In a room at a hotel in Chelsea Harbour, not far from where a Russian football club owner might have been ruminating a mega-money move for a Spanish striker, rugby's great and good were talking scrummaging. And talking, and talking: almost two hours of chat, and little time left for any other subject during the gathering of Six Nations coaches last Tuesday ahead of the 2011 version of the game's oldest Championship. The scrum, you see, is in a bit of a state. And, amazing as it may seem in this age of swooping cameras and bedroom suites in Twickenham stands, the scrum still matters.
A remarkable and utterly depressing two-thirds of scrums collapsed in last year's Six Nations. When Martin Johnson commented last week "spectators don't want to watch half an hour of resets", it was with little exaggeration. Ask Dan Cole his opinion and the England tighthead prop, just 23 but a key component of his team's challenge for a first Championship in eight years, gives a straightforward summary. "Referees have got to control it in some respect, but also the teams have got to take it upon themselves," he said. "England have a positive scrum and want to go forward and attack. We've got to be able to control it and take the referee out of it, but we can't do it all ourselves."
Last week, the International Board's referee manager Paddy O'Brien gave an assurance that assistant referees would speak up for any tighthead scrummaging straight while his opposing loosehead was boring in. Most coaches consider the modern scrum a contest of pushing rather than hooking. You suspect a dead-straight feed would see the ball shoot straight out the other side.
The most contentious aspect is the engagement and the referee's call of "crouch, touch, pause, engage". O'Brien reiterated the "touch" should be a definitive motion, not a split-second tap, and promised his refs would be uniform in the cadence of the "pause". Front rows who drive up rather than straight were highlighted; England's hooker Dylan Hartley featured in footage, no doubt to the satisfaction of Wales's Warren Gatland, who had a pop at him. "It's also the gap between front rows," said Cole. "If you're head on head and one team flinches early the likelihood is the other team won't recover and it'll collapse."
Cole's club is Leicester, and England have an old Leicester front-rower, Graham Rowntree, looking after their scrum with former members of the Tigers' second and back rows, Johnson and John Wells, alongside. Cole went to the same school as Johnson, in Market Harborough. They know what they want. "Wales may not be as strong without [the injured] Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins," said Cole, "but they'll still try and get stuck into us and neutralise us. We've got to win our own set-piece if we want our exciting back three to play."
Cole has had his good days – last season against Saracens away, Wasps at home and Australia twice Down Under – and some not so good: Perpignan in December, Paris against France last March, when he and Hartley were substituted at half-time. The French attacked the loosehead Tim Payne in the latter case, and Andrew Sheridan is the likely pick on Friday. Last time out, England were dominated physically by South Africa; training in Portugal last week, Cole and company had 10 or 12 scrums on the machine a day, and a similar number in live, opposed sessions.
The bearded Cole could do a passable impression of Henry VIII, and wouldn't mind lopping the heads off critics who "demean" the scrum. "I'd quite happily sack all the backs and just have a forward pack," he said, "but I don't go around saying that because I realise their importance to the game. You can use the scrums to win games and it also tires the opposition out.
"Take the scrum away and the game wouldn't be as good as it is."Reuse content