Ireland's scrum problems have caught up with them

The Scrum horror of Twickenham still has the Irish front-row fraternity waking up in a sweat. For many, it was a shock that the Irish scrum could be so completely demolished but this was a long time coming, writes Paul Wallace.

Though under the cosh from the start, when Mike Ross left the pitch on 36 minutes, I had my head in my hands with knowledge of what was to come.

With the wet conditions, the outcome was clear to see as Tom Court jogged onto the pitch. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a game so dominated by the scrum as Ireland went back rather than up or down to stop the push.

Some thought that Cian Healy or Court should have gone off ‘injured’ to bring about uncontested scrums. Ireland’s reward for doing the right thing was an incorrect penalty try by Nigel Owens as the scrum didn’t infringe – unless backpedalling at pace is an offence. But the dominant scrum gets all the calls – as Ireland did at RWC 2011 against Australia – and England were certainly that.

Court shouldn’t be blamed for the complete implosion of the Irish scrum: both scrum sides disintegrated and he’s a loosehead prop who had to fill in on the much more difficult tighthead side. You should always have a tighthead on the bench as they can more easily adapt to the loosehead role. However, Ireland currently have no one to make even a half-decent fist of replacing Ross.

In fact, Irish rugby has been riding its luck for years. Some thought John Hayes was irreplaceable during a decade of service but there was actually strength in depth that was never given a fair crack of the whip. Ross was sent to England due a lack of interest in Ireland. His years in London turned him into the raw material that could be moulded into a Test prop when he came back to Leinster.

Outside of Ross, there’s no competition on the radar for one of the most vital positions on the pitch.

Tony Buckley hasn’t come through as hoped and is off to pasture at Sale. Next in line should be Jamie Hagan but he’s not playing regularly due to being behind Ross at Leinster. Ulster’s Paddy McAllistair and Declan Fitzpatrick and Munster’s Stephen Archer are being denied big-match experience by John Afoa and BJ Botha respectively. The only tighthead to have progressed is Ronan Loughney in Connacht and he’s still quite raw.

The IRFU Player Succession Strategy mean that in future only one non Irish-eligible player will be allowed to play in any one position among all four provinces. This is targeted at the tighthead issue. Also, the IRFU are at last recruiting a high-performance scrum coach that should pay long-term dividends.

However, what’s needed is a scrum academy with specialist mentors. As an ex-tighthead, I could help a hooker or loosehead but wouldn’t be anywhere as enlightened as someone who plied their trade there for many moons. Specialist coaches for the front-row and second-row positions are needed – with emphasis on a tighthead coach.

There should also be more freedom for younger props to go overseas to get top-level experience before they hit their prime in their late 20s.

This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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