The armchair punter might have been forgiven for viewing yesterday's front-row battle as a lesser event after the withdrawal of Gethin Jenkins. The Welsh superstar has rightly earned a reputation as one of the best looseheads on the planet and unusually, regarding a prop, there will have been several fans eager to see him play. On a typical Saturday, there are only a very select few who arrive excited at the prospect of the scrummage: former front-rowers and our parents. Even my mum has been known to overlook the tight phases.
However, as it transpired, it was Paul James of the Ospreys who was given perhaps the biggest Welsh boots to fill. A provincial stalwart who was called upon to fill in out of position at tighthead in the autumn – and was duly annihilated – he would have been keen to prove his worth at the set piece. And he did, for the most part, a good job; the first few being a bit messy and, ultimately, the battle finishing unresolved. I imagine both sides would be keenly claiming a points victory at the bar last night – any prop worth his salt never admits defeat, the murky ins and outs of the dark arts leaving all but a minority completely in the dark and therefore unable to argue.
"Wow, he doesn't look much like a professional," were the words of a woman at a nearby table when Adam Jones and his mane appeared on the big screen of the small Treviso bar which the rest of the Saxons squad and I found, in order to watch the big match. How wrong you are, madam. He may look a touch under groomed and might even admit being, at times, as we all are, too fond of a fruit scone with his tea, but to judge this book by its cover is to display alarming ignorance. Jones has, in the last two years, become one of the finest tighthead props playing the game. Once accused of not being fit enough to last the distance, he is now a regular 80-minute man and his scrummaging... well, ask South Africa's "Beast", Tendai Mtawarira, whom he was mincing in the summer before Bakkies Botha blindsided him and sent him to hospital.
Tim Payne did a great job against him. Under pressure after a relentlessly publicised horror show at Leicester a few weeks ago, he proved his point. He showed first that he can scrummage with the best of them and second that, as we all know, it takes eight men to get the job done. He also managed to significantly outplay his opposite number around the field, popping up time after time to make tackles and pile into rucks. Yes, he will be dreading the replay of his skinning at the hands of James Hook, but when everything else has gone so well and England have won, who cares. Anyway, all that fake tan and baby oil makes Hook a difficult man to keep hold of.
So it was a ferociously competitive afternoon at scrum time and both teams will have felt under pressure. Not one scrum was half hearted by either side and even in the last few minutes these blokes were tearing into each other. The only aspect of the contest that left me frustrated (except that I was watching it on TV) was the referee's insistence on blowing his whistle and giving decision after decision before the scrum had really developed. Of course there will be illegal actions at times and props will push whatever boundaries are enforced, but it saddens me that this area – surely the essence of our game – has become, like so many other things these days, over-policed.
I am sure officials are told how to operate and lashed with horsewhips by their bespectacled assessors for every scrum they allow to reset so it is not necessarily them I blame. The worry of the scrummage ruining rugby as a spectacle has clearly turned into blind fear. If only these chaps would let us do what we do I am sure we could make it what it once was; a load of big, proud men risking their necks for glory. That's what the public wants, isn't it?Reuse content