Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Closer Look At the Eagles Scrum

With a loss to Uruguay, the United States finishes the inaugural campaign of the Americas Rugby Championship. While the tournament itself excelled in terms of attendance, heightened commercial prospects and exciting rugby, the takeaways for the Eagles were mixed. An initial draw against a young Argentina side and wins over Canada and Chile lead to a dismal losses to Brazil and Uruguay. Of course, many of the members of the Eagles squad were young or uncapped players. For all the bellyaching that accompanied the selection of our young domestic players for this tournament, Alex Magleby and John Mitchell’s strategy is sound—especially when it comes to tight five forwards.

Several years ago, after prop Mike MacDonald retired, the USA began to struggle in the scrum—although struggle may be a kind word. Without MacDonald anchoring the Eagles pack, teams not traditionally reputed as “proud scrummaging nations,” Japan and Canada, began to impose themselves on the team. Playing front row is like using a cast iron grill: it requires a lot of seasoning. Eric Fry, a relatively new front rower at the time, received a painful crash course in the endeavor between 2013 and 2014. He has since settled into loosehead and become an accomplished scrummager in his own right. The take-away, however, is that our young Eagles props shouldn’t be learning how to play tighthead in a World Cup qualifier.

Take the jump to read more.

Unlike their faster loose forward and back counter-parts, tight five forwards do not have the option to hone their skills playing sevens year-round or professionally within the Olympic development pathways. While flankers and centers can develop their XV’s skills playing for elite sevens teams, there isn’t a corollary for the men at the front. It is therefore fundamental that our elite tight forwards get as much high-level or test experience in these situation as possible.

With that in mind, the Americas Rugby Championship was an excellent venue to blood our young front rowers. While our more experienced group of Fry and Chris Baumann pushed around a young, smaller Argentine front row, and stood toe to toe with Canada, the inexperienced members of the squad struggled in South America.

I confess to not knowing much about the relative strength of the Brazilian scrum and their front row players. However, their immediacy and familiarity with well-respected scrummagers Argentina and Uruguay leads me to believe in the capability. Demecus Beach, Olive Kilifi and Eric Fry played against Brazil and succeeded to varying degrees. Before we examine their performances, however, let’s look at the USA scrum as a whole. Our first image is that of a USA put-in at the 4 minute mark—the first scrum of the game.

Notice the height of the American pack, especially the locks. Scrummaging this high is an invitation for the opposition to push you back. Even worse, this is at the beginning of the game. Imagine the height at the last scrum of the game at, say, minute 77. Next, look at this image from right before half.

The flankers on either side are swung out wide and are pushing into the hips more than straight towards the opposition. While there is merit to having a slight inward angle to keep the props hips in and tight, this set-up effectively deprives the scrum of two bodies pushing forward.

Knowing that the back five aren’t exactly providing the best and most effective power, let’s look at the front row. Below is the binding situation on the put-in side of a USA scrum at minute 12.

Prop Beach hasn’t got a bind here. His fingers are extended, and haven’t gripped onto his opposite’s shoulder or back. Immediately he loses his grip and collapses. This information is useful to his opponent Wilton Rebolo at a scrum on the USA’s 10 meter at minute 23. This is a scrum that the USA must win so the backs may clear the lines. Let’s look at Beach at engagement.

Beach has found a grip here, but he has swung his hips out in an attempt to come across Rebolo’s chest. This is boring and is illegal. But Beach isn’t particularly effective at this illegal. Notice how Rebolo has his spine aligned so that he is driving straight. Given that Beach has exposed the important bind between himself and hooker Joe Taufete’e by opening his hips, the tighthead prop opts to go forward and attack that bind. Result: a massive shunt forward for Brazil that turns into a tighthead, and consequently, a try.

Several minutes later, Beach is subbed off for Eric Fry. There is a collapse on the far side of a USA put-in at minute 36. The referee moves over to manage that side of the contest. At this point Fry demonstrates some of his scrummaging nous.

While keeping his hips tight, Fry comes under and across Rebolo forcing him towards the center of the scrum, neutralizing him. The ball is quickly won and moved away to the backs. Although both Fry and Beach bored, the result is different because Fry kept his hips straight and his push, relatively, forward. This tightness ensured that Rebolo could not break the loosehead-hooker bind. In addition, Fry was wise enough to try this technique when the referee had shifted to the far side.

Next we look at our tight head Olive Kilifi. In the first half he is shunted back by a powerful eight man shove several times. Unfortunately, there is no reverse camera angle here to ascertain what happened to him. Later on, however, in a scrum at minute 52 we can see part of the problem.

Kilifi’s back is rounded here, not straight. His hips are higher than his head. Later in a scrum at minute 62, he has turned inward.

He may be attempting, in conjunction with Taufete’e, to put pressure on hooker Yan Rosetti’s neck thereby disrupting the strike. In doing so, he has exposed his chest to the Brazilian loosehead Lucas Abud. Caught, he can’t do much to recover.

Fast forward to the end of the game. USA is up 23-21 at minute 77 and has a put-in on the Brazilian 22 meter line. This is a great opportunity for possession. A clean scrum could allow the Eagles to play for possession, to score by try or drop goal, or draw a penalty. Any of these could help the Americans finish the game with a win. Regardless of the tactic, the Eagles must win possession first. With that in mind let’s look at Kilifi’s the set-up.

Notice how Kilifi is much higher than his opposite. He is scrummaging high when—as a tighthead—he wants to scrummage low and pressure his opposite into collapsing the scrum. Next, he is overextended in his feet. This will prevent him from actively pushing, he can only lock out. The set-up doesn’t bode well for the engagement.

The loosehead has gotten underneath him. It can only go poorly from here. To wit:

Tighthead, Brazil ball with time to play and win. To be fair to Kilifi, most tighthead props are not asked to play 80 minutes of international rugby. But for whatever reason, injury or lack of depth, Kilifi was on the field at this moment. A professional tighthead props earns their bread based on these moments, not by carries or tackles. If this is a Rugby World Cup qualifier or pool match, the Eagles must win that ball.

As Fry demonstrated when he came on, our first choices players can scrum. It is our younger players that need the work. The Americas Rugby Championship has been a great opportunity for our young players. Hopefully as it progresses the USA can develop its own scrummaging depth and prowess by competing against proud-scrummaging nations. 

1 comment:

  1. Fry, Lamositele, and Bauman seem to be up to the international standard. However, we need to develop another 2-3 international quality props over the next 4 years. We also have to look at how the hookers played. Taufete'e, at this stage, is a much better scrummager than Feiga(sp?). It will be interesting to see how the front row develops over the next 3.5 years.