Tony McKeever

A how-to guide on front-row skullduggery

We all love our game of rugby with varying degrees of passion, from the Taliban-like fundamentalism of the painted Bulls bone heads, to the plasma screen couch fans popping salted peanuts in their mouth at home or at bars around the world.

The game either ranges from a spectacle with a clash of the titan rugby elite, to a tame uninspired encounter between various school teams.

The sizzle in rugby is the fire and brimstone of the players, which has become the required hallmark that is synonymous with new age rugby entertainment in the bid to score tries and maximum bonus points

Obviously I am over generalising here, but there is a lot of media focus on the bad boys of rugby who on the field get Yellow Carded or Red Carded, or outright banned for a few games by the citing commissioner, or turfed out of the game all together for some miscreant violent behaviour off the field.

So when I got a rugby coaching email circular yesterday, it got me thinking that, except for the few front row specialists and coaches, we know very little as to what really goes on in the “engine room” of the scrum, between props and hookers as they pound each other with brute force on cue to the Couch-Touch-Pause-Engage command from the ref.

It is a peculiar camaraderie between every single front rower, big or small, that they are part of a revered group of true rugby purists, because what goes on here is not seen by TV camera or photographer lens. This front row contest is the inner sanctum of rugby and some might go on to say, where the game of rugby is won or lost.

Every day I receive an email from Dan Cottrell on “Better Coaching, Smart Coaching, Smart Sessions” and a range of skills and drills, all extremely well laid out and incredibly insightful into the game of rugby, with a viewpoint that resonated with me as to how complex and scientific rugby coaching is today. It is tough and incredibly cerebral which most times is at odds with the wider image and understanding of what a good coach is.

But then he went on to “OUT” the skull duggery trademark secrets of the front row with an excerpt from his “Secrets of the Front Row” that makes for interesting reading, so with thanks to Dan Cottrell.

“It is helpful to know how cheating in the front row happens so you can work out the strategies to overcome it.

I don’t condone cheating in any form. But the reality is that some sides, or specific players, may try to cheat to gain an advantage. Here are some examples of how players cheat in the front row.

A thumb in the shorts: An opposition player reaches over the top and then puts their thumb in your prop’s shorts. They then pull the prop outwards.

Binding on the shorts: Instead of binding on the back or the side of the shirt, the opposition prop will bind on the shorts with a straight arm. This gives another “piston” from which to shove.

Slipping the binding: It is remarkably difficult to work out who is binding on whom in the front row, particularly when looked at from the referee’s point of view. Some unscrupulous props and/or hookers may slip their inside binding and punch or gouge their opposite number.

Stamping on toes: If a front row has some ascendancy on the initial engagement, then they may stamp on the toes of the opposition. Hookers are often targets for this type of treatment.

Head on the hooker’s knee: The opposition hooker places their head on your hooker’s striking knee making it difficult to strike for the ball.

Head on head: The prop puts his head on the opposition second row’s head, making it a very uncomfortable pushing position from the second row.

Engagement miss hits: Just before the engagement, the opposition prop hits your prop’s shoulder with their arm to change the angle of impact. This reduces the effectiveness of your scrum’s initial impact.

Boring in: This is where a prop turns in on the opposing prop or hooker. Often the opposition loose head prop and hooker work together to target the tight head prop.

They will start by making a very small space for the tight head’s head to engage on impact, and then they will drive in. The aim is to destabilise the scrum and so reduce the effectiveness of the shove.

Dropping the scrum under pressure: A very dangerous tactic whereby the opposition front row fold forward to bring the other front row down with them. If the referee is finding it difficult to pick out the perpetrators, then it is used to disrupt the rhythm of the other scrum.

Popping up under pressure: If a hooker or prop feels they are at a disadvantage on impact, they may well “pop” upwards and out of the scrum. They might even “pop” up just before impact as well.

This article on how the front row can cheat at scrums is from Dan Cottrell’s — Secrets of the Front Row.

This gives one a greater understanding of the scrum contest and especially what the ref has to contend with, with these sophisticated and honed front row practices. No wonder they are trialling lipstick head cameras for the ref.

It does offer an interesting dimension on the front row tussle and who is doing what to whom when the front row “engages”.

Then as a post script to the front row – below is a very tongue in cheek take on some South African front row “names” by Stephen Jones of the Daily Mail.

South Africa’s leading lard-bottoms

The pumped-up props for whom reverse gear is a way of life.

10. Wian du Preez — came on as a replacement for South Africa against Sarries at Wembley, hammered by Richard Skuse then ritually slaughtered by Carlos Nieto in the final quarter. Ran backwards.

9. B J Botha — when last I was in South Africa, one of the home prop-slobberers told me to watch out for BJ, he was something special. Indeed he was. He stayed hidden for 80 minutes.

8. C J van der Linde — shocking. He was beasted to kingdom come in the Wasps-Leinster Heineken match at Twickenham last season. Cue disappearance of CJ and enter unopposed scrums.

7. Lawrence Sephaka — still staggering about in France last time we heard. Was usually carted off at half-time in big games after being murdered in the scrum. Token-selection suspicions ahoy.

6. Gurthro Steenkamp — nice bloke, but he couldn’t scrummage your Auntie. Totally obliterated by Martin Castrogiovanni of Leicester at Welford Road last week. Would struggle for a beer-only contract in a local leagues outfit.

5. Ollie le Roux — great jolly barrel of a man. Enjoyed the odd gallop prior to a ten-minute break for wheezing and getting his breath back, but yet another Bok prop who was simply not at the races as a scrummager.

4. John Smit — a few years ago he was a decent hooker. Now, in answer to the savage dearth, he is a prop who, if he quickened up dramatically, would be military slow-medium.

3. Jannie du Plessis — smashed to pieces by the reserve Leicester front row last week. Big and chunky and a shame he kept missing the How to Prop seminars. No forward gears, apparently.

2. Tendai Mtawarira — even by the second-half of the first Test against the Lions we knew that his striking scrummaging against Phil Vickery in the first half had been a freak, aided by a ref who let him scrum with total illegality. In the rest of the series, including the return against Vickery in the third Test, he was demolished

1. Os du Randt — the mountainous hero, the untouchable, four-square baldy of scrum-time, adored in the Republic. Especially by those whose televisions were on the blink when he was destroyed piece by piece and utterly humiliated by Julian White at Twickenham a few years ago.