David Flatman: Sorry, Mike Ross is not the weak link. England beware
Sunday 10 February 2013
Last year I went to Twickenham and saw, with lust in my eyes, the England pack steamroller Ireland's scrum into the ground. It was as brutal an international dismantling as I have seen and shocked the rugby public. Those of us with cauliflower ears and cricked necks, however, knew what had really happened, and it was not all Ireland's fault.
Mike Ross, the Irish tighthead prop and the man on whose shoulders a nation's scrummaging hopes rested, left the field injured and did not return. This left a hole on the right-hand side of the scrum and Ulster's Tom Court was drafted on to do the job. I felt for the bloke. Court, you see, is an excellent loosehead but, despite it only being three feet away, the other side of the scrum may as well be in a different universe.
I was a loosehead and, begrudgingly, covered the tight in extremis. If it meant I was chosen on the bench over someone who refused to put his hand up for the 'other side', damn right I would step in. But this never meant I was any good at it. I survived a few entire games on the tight but there was one afternoon at Franklin's Gardens where I did not. Steve Thompson, a good mate, realised I was putting my hand down to keep myself low enough not to be lifted off the floor and he stamped on my hand until I stopped cheating. Quite right, too. When I was forced, with a sore hand, to scrummage at a legal height, I was butchered. The next day I read in the papers that "an international prop should be able to hold the scrum up on both sides".
For the vast majority of props, that is tosh. How many times have you seen Carl Hayman, Julian White or Dan Cole playing loosehead?
There has been talk, although not from Camp England, of targeting Ross this afternoon, No, they know the rule: never give an opposition forward pack any extra motivation. After last year's humiliation, Irish motivation will be at fever pitch come that first scrum. And anyway, every half-decent scrum in the world targets the opposing tighthead, so what's new?
A loosehead and a hooker ganging up on a tighthead is as predictable as it is vital. A retreating tighthead prop presents his team with a problem. The defending scrum-half will be following his opposite number around the scrum and therefore leave a natural numerical advantage to the attacking side, should they pass the ball right from the scrum. If this side is moving backwards, the defending scrum-half is brought naturally closer to his opposite number and the defending left-handside flanker (generally the openside, but not always) moves up into a far more dominant defensive position, while the attacking flanker moves backwards. Advantage lost. So the value of a top tighthead is not just the demolition job, but what he can offer his side in terms of attacking options. After all, a team that can only attack one way from the scrum is not terribly difficult to defend.
Irish forwards coach Gert Smal has, quite cleverly, put a little more pressure on England by announcing their supposed intentions to the world, while no doubt stoking up his own gorillas in the process. But while England's one and two are targeting Mike Ross, what do we think Cian Healey and Rory Best will be up to? Exactly.
It will be great to watch, especially as Ireland will have born this grudge for a year. With Brian O'Driscoll back on top form, and Jonny Sexton keen to show that, despite agreeing to play club rugby in France, he is Ireland to the core, this will be a tough game to win. England have not won there in a decade, but this team stand a chance. A victory today would, in my view, be every bit as gargantuan as the one over the All Blacks. With a full front row now obligatory on the reserves bench of any international team, there are not likely to any major mismatches there which might mean less drama. So this one might not be all about the scrum. Shame, really.
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