All Blacks: Bank on mastery of scrums

By Wynne Gray

A Woodcock match-up with Cup debutant may be key. Photo / Janna Dixon
A Woodcock match-up with Cup debutant may be key. Photo / Janna Dixon

It is time for the master to dial in a premium Tri-Nations scrummaging lesson tomorrow when he meets the apprentice.

Chinks of advantage may be slim in this Melbourne start to a quartet of clashes this season but All Black loosehead Tony Woodcock has a massive lead in experience on his opponent, Salesi Ma'afu.

Sometimes that does not translate into dominance, as Wallaby Al Baxter used to discover, but Woodcock has the credentials to crank up the heat.

A variety of issues will come into the scummaging equation as Woodcock packs into his 66th international.

The much-criticised surface at Etihad Stadium will be a primary focus on whether the packs can crank up to full power while the decisions of referee Craig Joubert and his linesmen will also come into play.

The Wallabies have reinforced their front row with the experience of hooker Stephen Moore and loosehead prop Benn Robinson - but they have Ma'afu making his Bledisloe debut. Woodcock had noted the remarks about the dubious surface at Etihad Stadium but said he often played on grounds "that are not so flash, so I don't think it will be an issue.

"It is not ideal but you just close things up a bit and have to be aware that things are going to move."

Some of the power might be reduced but both teams would have to adapt. He hoped the officials gave some leeway if there were slips, when awarding free kicks or penalties.

"The Wallaby scrum early was not too flash but it has improved," Woodcock said.

"It is probably one of the better ones they have had for a while so we will see. They were solid against the Boks but they only had two scrums on their ball."

A lack of scrums had been a feature of the Tri-Nations so far.

It was an evolving part of the rugby scene and the All Blacks just had to make sure they made their scrums count.

"The surface may be frustrating but there's nothing we can do about it so we get on with it." Spoken like a pedigree front-rower - and not someone dipping their frame into Bledisloe turmoil for the first time.

But Woodcock was slow out of the blocks this year with injury impacting on his Super 14 form. For long stretches of that series Woodcock was no more than steady and he was held back from an All Black start.

The selectors wanted to see him fully fit and the rage return. They kept him out of the starts against Ireland then Wales but when he was slipped from the bench, Woodcock showed he meant business.

While referee Joubert will have tough judgments at the scrums, All Black captain Richie McCaw has been studying his breakdown rulings.

McCaw has peerless skills backed up by research and the experience of 85 tests.

He has played four tests under Joubert's control (and won the lot) and a number of Super 14 matches to build up his mental dossier on how the South African whistles matches.

Accusations of cheating have been thrown at McCaw often but his sole focus is on how far he can push the boundaries.

"If you go in gun shy, you're not going to have an impact," he said.

"As long as you're not putting the team under heaps of pressure, you've got to still be at the point of knowing what you can get away with and what you can't and the odd thing you might get wrong."

McCaw was close to being sent to the bin against the Boks in Wellington but he was disappointed at several of the calls which went against him.

It was always a matter of judgment for the flanker and the referee.

"I always think the things I'm trying to do are the right things and if he's penalising me for some reason I think, 'geez I'm not going to get away with that today', or 'that's not going to work with this ref'.

"Each ref is a little bit different. I have a fairly good understanding of where they'll sit, just through experiences."

McCaw backs himself to pick a referee's rulings and always speaks to him before a game to check if he has any concerns.

- NZ Herald

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