'Finally people are realising the scrum is the key'

David Flatman, England's best scrummager, is fit again. He tells Chris Hewett why he's hopeful of making the tour Down Under

As French rugby sails full steam ahead towards the promised land, leaving the game in the British Isles paddling around in the shallows with its trousers rolled up to the knees, it is time to identify the things separating them from us.

Their clubs have more money, for a start, along with greater pulling power: domestic championship attendances are now within 6,000 of the average gate in the top flight of professional football. They play for the most part in superbly appointed municipal stadiums, they have comprehensive television coverage and – very important, this – they all have a scrum.

Yes, we're back in the age of the dear old set-piece: the 16-man game within a game where an inch gained here and there allows a team to win by miles. Last week, both Toulouse and Biarritz prevailed in their respective Heineken Cup semi-finals because they tore up the opposing scrum. Back in March, the French clinched another of their regular Six Nations Grand Slams by reducing the English front row to its component parts. Unless and until the British and Irish match the Tricolores in the grunt-and-groan department, at club and international level, the only sightings they will have of union's glittering prizes will be from distant vantage points uncomfortably adjacent to their own backsides.

"The scrum is still absolutely fundamental: I've been saying it for years, and finally people are starting to listen." The speaker is David Flatman of Bath, widely regarded as the most potent scrummager in England and a strong candidate to resume his injury-interrupted Test career in Australia next month. "You saw in last week's semi-finals that the sides with the strong set-piece were not only able to disrupt opposition ball, but were profiting massively on their own put-in," he continues. "If you can win the hit and you have good co-ordination with your scrum-half, the strategic advantage is very considerable indeed."

Flatman, who turned 30 in January, knows of what he speaks. He has been wrecking opposition scrums at Premiership level since his late teens and might have won 40 caps had he stayed fit for longer than five minutes at a time between 2004 and 2008. Far and away the most impressive English loose head over the course of the current campaign, he is surely in the thoughts of Martin Johnson as the national manager finalises his summer tour squad, which is scheduled to be named on Tuesday.

Like every other prop in Christendom, he feels the art of scrummaging is widely misunderstood, not least by referees. "We heard a lot of complaints about the numbers of reset scrums during the Six Nations, but it's important to appreciate just how critical the set-piece contest is to winning the game," he says. "The worst of all worlds is having a referee who doesn't understand what's going on in there and ends up guessing at who's doing this and who's responsible for that. That's simply unfair, and you end up with props waving their arms around like footballers, complaining every time a decision goes against them.

"The referees are given this picture of what a scrum should look like, and if they get one that doesn't resemble the picture, they penalise someone. But every scrum is different, and it's not always possible to bind on your opponent the way it's drawn in the instruction manual. People like Darren Garforth or Cobus Visagie, who made life difficult for a lot of players down the years, simply wouldn't let you if it didn't suit them. Scrummaging is a pure contest of strength, with tactics thrown in. When you've left your lungs in the dressing room at half-time, you're hanging in there for dear life and a scrum goes down because you get your angles marginally wrong, the last thing you need is a bloke on the BBC putting a clock on every scrum as if to say it's boring if it lasts longer than 10 seconds."

Having paid close attention to the European semi-finals last weekend, Flatman acknowledges that the French are in the ascendant when it comes to harnessing the "eight-man monster" and unleashing it on the opposition. "David Skrela scored 21 points for Toulouse against Leinster," he says. "I'll tell you this for nothing: he wouldn't have scored 21 points had it not been for Benoît Lecouls, his tight-head prop. Coaches talk about props doing this and that around the field, and I'd agree there's more to modern rugby than the set-piece. But, ultimately, Lecouls earns his money by doing what he did to Leinster last weekend. He hurt them physically and he hurt them psychologically. It's a bugger of a job winning a game if that's happening to you up front."

Who'll make the tour?

England name the squad for their summer tour on Tuesday. Below are three regulars who may miss out, and three in with a chance of a call-up:

*IN

Alex Goode: One of Saracens' hottest acts. An outside-half in full-back's clothing, but terrific every which way.

Olly Barkley: Playing some vibrant rugby in a rejuvenated Bath midfield.

Andy Saull: The energetic Saracens flanker is impressing the right people. An outsider, armed with a puncher's chance.

*OUT

Delon Armitage: His rock-bottom form leaves him exposed.

Phil Vickery: Do England need him with Dan Cole and David Wilson around?

Jordan Crane: Out of the Leicester starting line-up just at the wrong moment.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album