"Not everyone can be Finn Russell," says scrum coach Alasdair Dickinson
Alasdair Dickinson believes that front-row play has an image problem.
“We’ve got to improve the sex appeal of being a prop or hooker,” the 58-cap former Scotland loose-head says. “How do people tend to end up in the front row now? For the most part, it’s because they’re overweight or not very good. They’re the fat kid where the coaches say, ‘let them play, but hide them away’. I think that stigma is still there.
“Ask a room full of kids who wants to play in the front row, and I’ll bet that only a few hands go up. Naturally, everyone wants to be in the positions where they’re doing the flashy stuff that ends up on TV or gets the crowd roaring.
“What we have to help young players understand is that not everyone can or needs to be Finn Russell, but you can still play a massively important role in a team by focusing on other areas.
“For me, it’s all about how we frame it. A front-rower needs to love that war stuff, that one-on-one challenge which is actually rare in rugby. You always have an opposite number, but how often do you have an actual face-to-face confrontation like you get in the front row?
“We need to find people who like that challenge of being in a scrum where it takes a lot of mental strength, a lot of physical strength and a lot of teamwork. You need to sell it around that rather than the old narrative about props being just the overweight rubbish players.”
Dickinson, 40, who had two spells at Edinburgh and also played for Gloucester and Sale Sharks, is now scrum coach at Glasgow Warriors, having previously held the same role with Bristol Bears, Scotland Women and the SRU academy.
The Dundonian is adamant that the game must respond to the changing needs of – and changing pressures around – young players, especially when it comes to the expectation of immediate success.
How to make scrums sexy for the next generation
“As a coach now, you’ve got to help kids navigate it because the dynamics of it are a lot different to when I was growing up. We’re in a world now where everything is instant, success has to be next day. It doesn’t work like that in rugby, especially not in the front row.
“You need that work ethic to keep at it and stay positive – that’s such a big thing. It could take a couple of years’ worth of struggling, but if you stick at it, there are opportunities to really progress and have a great career in professional sport.
“My first Scotland cap was against New Zealand at the (2007) World Cup and our scrum was absolutely demolished. Looking back, that was probably the biggest benefit I had in my career because it made me sit down and realise how much growth I had to do to get to where I wanted to be. It’s very tough when you go through it, especially now with social media where the keyboard warriors get stuck in, but we have to help them through.
“I went down south quite young because I knew I had to challenge myself. I went to Gloucester where there were some great props I could really learn from. It’s quite an uncomfortable thing to do, going elsewhere to really charge ahead and realise how and why you need to improve, but I really evolved my game as I got older.
“When I was younger, I used to like to get the ball in my hands and fly around a bit, but you have to be able to do what a front-rower needs to do, your bread and butter. It can take years. I guess I was just persistent and didn’t really want to go into the real world.”
Dickinson identifies a shared responsibility between players, coaches and match officials to demystify the scrum, something which he believes is key to attracting and retaining both fans and front-row talent.
While he remains an avowed admirer of the Springbok scrum which has been so central to the country’s back-to-back World Cup triumphs, Dickinson has also tired of set-piece being viewed in some quarters as purely a means to securing penalties. Part of his proposed solution is to involve referees in live scrummaging sessions – as participants rather than mere observers.
“As far as I’m aware, no professional referee has ever been in a scrum. How can they understand the biomechanics of a scrum and where the pressure points are coming?
“Obviously they have scrummaging coaches who can help them make what they think is the best decision, but until you’ve been in there, you don’t understand how props can manipulate their opposite number or the hooker – those dark arts.
“Referees do come in and referee some sessions. They also do video sessions, but I think referees should come in and actually scrummage. Obviously I’m not talking about full-blown scrums with pro players because there would be a major safety consideration there, but even if they got into the position of how to engage, they would be able to better understand the movements of a scrum and how sometimes what they see may not actually be the case.
“They would have a physical representation of what they see, rather than what they are being told they are seeing. Some scrum penalties lead to a different result, so many knock-on effects to a 50/50 call.
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“It’s in all our interests to improve that whole process. We all want a better, safer game, so how do we get there? The players have a massive responsibility and so do I to make sure the scrum is as clean as possible; that you’re not mucking around and making it a complete mess. We need to ensure that the referee has an easier job. The days of trying to milk penalties all the time need to be gone.
“Being a scrum coach, I enjoy the scrummaging aspect obviously, but I don’t want it to be reset after reset or teams just scrummaging for penalties all the time.
“I still believe it’s a really important part of what makes rugby union. If we get rid of it or depower it, it becomes rugby league. Scrummaging has always been there and people will moan about anything – if it wasn’t scrums it would be something else.
“It needs to stay a contest. I do feel that the way the laws have shifted, the scrums are getting closer and closer, keep adding in more moving parts and then it becomes too complex.
“We should really simplify it. That’s another part of the conversation around attracting people to play there. I’m talking myself out of a job, but scrummaging is a pretty simple thing. It’s about how you do it as a cohesive unit, getting eight people to do a relatively simple thing. 90 per cent of the time, if everyone does the same thing, you’ll have a good scrum.”
As the game strives to balance the competing demands of safety and show business, Dickinson foresees ever closer working between scrum coaches and their colleagues in the medical and strength and conditioning wings.
“As a team, we need to all work hard on the things that can limit any issues – neck strength, grip strength, core strength. That contest can be part of the appeal, though. You want to be in that arena where there is no escape. When you’re in the middle of a scrum, there is no escape. Young players just need to be coached and taught how to do it in a safe way, then it can be a real contest.
“Making sure you’re strong enough and have that will to hold shape. The technical part of it is really quite simple – like anything in professional sport in life, it’s the doing it under pressure that’s the hard part.
“You can start talking about your hand position, your neck position, your footwork, your angles, but these are all the classic marginal gains. Nine times out of ten you just need to be able to hold shape under pressure. The good scrums and good scrummaging coaches will always focus on that.”