Robinson's mighty pack brings scrum law into focus

England 26 Australia 16
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The Independent Online

Somewhere along the line, the administrative classes will have to get to grips with this scrummaging lark before the game has something infinitely worse than a stretcher-case on its conscience. And before they start fiddling around to the detriment of England's chances of retaining the World Cup in 2007, they should understand that the problem will not be solved by emasculating the likes of Andrew Sheridan - it would be fun watching them try - as a means of depowering the set-piece. Quite the opposite, in fact. Teams like Australia should be told to beef up before the Red Rose army are ordered to beef down.

If the soul separates humans from the animals, the eight-man monster is the dynamic that prevents the union code mutating into an ersatz form of rugby league. Because of the scrum - and, to a slightly lesser extent, the line-out - the 15-man game can accommodate the full palette of shapes and sizes on its rich canvas. Because of the scrum, the strong fat bloke can share the field with the lean fast bloke and not feel like a Big Issue seller at a black-tie dinner. Because of the scrum, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

These salient points have been wilfully ignored by the Wallabies for the last five years or so, and at Twickenham on Saturday they reaped the harvest of neglect. The marvellous English tight forwards, with Sheridan leading the way on his first Test start, smithereened the tourists so comprehensively that the Australians ran out of ways to cheat. As they had in the World Cup final two years previously, they attempted everything under the sun - standing up, collapsing, packing down at illegal angles, refusing to engage - but try as they might, they could not pull the wool over the eyes of Joel Jutge, the outstanding French referee. By the end they were in bits, with one prop in the sin bin and another in the x-ray department.

Poor Matt Dunning was not equipped to handle Phil Vickery on the loose-head side of the Wallaby scrum. When, late in the game, the equally uncomfortable Al Baxter was shown a yellow card for repeated acts of scrummaging chicanery - rumour had it that he asked Jutge for a red instead, on the basis that he was in no hurry to return - Dunning suddenly found himself in the tight-head position against a rampant Sheridan, which was enough to make the blood run cold. One of the great mismatches in sporting history lasted precisely one scrum, after which the Canadian-born Sydneysider disappeared with his neck in a brace.

The result of this mayhem? Uncontested scrums. That is the law, and the law is an ass. The regulations effectively decree that if one side is so spellbindingly useless in the set-piece that their specialist props are either penalised off the field or carried off it, the referee has no option but to force their opponents to relinquish a crucial advantage on the grounds of safety. In this litigious age, it is difficult to blame the sport's custodians for covering their ample behinds. All the same, it is the logic of the madhouse - a logic that has given the Wallabies an excuse to ignore the development of Test-class props and concentrate on producing try-scoring athletes instead.

Andy Robinson, the England coach, was not best pleased with the situation. "Safety is paramount, of course, but we must never diminish the value of something so integral to rugby as the scrum and the game will have to take a hard look at this issue," he said, uncomfortably aware that another 10 minutes of uncontested nose-rubbing would have played straight into Australian hands by giving them free rein to attack off the front foot.

Whether the game is bold enough to award points against teams who exhaust their supply of front-row forwards, thereby forcing them to stack their bench with props and hookers at the expense of back-line substitutes, is among the imponderables of the age.

At least Robinson's opposite number, Eddie Jones, accepted that the Wallabies had finally reached the end of the non-scrummaging road. "It is now possible once again to win matches through the scrum," acknowledged Jones, who, as a former hooker, ought to know a thing or two about the realities of life in the darkened recesses. "I'm not saying it's wrong; I'm simply saying that scrummaging is an art, and it takes time to develop artists. When we get into our Super 14 tournament next year, we must start taking the set-piece a lot more seriously." Hooray!

While his player lay prone a few metres from his own line, Jones was not thinking about the whys and wherefores of the rules and regulations; he was thinking about Ben Darwin, his World Cup tight-head prop two years ago, whose career ended in a collapsed scrum against New Zealand - a calamity that left him within a hair's breadth of paralysis. The coach was hugely relieved, as was the whole of rugby, when two scans failed to detect any structural damage to Dunning's neck. He is, however, sufficiently smart to realise that an improvement in performance at the sharp end will give his side an even-money chance of making the final in 2007.

They have pretty much everything else in place. Phil Waugh and George Smith, the Wallaby answer to the Boulder Brothers from Wacky Races, were quite brilliant in the loose exchanges, keeping Australia alive despite the starvation rations. Mat Rogers was full of beans at outside-half, Lote Tuqiri seriously menacing in the centre, Drew Mitchell and the outstanding Chris Latham in their pomp in the back three. Had it not been for the hired muscle up front, England would have struggled to live with them.

Only Charlie Hodgson played with true authority outside the scrum, and not even he could radicalise an attacking strategy incarcerated in its own conservatism. The England backs would have worn seatbelts in a drive-in cinema, so cautious were they in their approach. The Wallabies had only 25 per cent of the ball, yet three minutes into stoppage time they were only a single penalty adrift. Mark Cueto's determined score in the left corner - a finish as difficult as Ben Cohen's first-half run-in was simple - eventually ended the tourists' resistance, but it was an awfully long time in the coming.

Can Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon, peas from a pod, continue to be paired in midfield? Not for long, surely. Olly Barkley, who showed a decent touch or two when he replaced the injured Hodgson just shy of the hour mark, may or may not start against New Zealand this weekend, but he certainly has a long-term future at inside-centre.

So, possibly, does a certain Jonny Wilkinson. At least England have plenty of options in the position. When it comes to propping, the Wallabies have plenty of nothing.

England: J Lewsey (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester), B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), M Dawson (Wasps); A Sheridan (Sale), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), P Sanderson (Worcester), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt). Replacements: M van Gisbergen (Wasps) for Cueto, 1-12; O Barkley (Bath) for Hodgson, 57.

Australia: C Latham (Queensland); M Gerrard (ACT), L Tuqiri (New South Wales), M Turinui (New South Wales), D Mitchell (Queensland); M Rogers (New South Wales), G Gregan (ACT, capt); M Dunning (New South Wales), B Cannon (Western Australia), A Baxter (New South Wales), H McMeniman (Queensland), N Sharpe (Western Australia), J Roe (Queensland), P Waugh (New South Wales), G Smith (ACT). Replacements: M Giteau (ACT) for Latham, 40-43 and for Gerrard, 72; M Chisholm (ACT) for Sharpe, 47-54; C Whitaker (New South Wales) for Gregan, 66; G Holmes (Queensland) for Roe, 70; T Polota-Nau (New South Wales) for Dunning, 75; L Johannson (Queensland) for Turinui, 80; S Fava (Western Australia) for Cannon, 80.

Referee: J Jutge (France).

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