Go back a couple of years, or even just one, and the idea of Australia opting to take a scrum when awarded a free-kick against England would have been laughable. But that’s exactly what Wallabies skipper Stephen Moore did 48 minutes into last weekend’s clash at Twickenham.
England prop Joe Marler was then penalised for not scrummaging straight, Bernard Foley kicked the three points and Australia were 20-3 up, with their foot on England’s throats.
The rest is history, which English readers will prefer not to dwell upon, but the subject of Australia’s scrum is now extremely relevant to everyone with a Welsh connection, as the men in red take on the Green and Gold this Saturday (Twickenham, 4.45pm) in a match which will decide who wins Pool A.
You don’t need a long memory to recall the days when Australia’s scrum was a laughing stock, so how come Moore now sees it as a serious attacking weapon?
Super Mario is the key figure – no, not Nintendo’s heroic plumber, rather Argentina’s former hooker Mario Ledesma.
Australia head coach Michael Cheika gave Ledesma a call after his team had lost three of their four Tests on their 2014 tour, asking him to take over as forwards coach.
Ledesma had played 84 Tests in the Argentina front row between 1996 and 2011, a time when Argentina’s scrum was the fulcrum of their game. He and props Rodrigo Roncero and Martin Scelzo helped take the Pumas all the way to the World Cup semi-finals in 2007, while Ledesma also won France’s Top 14 title with Clermont Auvergne in 2010.
After retiring from playing in 2011, he worked as scrum coach under Cheika at Stade Francais. He had a less successful time as forwards coach at Montpellier, but Cheika still rated Ledesma highly enough to add him to his Wallabies staff this year.
The former Puma worked with the Waratahs during the 2015 Super Rugby season and set out his intentions for the national team ahead of the Rugby Championship.
“What we are trying to do here, and I think we did it really well during the Super Rugby, is change that perception everyone has of the Australian team,” Ledesma said, in June. “If you look at most of the Australian teams throughout the competition, they were dominating in the scrums, especially the Reds. We had a really good run with the Waratahs too and I thought the Brumbies did really good. It’s just showing everybody that we’re there to scrum, and we want to contest. We want to dominate over there and we want the least amount of penalties possible and get the ref out of the picture.”
The trademark of Argentina’s bajada – or method of scrummaging – is a co-ordinated eight-man push, with all eight forwards flexing their knees downwards in unison and exploding forward together to try to drive over the ball. Even after a few short months, the work Ledesma has done with the Australia pack has certainly wrought a monumental improvement.
In their three 2015 World Cup matches to date, Australia have won 19 scrums and lost just one (against Fiji). They have conceded a mere five scrum penalties and forced 13. Six of those came against England on Saturday evening and Stuart Lancaster had to substitute Marler before the referee sent him to the sin-bin.
From chumps to champs
Ledesma says Australia’s scrum is still very much a work in progress. Asked after their 2015 World Cup opener against Fiji if he was happy about their work in the tight, the 42-year-old replied: “Not necessarily in what we are doing on the field, but more in the journey we started together a couple of months ago, in getting the boys to understand that the mindset is really important in terms of the scrum and having everyone knowing what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and what the outcome should be.”
He says the fact he was “15,000 miles away” when Australia’s scrum was beset by its past problems, helps him make the necessary changes. “I don’t have all those ghosts in my mind so I just started working with them and they have been great from the start so that’s all I know about Australia’s scrum and all I want to think of.”
Cheika is happy with the progress Ledesma has made so far, although he emphasises that the hard work his forwards are putting in must continue. “We got beaten well in a fair few scrums last year here (at Twickenham), in a few important scrums, and we knew we had to make adjustments to our own scrum, not relying on anyone’s interpretation of scrums or relying on the opposition doing something different. Not just by developing a new tactic or some miracle but by working hard,” says the head coach.
“The scrum is a very humbling part of the game. You can dominate one day and get your pants pulled down on another.”
What the players say about Ledesma
Australia prop James Slipper: “Mario has a philosophy of how he wants the scrum, and it is about training on that, challenging each player to become better. It pushes the overall performance when everyone is at it. We’ve been worked hard on the scrum, but we have to keep improving as it’s such an important part of the game now.”
Prop Scott Sio: “He has brought a great scrum philosophy to the team and the main thing is that everyone has bought into it as a big playing group and a collective. It’s an area that everyone has targeted for a few years now, so we knew we had to combine together to make it a strength of the team. It is steadily improving.”
Scrum-half Will Genia: “The boys have been working very hard on it (scrummaging). Obviously we identified it as an area to improve on and Mario has done an exceptional job on changing their focus and their attitude. I think it’s showing on the field. There were bad times but I think moving forward we’re in the right place.”
Wales – you have been warned!