Light at last on rugby dark arts


A scrum in the England-Ireland match. [Pic: YouTube]

Like many regular TV viewers of international Rugby matches I’ve often sat through games which have long sequences of scrummaging. From a distance it’s hard to see what is going on, but they frequently seem to end with the referee blowing his whistle for a penalty against one side, whereupon the other bunch of forwards look delighted with themselves and indulge in a minor orgy of back slapping and manly hugs.

It’s at this point that commentators habitually refer to the “dark arts” of the scrum. And we viewers nod knowingly, and take another sip from our tea cups or beer cans, depending on the time of the day.

But exactly what activity constitutes the dark arts is not usually explained. An exception came in last Saturday’s Irish Times, in an article by Matt Williams. He is now a TV pundit and journalist but was previously the Scotland and Leinster coach, so he knows therefore of what he writes. His piece was a preview of the match Ireland were due to play against Scotland on Saturday afternoon, but in it he also described what happened in the previous week’s game versus England, which to me looked as though the England scrum were somehow pushing their Irish counterparts off the park. He wrote:

“England’s scrum tactics were another example of the desperate need to overhaul the scrum laws. England were brilliantly clever and highly illegal in almost every scrum that resulted in a penalty to them. I admire their cohesiveness and the superb execution of their well-coached plan. It was a virtuoso performance of the dark arts of scrummaging.
The co-ordination from the English pack was astonishing. England’s tighthead [Kyle Sinckler] would angle in on [hooker] Sheehan while twisting [loosehead prop] Cian Healy’s outside shoulder in towards the tunnel. Simultaneously, the English tighthead flanker, Tom Curry, would break his bind on his prop and drive directly on to Healy’s ribs, illegally pushing him across the scrum. At the same time, the other six players in the English scrum would step in unison to the left, away from Healy. Like a well-drilled set of the Queens guards, twisting the entire scrum giving the illusion that Ireland were the culprits. Now that takes a lot of planning and coaching.
It was technically brilliant stuff and despite it all being highly illegal, I truly admired it.”

So now I know. And, of course, as soon as I Googled this, I found other explanations online. Here is an article on the interestingly named site with analysis from Mike Ross, the Irish tighthead who anchored the front row so effectively from 2009 that he won 60 caps and was forgiven his lack of mobility in the rest of the match. And there’s even a Youtube video featuring Matt Williams which you can see here.