IRFU Engage With Scrum Issue

The Irish scrum was solid all tournament until the English match. (c) Ken Bohane.

In fairness to the IRFU they haven’t hung around in attempting to remedy the catastrophic scrum failure at Twickenham on Saturday. Yesterday, on their website, the governing body of Irish rugby advertised the newly-created position of High Performance Scrum Coach. The harsh lesson England gave us at scrum time shows just how lacking in depth our front-row is. Tom Court, a loosehead prop for his province, was asked to replace the clearly irreplaceable Mike Ross at tighthead and the results were disastrous and dangerous.

The new Scrum Coach will be responsible for implementing the “recently established” High Performance Scrum Programme on behalf of the IRFU. Presumably, that programme means teaching young Irish props how to hold their own and hopefully dominate this particular set-piece. The current lack of depth of props anywhere near international level is alarming. There are certainly players with the potential to step up, but lack of exposure, even at provincial level, has held them back.

A lot is made of the need for props to gain years of experience before being unleashed in high-level rugby. We often hear that props don’t hit their prime until late in their careers, often after they turn 30. But look at England’s pair who demolished us on Saturday – Dan Cole is 24 and Alex Corbisiero just 23. Our own Cian Healy is 24 too, and his scrummaging has been progressing until this hiccup. Clearly, if he is good enough, a prop is old enough.

Healy and Ross coped well against Italy. Can we take it to the next level? (c) Ken Bohane.

Jamie Hagan is a fine prospect at tighthead. Age? 24! Still uncapped, the Leinster man hasn’t even featured in an Irish squad yet. That’s despite a strong season at Connacht last year when he was first-choice. While he hasn’t been a starter in the big games for Leinster this season, he has 15 appearances, 2 more than Court has made for Ulster, at loosehead. With the lack of cover for Ross at tighthead, surely Declan Kidney could have given Hagan a chance at some stage over the last year or so, even just off the bench?

The new Scrum Coach will need to stress to Kidney the importance of getting Hagan involved as soon as possible. At Munster, Stephen Archer is a 24-year-old tighthead with plenty of talent. He’s in his third season with the province and has picked up 7 starts this season. Archer will also need to be worked with closely, getting his scrummaging up to standard. Ulster’s Adam Macklin at 22, is another with potential. A converted back-row, the Belfast Harlequins man still has plenty to learn, but why not in an international environment?

On the other side of the scrum, Healy is first-choice but we need more competition here too. Court is good player for Ulster, but looks uncomfortable at international level. His teammate Paddy McAllister, 22, has looked solid in his 15 appearances for Ulster this season. Leinster’s Jack McGrath is the same age and another potential international. John Ryan of Munster, 23, and Ronan Loughney of Connacht, 28, can play on both sides of the scrum.

John Andress of Exeter Chiefs, 28, is a tighthead who played for the Wolfhounds back in ’09. Brett Wilkinson, also 28, has had plenty of involvement with the Irish squad, but no caps so far. Also at Connacht, Rodney Ah You and Dylan Rogers battered the Irish scrum in a World Cup warm-up last August and could be naturalised soon, both joining in 2010.  There are plenty of options!

Competition is needed for Healy at loosehead too. (c) Ken Bohane.

Last Saturday, Ireland paid the price for not investing time and resources into developing props who are up to an international standard. It has been a long-term issue, but with John Hayes and then Mike Ross having stayed largely injury-free, it has never really come to the fore. That’s exactly what happened in Twickenham, and the spotlight was merciless. The IRFU have been forced to act swiftly, knowing that something should have been done a long time ago.

The main point is that it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, we got an absolute beasting at the scrum against the English, but there are young players in this country with the potential to play international rugby. If the IRFU can get the right person to fill the new Scrum Coach role, allied to their succession plan, which should mean more provincial exposure for Irish props from next season onwards, then things can be put right.

In the short-term, Kidney must include some of these young players in the tour to New Zealand, even if he doesn’t feel they are ‘ready’. The only way to find out is to give them a chance. As we’ve seen with players like Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, some guys are just made for international rugby and the step-up is natural for them. To use Cole and Corbisiero as examples again, both were 22 when the made their England debut. Now, both look like possible Lions contenders next year.

Kidney needs to take a leap of faith in his squad selection for New Zealand, not just in the prop positions. As discussed on The Touchline already, he needs to get competition for every position back into the squad. Who knows what heights Cian Healy and Mike Ross could be pushed to with hungry young props breathing down their necks? If there had been replacements at a sufficient level of ability, could they have been rested at some stage in the 4-game run and thus come into the England game ready to attack their scrum? Some balls in June will have huge benefits down the line.

*As an aside, the IRB must expand the size of the bench in international games to 8 players. Asking a prop to cover two specialist positions is unfair and dangerous, as we saw with Court last Saturday.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.

12 responses to “IRFU Engage With Scrum Issue

  1. Great article murray, I didnt realise there were so many good young props. Hopefully theyll be given some exposure.

    • Yeah there’s plenty of guys with potential, that’s the main thing! Just need to get them involved and give them chances at provincial level and in the international set-up! I think we will see a lot more of that in the coming year, as it has to happen asap!

  2. About time the front row mystery was shed some light upon. The most technical area of the pitch and one of the least addressed. Throwing a big lad in as tight or loose because he’s a big lad is silly and nonsensical. All very true Murray. Kidney handing Archer and Hagan Wolfhound caps won’t achieve anything. He needs to make more ballsy decisions like his inclusion of Murray in the World Cup squad.

    • Yeah hugely important part of the game. I’ll admit straight up that I know very little about the workings of the front-row and scrummaging. The most important thing is to get someone who does in as Scrum Coach and get working with these guys as soon as possible in a high-level environment. No point in letting them simply sit on provincial benches learning nothing about it!
      Hagan didn’t even get a call-up for that Wolfhounds game this season! Hopefully the new IRFU rules on overseas players will mean more time on the pitch for the likes of Archer, Macklin, etc. along with the work done by the Scrum Coach.

  3. As you demonstrate, there is a generation of props out there waiting to come through and the next few years will be very important for Irish scrummaging. All the provinces have young Irish props coming though; Hagan appears to be having a fitness/bulk-up year at Leinster, Archer is coming into things more with The Bull retired and it’ll be interesting to see if anyone tries to bring Andress back to Ireland over the next few seasons.

    Competition for places is the main imperative. We all saw what happened last Saturday when Mike Ross got hurt, but there has also been a slight air of complacency around Cian Healy’s performances this Six Nations.

    A more joined up approach by the IRFU can only be a good thing, especially with the new NIE laws looming. It’s not all doom and gloom but theres plenty of work to be done.

    • In total agreement with everything you’ve said Ronan! Healy was good against Scotland, but like others seems a little complacent due to the lack of competition.

      There’s props there, as talented as props in other countries. Now it’s up to the IRFU and its provinces to get to work on them. A real push needs to be made in creating a ‘propping culture’, eventually leading to Ireland viewing scrummaging as one of our strengths, rather than somewhere we look to simply cope.

      As you said, it’ll take work but I think it can lead to really positive things for Irish rugby with a bit of work!

  4. Firstly I think the article is brilliant. Fair play to you. I totally agree in bringing the younger lads to the world cup because we do need to take a leap of faith in terms of giving young props game time. Im a hooker my self but I really feel for Tom Court having to play out of position because, having had the experience of one of our sub looseheads come on and play tighthead, I know it is an almost impossible task for someone used to the other side. From my knowledge, the techniques are fairly different and difficult so having to be good at both is a tough ask of anyone, even at international level. I think instead of the ‘A’ system, the unpicked players (front rows especially) should go back to their club and play AIL. However, that would only work if the AIL became one elite league. Fair play again on the article.

    • Thanks a million for the kind words Mark, glad you enjoyed it.

      You’ve got it bang on, asking a loosehead prop (Court) to cover both positions is unfair and was actually dangerous last Saturday! IRB need to expand the bench to 8 players, or enforce each team to include 3 front-rows on there…

      Scrapping the ‘A’ system would be a huge boost for the AIL, and would probably benefit the propping situation, with more props playing at a high level every weekend. It’s a good idea. Don’t think the provinces would go for it as they would want to keep working closely with the players. That hasn’t been working though, so change is necessary. Fair play for thinking outside the box, need more of it!

      • The fringe players need more gametime but the AIL doesn’t allow teams to have many contracted players so why not have a Pro 12 A league. Expensive but allows provincial players to play together and also pro’s to play pros. Amateurs against Pros is going to get us where exactly?

        One name not mentioned in the article is Alan Cotter. a tight head in the Munster academy who is ripping up the AIL as part of the Young Munster scrum but can barely get a game for the Munster A team for some reason.

  5. Is Kidney supposed to pick players like Hagan, Archer, McAllister who are still learning their trade at A level and in the Pro12? An IRFU and provincial decision to stop picking big back rows or locks and then trying to teach them to scrum is just all wrong. Just because it worked with John Hayes doesn’t mean it will work elsewhere. Why not break convention and actually pick props who can scrummage and then get them fit enough for the pro game rather than pick athletes and then try to teach them a highly technical position.

    Schools and underage coaches picking two extra flankers instead of props and conceding the 1.5m’s at the scrum is the crux of the issue. Guys who are or actually could be good props are lost to the game early because of this. Having been around some of the Munster cadet sides i’ve already seen several decent props overlooked because they lacked fitness or ball handling skills.

    The IRFU policy of further restrictions on the NIQ players is a joke. They some how think that by removing top quality players then a raft of HEC and international players will suddenly appear. Does anyone remember the Tony Buckley experiment? Unless the IRFU change the attitude and introduce changes at grass roots level then these props are not just going to magically appear. Blaming NIQ players is also a bit rich from the IRFU considering they had veto on all signings through the PAG.

    The appointment of a national scrum coach is a step forward but like changes at grass roots level this will take many many years to reap rewards at provincial and national level. Meanwhile in the interim the IRFU will weaken the only successful thing (the provinces) they have going for themselves in a blind hope that somehow a few decent props fall out of the sky. What we are all watching is Philip Browne shutting the door long after the horse has finally bolted.

    • Brilliant post, thanks for getting involved. You clearly have great knowledge and strong opinions on the whole subject and you’ve brought up some really interesting things here.

      As you’ve pointed out, getting things right at a grass-roots level is essential. This new Scrum Coach position should involve creating more of a ‘propping culture’ (for want of a better phrase) in this country. As a back myself, I know very little about scrummaging, but what I do know is that many teams I have been on have looked as the scrum as somewhere to cope and survive, rather than an area which should be coached and encouraged.

      As you said, talented scrummaging props need to be picked and praised. It’s such a vital part of rugby. A good example would be France, where the likes of Mas, Poux and countless props before them contribute very little around the pitch, but take serious pride in their scrum. They clearly have been brought up in a culture where the scrum is respected.

      Your views on the new IRFU rulings on NIQ players are interesting and something I haven’t really heard before. My point of view would be that if young Irish props, and players of any position, do get more exposure in provincial matches, then it will improve them. Again, that’s from a fairly ignorant knowledge of propping. Yes, it may mean a year or two of weakening the provinces, but long-term I can only see it as improving the situation for the national team.

      As for the short-term, I am of the opinion that Kidney needs to involve and cap some of these young props, even if it is a big risk. Since 2004, Ireland have given only 5 props their first cap for Ireland – Bryan Young, Buckley, Court, Ross, Healy. Look at the situation that has left us in. No competition for places, no depth. This can’t continue, we have to give players a chance to step up!

      Yes the problems run deeper, and that has to be sorted out, but I think that we can improve the situation in the short-term too.

      • giving irish props more game time will only result in more international standard props if the raw materials are there. If the raw materials are there why are we not seeing them in the AIL and A games?

        Lets not kid ourselves here, the prop problem has been around for most of this century. The Bull was our only option until Ross got himself fit enough for international rugby. During the decade the PAG gave their approval to countless NIQ props in the provinces and allowed the situation to develop. What was the IRFU’s reaction to Hayes getting closer and closer to retiring? Lets give someone who isn’t really a prop, who can’t scrummage too well and throw money at him. The IRFU bet the house on Buckley coming good and ended up in a situation whereby they had to have 3 TH props under central contract at the same time.

        We have props like McAllister, Hagan, Macklin and Archer who are regularly embarresed at Pro 12 level. We keep hearing excuses about how they are still learning. Are Cole and Corbisero still learning as well? The AP is a league focused on forward power play and the scrum is important. They also have a full A league to give these guys gametime and learn their trade.

        How much live scrummaging do our young props get? Or as expected is most scrum training done on a machine and the only thing learned is the hit of the engage. How many of our young props coming through the ranks know how to change their bind to deal with a prop boring in or how a TH can protect himself by tucking his chin down to the right on the engage to limit the hit of the LH on his shoulder.

        One other point i would make is to watch out for the pundits and their praise of these up and coming stars. Pundits should declare if they are agents and who they represent before they start bigging up young players or handing out MOTM awards. (Frankie Sheahan, Ryan Constable and Niall Woods)

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