Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Scrum selection avoided repeat of Milan debacle

Martin Castrogiovanni is nearing 100 caps.  Photo / Getty Images
Martin Castrogiovanni is nearing 100 caps. Photo / Getty Images

Three Years ago, all hell let loose after the All Black scrum foundered against Italy.

It wasn't just the carnage on the field at the San Siro Stadium in Milan which caused a ruckus, it was the administrative aftermath as the coaches, referees and IRB got involved.

All Black loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett battled for much of the test against his opposite Martin Castrogiovanni and was eventually subbed. Somehow the All Blacks avoided conceding a late penalty try in their 20-6 win as their scrum folded and buckled in repeated contests near their own line.

The All Blacks were filthy, accusing Castrogiovanni of an afternoon of illegal scrummaging which went unnoticed by referee Stu Dickinson.

Then IRB referees' boss, New Zealand's own Paddy O'Brien, nipped in with his opinion, siding with the All Blacks and admonishing the referee and Italian tighthead.

However, a year later, there was a different version, as O'Brien sidled up to Castrogiovanni and apologised for that judgement, admitting he had got it wrong.

At that stage, Crockett had been spelled from All Black duty, with question marks about his technique, as referees and their assistants seemed to make an extra inspection of his performances.

Spirited defences came from Crockett's corner but some of the critiquing told and it wasn't until last year that he returned for the tests before the World Cup.

He was steady against Fiji, the Springboks and Wallabies but missed the cut for the World Cup because he was a specialist loosehead prop, while Ben Franks and John Afoa could cover both sides of the scrums.

Meanwhile, Castrogiovanni felt vindicated as he explained that, back in 2009, weaker scrums could con referees.

"A lot of international loosehead props - I don't want to say their names - put their hands on the floor for support," he said. "For them, that's normal, but it's not normal. I have to bind and so does the guy I'm against. Referees need to focus on the whole scrum and sit down with some old props who are legends of the game and be told what is going on."

Changes have come to the laws. Props are penalised far more without caution for incorrect binds as administrators and their match officials work to eradicate time-consuming resets. Rule changes to allow eight reserves have also brought specialist looseheads back into favour.

But there was no Crockett vs Castrogiovanni rematch to start this morning's test at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome when the All Blacks duked it out with Italy. Castro, as he likes to be called on his Leicester Tigers club jersey, was there but his original opponent was Tony Woodcock, the side's premier loosehead prop and rated close to best in the global assessments.

Crockett started against Scotland last week and, with the policy to give everyone a start in the first two tests, Woodcock got the start against Italy.

Was it a deliberate ploy to avoid any chance of a repeat of 2009? Only the All Black selectors know the answer to that but they were not about to reveal the background to their decision.

Castrogiovanni and Woodcock had opposed each other once before when Castrogiovanni played for the under-19 Pumas side.

"Watching his form over the last five years, he is obviously one of the best tightheads around," Woodcock said. "The Italians, like the Argentines and French, love to scrum, so this is going to be a decent scrap for us."

Both he and Castrogiovanni are closing in on 100 tests and have similar height and weight stats, though Castro wins the hirsute stakes by plenty. An Argentine, born south of Buenos Aires, he switched to rugby in Italy as a young man, after punching a referee in his preferred sport of basketball.

"It was part punch, part push," he claimed.

No matter, he knew his basketball career was over and did not even bother to attend the judicial hearing.

- Herald on Sunday

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