Pushing the Jumper’s cause

Keo, in his News 24 coulmn, writes that too much emphasis is placed on scrumming when the line-out is the most significant attacking platform.

Too much is made of the scrum in the modern game. Not enough is made of the lineout.

Every week I get told how little Victor Matfield does and how desperately we need a more dominant tight five for the scrum. It is pub talk.

The lineout is the most important set phase in the modern game. It gives you three points of attack in the front, middle and tail ball. It gives you the option to catch, drive and start mauling. It gives you the option a quick tap back to the hooker and an attack down the touchline and most importantly it gives you a chance to have a go at the opposition’s ball.

The hooker is still pinned for a crooked throw in the modern game. Not so the scrumhalf at a scrum, when the ball is invariably put in somewhere between the lock and blindside flanker’s feet. A heel against the head is as rare as an England rugby win these days and limited props get to play many tests. Not so limited locks. The latter is the area that has improved the most when it comes to the quality of players produced.

Much was made of the All Blacks dominance of the Wallabies in the scrum. There were four occasions in the match that their physical presence ensured uncomfortable ball for the No 8 and scrumhalf. In all, the Wallabies had 10 scrums and lost one. The All Blacks affected two turnovers from the scrum feed.

The rule in the modern game is you win your ball at scrum time. It is much more of a restart than a contest. You go down on the referee’s engage signal, there is no extended shove, for fear of injury, and the only time a scrum is a factor is five metres from the opposition line. And that is the exception in a game and not the norm.

Where New Zealand dominated Australia was with aggression at the breakdown and in the tackle. Where they neutralized Australia’s backs was in the limited quality of the ball the Aussies won from the lineout.

The Wallabies lineout was not fluid and with Rocky Elsom off the field, Australia had no tail-ball option, which is the most valuable attacking ball any backline can ask for.

In 2006 the average number of scrums per game is 19. By comparison you have 37 lineouts a game. 95 percent of the scrum feeds are won by the team putting in the ball. In the lineouts, the security is considerably less, with only 84 percent going the way of the team with possession.

Matfield’s value is enormous to the Boks, in that he is one of the best contesting jumpers in the business and among the safest on his own ball. His value is greater than the Bok tighthead prop’s.

To beat the Wallabies in Brisbane, the Boks have to do a bit more than scrum their opponents. They can make each engage uncomfortable, but in 80-plus minutes of combat, there won’t even be 20 engages. There should be close to double the amount in lineouts and it is here where White believes he has a considerable advantage in having selected five players with the ability to win him tail and middle lineout ball. He rightfully will have assumed the two ball, which is largely used as a safety net and a defensive lineout win, is a gimme.

The pace of the game does not allow for big brutes who just want to scrum all day. Mobility is more critical than out and out bulk. In 1991 the ball was in play for 31 percent of the game. Today in international rugby that figure is 46 percent.

Lineouts have increased and scrums have decreased, which is why White may talk up the scrumming aspect in the media, but it is the lineouts that would have taken up most of the team discussion this week.

Go back to the Boks fantastic win against the Wallabies in Durban in 2004. Where did the Boks get the edge? Not at the scrum, but in the lineout. Matfield so bamboozled them in the contest that on three occasions Wallabies hooker Brendan Cannon froze when trying to put the ball in. He waited too long and couldn’t get the throw away.

Matfield scored in that match and threw the pass that led to Joe van Niekerk’s try in that match. But his greatest contribution was his ability to contest the ball and put the Wallabies lineout under pressure.

It certainly helps to have a powerful front row at the set piece, but it does not ensure you victory and it certainly does not define success. Put together a fantastic lineout and you’re in business.

And White will believe that by picking loose-forward lineout options in Van Niekerk, Smith and Spies, he’ll have an advantage over Australia.

Whether the Bok backs are clever and clinical enough to make that count. Now that’s a question that no statistic can answer.