On a small table in Mike Cron's hotel room sits a backgammon board. On any night during a test week, a couple of All Blacks front-rowers can be found around it, drinking tea, rolling the dice, talking with their scrum coach about every thing but rugby.
Backgammon is a game of chance and a game of strategy. The rugby scrum has become the same. How appropriate then, that Cron is a specialist in both.
Talking to Cron about scrummaging is akin to ingesting a trigonometry text book. He speaks with the clarity you would expect from a man who is part guru, part reclining Buddha.
In the maelstrom of the modern scrum, he is the Zen master. From the turbulence he has divined the magic angle: 120 degrees. And he's sticking to it.
Like all good coaches, Cron is a believer in illustration over instruction. He stops talking, tells you to stand, tells you to squat, asks you to rise slowly and stop when you find your most powerful position. You stop, he stands back and appraises your stance and, as if for the millionth time that day he has been proved right, he smiles knowingly and points out your angle. If the knee is the vertex, your thigh and lower leg sit at 120 degrees.
Before you have time to say crouch, bind and set, he's on to the next point: the axis of the scrum (over the right shoulder of the opposing hooker on your feed), the fundamental futility of the tighthead's core job (in a nutshell, trying to push while the other 800kg of your scrum is moving away from you, in rather irresistible fashion, around that axis), the need for greater isometric strength due to the fact the average "push" time in the scrum has increased by about two seconds (in other words, locks now need abdominal muscles) and how the traditional "hit and chase" has been replaced, overnight, with "bind and hold".
You try to take it all in, but ultimately you start to feel like your head is stuck somewhere up your own axis.
So imagine, if you will, how New Zealand's provincial front rowers are feeling. They have been told to change the habits of a lifetime (hit and chase, stay low, manipulate the tight head) and get it right first time.
It's never going to happen. The IRB's new scrum directive has been designed by fulltime top-flight international scrum coaches who coach fulltime top-flight international players.
It has been implemented, with respect to the players and coaches involved, in a competition that, by and large, features neither.
The issue is not with the players and it's not with the referees and it's not with the new laws. The issue, just as it is in every scrum, is timing. If you asked a right handed person to suddenly write you letters with the left, you're going to get a few months of scribbles before you get the calligraphy. It's the same here: if you are going to change the scrum, you are going to have to deal with the damage before you get the reward.
But the rewards are already on show - especially for those teams that have adapted most quickly. The quickest of the lot is - shock, horror - Canterbury, which not only has the best scrum percentage - 94 per cent - in the ITM Cup but also holds its opponents to 70 per cent success, effectively claiming just over two tight heads a match. That Canterbury can operate with such ruthless efficiency under the new laws shows it can be done.
And one more thing: the scrum - teething issues and too many penalties aside - has become a real contest again. So far in the ITM Cup, 13 per cent of scrums have ended in a win against the feed. For a game that bases itself on contestable possession, surely this is a positive outcome.
And who knows, a few more months of ironing out the kinks, and teams might well be able to stop relying on the chance, and start relying solely on the strategy.
At that point, Cron can pack up the backgammon set and upgrade to chess.
The big Shield double
Waikato has a chance this weekend to do something that only three provinces (and none since 1996) have done: lose and win the Ranfurly Shield in the same season. Only Southland (lost to, and won from, Otago in 1938), Waikato (lost to, and won from, Auckland in 1952), and Auckland (lost to, and won from, North Auckland in 1960 and lost to Waikato and won from Taranaki in 1996) have achieved the feat in 109 years of the Log o' Wood.
Fit for ... everything
A man who seems to have been perennially cursed by injury, Colin Slade is showing everyone what he can do when he's fully fit. The fringe All Black has been in commanding form for Canterbury and is the form back of the ITM Cup, where he leads the players in carries per game, metres per game, defenders beaten per game, offloads per game and kicks per game. We don't know if he is writing the theme tune and singing the theme song, but he could probably do that too.
The All-Palagi XV
Much has been said about the increasing influence of Polynesian players in rugby union, but while all this is going on, and with tongue firmly in cheek, there are moves afoot to ensure the days of the good old-fashioned Palagi battler are not numbered. The All-Palagi XV 2013 selection window is open and plenty of names have been put forward for consideration - Mike Coman, Chris Eaton, Josh Bekhuis, and Hadleigh Parkes have all been mentioned. Former All Black Adam Thomson will be convening the selection committee this season. He was once a shoo-in for Palagi battler status, but then he made the All Blacks - an instant disqualifier.