Peter Bills: The value of the scrummage

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The Independent Online

He presided over a multitude of straightforward decisions affecting the sport. He was in charge as the Rugby World Cup went from strength to strength, mushrooming into the sporting world's third biggest event.

But despite all that, the greatest legacy left behind by former IRB Chairman Syd Millar from his time in office spanning late 2003 to 2007, is being seen in almost single game being played these days.



When players, coaches, referees and officials held a conference in Auckland way back in 2003 to try to determine possible ways of improving the sport as a spectacle, the wheels were put in motion for the controversial experiment of the ELVs, much loved by most of the southern hemisphere but loathed with a passion by many of those north of the equator.



When the terms of reference were made known, it quickly became clear that many of the suggested elements of the game to be looked at had the potential to create very significant and fundamental change. But the body charged with investigating and pursuing the issue of the ELVs (Experimental Law Variations) did not begin their work until the IRB Chairman had issued his own forthright words on the topic.



"Don't go messing around with the scrum" Millar, the wily old former Ballymena and Irish prop, bluntly warned them. The warning was taken to heart.



How richly ironic then, that the modern game is now demonstrating time after time the great worth of the scrummage. The best prop forwards have become prized items, hugely expensive body masses capable of commanding vast sums in wages. New Zealander Carl Hayman, by general repute the No. 1 tight head prop in world rugby, will join French club RC Toulon next month for a reputed Euros 625,000 a season. Imagine, too, how much it would take to prise Fabien Barcello, one of the world's best loose heads, from his current club, Biarritz.



This last weekend we saw further proof of the immense value of the scrummage in the modern game. In the Guinness Premiership semi-final, Leicester badly exposed Bath's weakness in this phase, the destructive Italian tight head prop Martin Castrogiovanni and then youngster Dan Cole, destroying Bath's recalled England loose head David Flatman.



Wherever the game is played at this serious level, sides without true scrummaging power are being exposed. It is an issue of singular concern to Ireland coach Declan Kidney ahead of next year's World Cup final. With the hugely improved Australian scrum to be confronted in the group stage of the tournament, Kidney knows he must find a way to combat the Wallabies' likely supremacy in this phase.



The new Leinster coach Joe Schmidt reiterated the importance of scrummage quality after his present side, Clermont Auvergne, had beaten Toulon in extra time in the French Championship semi-final last weekend. Schmidt admitted it was an area he considered crucial in the modern game, hinting that the Leinster scrummage might come in for special focus when he gets to Dublin to start work in approximately a month's time.



Everywhere you look in top class rugby today good props – the cornerstone of a good scrum - are increasingly seen as crucial. Saracens and Northampton recently fought tooth and nail to secure the long term services of Northampton loose head Soane Tonga'uiha, who appeared to have a change of mind about leaving Saints after Saracens claimed he had 'signed' for them. An agreement was eventually reached between the two clubs under which Tonga'uiha stayed at Franklin's Gardens, and Northampton breathed an enormous sigh of relief.



At times, the scrummage in rugby union drives everyone to foaming frustration. All those collapses which even today few referees really understand the cause of, the constant crooked feeds into their own forwards' feet by the half-backs and the perennial re-sets which cause the game to be stopped, sometimes for minutes on end.



Yet having said that, the great spectacle of two quality props trying to out-scrummage one other, like warriors from past times, remains one of the most captivating in the modern game. It is an area of rugby that continues to be crucial because without at least equilibrium in the scrum, few teams can expect to finish ahead on the scoreboard.



They might look as ugly as sin, have shocking cauliflower ears, bent noses and be destined for years of back trouble in their retirement. But in 2010, the role of the rugby prop forward is every bit as important as it ever was, probably more so.



Old Syd Millar will raise a wry grin at that state of affairs.

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