He then breaks off to address Slipper again: “Shoulder out.” Australia’s shove is strong, and England go down but Billy Vunipola picks up the ball and shunts forward.

S5 – “If I say ‘use it’, it’s because nothing happens when the ball comes, okay?” says Owens to Ben Youngs. “Just give me a few seconds,” replies Youngs, explaining that it is sometimes tough to find the ball in a collapsed scrum. Almost immediately following Youngs’ put-in, Owens penalises Australia. Slipper is told: “Look at your binding, look at where your feet are – further back. Get them underneath you stronger, because you went straight down.”

Interestingly, at a break in play soon after this, Owens tells Sekope Kepu the same thing: “Even if you’re dominant and your feet are back, you are going to go down. I will deal with the most obvious.” Kepu acknowledges this and replies “are you happy with the squareness [of the scrum]?” Owens says: “Squareness is good, so keep that up.”

S6 – ‘If I say use it, you use it,” repeats Owens to Phipps. A rapid hook allows Phipps to feed Bernard Foley from a steady scrum.

S7 – England are lucky here. After Youngs’ put-in, the ball stays under the feet of England’s front-rows for around seven seconds. Australia mount a secondary push and England collapse, but the ball ricochets out of the set-piece and Youngs passes to George Ford.

S8 – “On their ball down there, were we close to getting the penalty?” asks Moore at the next scrum. Owens admits he was on the wrong side and that the ball came away before he could see any offence.

When the packs assemble, Hartley calls: “Height, boys, height.” Owens addresses both front-rows: “The scrums are getting better.” Another steady set-piece results. However, the ball shoots out and Phipps must rush.

Second half

Rugby World

S9 – Owens has another pointer for England: “Make sure the back-rows stay bound on the second-rows, okay boys?” He repeats the same message to Australia. The scrum is sturdy at the first attempt and Billy Vunipola picks up, bursting blind and bypassing a bound Hooper to score.

S10 – Owens addresses both packs: “Scrums are very good now. We keep the same standards, no excuses.” Phipps puts the ball in and brings it out quickly, passing to Foley. After stretching England with some patient phase-play, Australia score through Michael Hooper.

S11 – “Same as the last scrum please,” says Owens. The scrum stays up once more, but England push through to allow Youngs to pressurise Wycliff Palu and force a knock-on.

S12 – Slipper receives another quick message from Owens: “Both legs strong underneath, okay? Knees off the ground.” The Welshman also warns: “No pre-engage.” Danny Care, on for Youngs, feeds and the scrum stays up for eight or nine seconds. England edge forward during this period, and Owens penalises Australia when the packs break apart. “Not driving square, running round – back five,” he explains, indicating that the Wallabies’ second- and back-rows are at fault. “Not the front-row, the back five.”

S13 – Two entirely new front-rows come together for this set-piece. “The boys on before you have been excellent,” says Owens. “I expect the same from you on this last scrum.” Both teams, almost inevitably, go to deck before Phipps can feed. “That’s not good enough,” Owens states. “get it tight, get in. Nothing moves before the ball is in. Is that clear? I want space.”

Jamie George implores his locks to “tighten up on the grips” and this time the scrum stays up. Palu flicking a pass back to Phipps, who initiates a wide strike move.

Lessons learned

The first Test of a three-match series is likely to be fractured in most facets with players unaccustomed to the pace and demands of international rugby. Even so, just one completed scrum from seven attempts at Suncorp Stadium was a pitiful return that highlighted how both sides were trying to suss one another out. The importance of referee interpretation and mood is also obvious. Romain Poite’s decision to send Scott Sio to the sin-bin at S5 came when the Frenchman simply lost patience.

During the second Test, Craig Joubert evidently made a conscious effort to treat collapsed scrums leniently. A sandy, unstable surface did not give either team much help and the official acted with empathy. We were not able to hear Joubert’s dialogue in this game, but it is worth looking back at S8 and S12. Both of these underline that the discipline and technique of second- and back-rows contribute to the overall strength of any scrum effort.

Vigilance: Jaco Peyper will be under the microscope on Saturday Rugby World

Sydney saw the most solid scrums of the series. Players were into a rhythm, and Nigel Owens’ constant communication painted a clear picture for them. Most evidently at S9, where Billy Vunipola stormed off the base to score, teams were able and willing to attack from a stable set-piece platform. However, Owens’ words to Kepu between S5 and S6 –“I will deal with the most obvious” – is the most pertinent lesson to take into Saturday.

For all the intricate technicalities that emerge in referee meetings, Jaco Peyper can only adjudicate on what he sees and understands. If subtle tricks skew the overall scene, they could define the match.

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