Yesterday lunchtime a friend messaged me to turn on the TV and watch Scotland's historic win over England at Murrayfield in 1990. "The scrums are non-existent, mate," he said, "it's a joke." Well, I did take a look, and I couldn't have disagreed more. Sure, there was no engagement as such, but once the chaps had bound on and folded in with heads generally in the correct slots, it was war.
Jeff Probyn was giving David Sole all sorts of problems, turning him in on the angle, grabbing his elbow and twisting him in underneath the scrum itself and stamping brutally all over his back and side when he caved under the pressure. When an old dog with cauliflower ears tells you that, in his day, scrums were a dogfight, believe him.
In those days, England had a scrum to be afraid of. And that is not to say that since the likes of Probyn and Paul "Judge" Rendall retired it has become any less of an asset; we English have always managed to present well at the set-piece. But while we have seen some world-class props in the white jersey over the past 20 years – Jason Leonard and Phil Vickery are just two – it was not until the arrival of Andrew Sheridan that the fear factor truly returned. At his peak he was – or is – a player who, should you get it just a bit wrong, will butcher you without remorse. And now he is gone. By "gone" I mean off to Toulon to test himself at the famously intense French coalface, and this will render him all but ineligible for England selection.
So, as with much of this England team, we look to the next generation. We know that big, durable, technically sound Dan Cole can do the job. He will, fitness providing, be England's cornerstone for some time. Dylan Hartley, too, has become a very confident and powerful scrummager having spent a few seasons working between the twin behemoths of Northampton.
So we look to Alex Corbis-iero. This is the man who must, under severe pressure from the likes of Joe Marler, Matt Mullan and Nick Wood, make the No 1 jersey his for keeps. And taking on Euan Murray and his pals at Murrayfield was just the sort of rough examination he needed to come through with with his nose in front.
The contest at the scrum was every bit as fierce as the one we saw 22 years ago. The first scrum saw Murray put a real squeeze on and, through sheer relentlessness, drive his side forward. England survived but I, for one, was a bit worried. I needn't have been, because Corbisiero in particular showed real mental strength and resilience and came back to dominate at the very next opportunity. The two really big shunts of the game came from the England pack, both of which caused the Scotland front-row to stand up. Oddly, despite the incidents being near identical, penalties went both ways. These days...
Murray did manage to assert himself on an England put-in and this led to the presentation of the ball being pressured at the base of the scrum. Ben Youngs had to get it out as the pressure was coming on and he panicked, popping it to Chris Ashton instead of Charlie Hodgson. The Saracens-bound flyer was caught, the ensuing pressure leading to a sitter of a penalty for the Scots.
This, though, was a rare blemish against top-drawer opposition on a day when a young man took another early step towards filling some very big boots. Corbisiero was excellent again. He doesn't want to be the new Andrew Sheridan; he wants to be the next England prop to strike fear into the hearts of tightheads the world over. Some big nasty men are waiting for him, but he will only get bigger, uglier and nastier himself.
The future's bright.
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