Sean Fitzpatrick: So crucial for All Blacks to dominate in the scrum

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Playing against the Boks in Christchurch in the Tri-Nations in '96, my opposite number John Allen headbutted me in the first scrum.

It became a bit of a talking point afterwards, but it also provided us with a focus for our discussions about how to take the Boks on in their own back yard when we toured there a few weeks later.

Mr Allen helped us to clear our minds for the South Africa expedition, and we went there the next month with one central strategy - to dominate them at scrum time.

I mention this because the impact of effective scrummaging on results - and the importance of having set-piece parity or superiority - was underlined in both the All Blacks and Lions games last week.

Look at the first Boks-Lions game. All week the British press were majoring on the fact that John Smit would be playing out of position and that, through him, the Bok scrum had a potential area of weakness.

The Lions management chose to select a solid but middling prop against him, and they let the opportunity to have a real go at the captain of the other side slip away. Instead, he had a comfortable cuddle at scrum time and even scored a try within the first five minutes - while on the other side Vickery got a proper beasting...

South Africa took the Lions on up front and, despite having real issues defensively, they won the game.

In the All Blacks v France game, our scrum was neither a thing of great power nor beauty. We really got exposed there - we got walked over and we were second-best. Although we got the result, the set-piece performance was worrying.

Our scrum coach Mike Cron is a good man, and he knows what he's about - he has brought through guys like Carl Hayman and Tony Woodcock after all.

I have no doubt that we can put together a great pack that can dish it out (as we have done over the last few years).

However, Hayman is a big loss and without him and a few others there, I think our lack of depth is showing. On a positive note, Keven Mealamu definitely stepped up, and is better starting than coming off the bench for my money, and Brad Thorn played one of his best games in the black jersey around the field.

I do keep looking at these ELVs and wondering whether the increased number of short-arm penalties and the associated lack of scrummaging is having an impact on the test sides we can put out.

The Boks pulled all their players out of the Lions warm-up games and word is that they spent those weeks unlearning Super 14, and knocking lumps out of each other behind closed doors.

It is a fact, that along with scrummaging, the scrum is the platform upon which you build your game. A solid scrum means restarting on the front foot throughout the game, and it means possession to work with.

As well as possession, superiority there gives a team the psychological edge - vital in a test match environment where the margins between winning and losing are sometimes so small. The fact is, when you boss the scrum, you can see the boilers blow and the heads go down on the other side's tight five.

As the game progresses, it gives you strength and saps theirs. The psychological advantage feeds through both teams. The players pick it up, can sense it, and the game starts to flow in one direction. Even if it may not be obvious to those watching, even in a close game, you know when you've got the edge, and it gives you the belief, the confidence to close out results.

So let's not get too carried away with mobile running forwards and quick hands from the front five.

We have to ensure that we continue to produce forwards who understand and enjoy the physical and mental intensity of the scrum, and we have to keep our eye on one of the universal truths about the game, even in this age of change.

The scrum is a critical part of the game, and the first duty of a coach is to put the best scrummaging eight on the park. The first duty of the domestic game is to provide options for him to choose from.

- Herald on Sunday

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