Neil de Kock: Wallabies' secret weapon at scrum time

The Wallabies have been lauded for their street smart tactics in back-to-back victories over the Springboks in Australia but, for me, it’s been their scrummaging displays which have caught the eye.

© (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images) Neil de Kock: Wallabies’ secret weapon at scrum time

Since Petrus du Plessis joined the Wallaby coaching staff as scrum coach in late 2020, Australia’s set-piece has improved markedly. The former tighthead prop was born in South Africa but schooled in the dark arts of front row play in England. The 40-year-old is an astute student of the game when it comes to scrummaging and has been clever in terms of working with the available resources in Australia.

For a while now, scrummaging has been a perceived Wallaby weakness but Du Plessis is shifting the narrative as he continues to work with a group of props who boast an average age of 26.

Not too many people will know about Petrus as a player but when he came to Saracens in 2010, he was almost a saviour for us at the time because we had an injury crisis in the front row. At the beginning a number of people asked: “Where is this guy from?” However, he was absolutely outstanding, dug us out of many holes and played for the club until he left for London Irish in 2017.

Fast forward to 2021 and Du Plessis deserves credit for his work as Wallaby scrum coach. The men in gold and green knew that they would effectively be coming up against two Springbok packs over 80 minutes – owing to South Africa’s 6/2 bench split – and realised that they were going to have to find ways and means to get around South Africa’s famed Bomb Squad in order to at least be on par or perhaps even dominate the set-piece at times.

If it means that you have to push the letter of the law – as most modern professional teams do at the breakdown, with mauling and offside lines – it’s definitely a tactic that won’t be frowned upon unless it’s within the boundaries of what the law says.

However, another former teammate of mine, Rob Kempson, has been outspoken in terms of the Wallabies’ “illegal scrummaging.” Kempson flagged tighthead prop Taniela Tupou in particular for not having his hips parallel to the touchline and pointed to “the angle of his back” and how he “turned himself right to the other touchline.” I am definitely not going to disagree with Kempson when it comes to pointing out scrummaging tactics and the accompanying laws.

However, the irony is that if you asked the front rows of both Australia and South Africa the exact same questions post-match, I guarantee you that all six starting front rowers would have a different answer as to who dominated the set-piece, where it was dominated and where it went wrong at certain stages in the match. That is the beauty of scrummaging, which has always been a contentious aspect of the game.

As a former scrumhalf, I want to see the ball in and out of the scrum as quickly as possible and rugby being played. However, I respect the fact that the scrum set-piece is an incredible art form and plenty of time and effort goes into it at training and during a match situation. You want to be rewarded when you are dominant and are genuinely on top at scrum time. And when it doesn’t go your way, it’s incredibly frustrating as the Springboks can attest to against the Wallabies in Australia.

There are other parts of the oval game which are grey areas but the scrum is definitely still one of the most subjective aspects of rugby.

If we are talking about adding officials at scrum time to remedy the lottery which often ensues, how many times are we going to stop the game to discuss refereeing decisions? I agree that we can’t be reviewing every scrum to see what the correct call is but there could be value in bringing in an independent scrum official to focus solely on the set-piece and make a call into the referee’s ear at key moments in the match.

Making use of an independent scrum official for Test matches may be the way to go because if you had to put me in a game now, even as an ex-player and ask me to referee a scrum, it would be extremely difficult. The independent scrum official could be trialled at provincial level first before being moved to the international stage.

While contests on the ground, high tackles and going off your feet at ruck time are also areas that can have a material effect on a game, we need to find a solution because scrum rulings can change the outcome of a contest. It was evidenced by the final penalty awarded in the first Test match between Australia and South Africa on the Gold Coast which swung the result in the former’s favour.

It will be interesting to see how the Wallabies fare at scrum time over the next fortnight against the Pumas, who are famed for their Bajada technique, and what variations Du Plessis is set to introduce.

Following an 11-year career with Saracens, which saw him earn 264 caps, Neil de Kock now works in the rugby division at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport in South Africa. De Kock, who featured in 10 Test matches for the Springboks, provides RugbyPass with expert opinion and insight focusing on the southern hemisphere sides.

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