AFTER A MESSY scrummaging performance in their opening game against Italy, Wales shuffled their front row, bringing Rob Evans in at loosehead for Nicky Smith, and replacing Samson Lee at tighthead with the ever-improving Tomas Francis.
And while the pair did stabilise the Welsh scrum in the games against England and Scotland, they’ve yet to really show much dominance. On a couple of occasions in those games Francis has attacked the gap between loosehead and hooker, but for the most part, they’ve been solid defensively without being spectacular.
If there is one area Ireland can exploit though, it’s the difficulty Wales have had with the hook.
Whether it’s been poor put-ins from Rhys Webb, a weak strike from Ken Owens and Scott Baldwin, or a lack of communication between the pair, there have been several occasions in their opening three games where the ball has got trapped in the channel between the front rows, creating a panic.
Against Italy, it happened three times, the first of which resulted in an Italian turnover, which in turn gave Conor O’Shea’s side the territory from which they ultimately scored their try.
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We can see below how even though Webb rolls the ball in at a generous angle, it still gets caught up in the channel, and how after the ball sits there momentarily, Italy attack the drive. Andrea Lovotti creates the turnover, and while he certainly angled in illegally on Lee at the far side of the scrum, Wales have to blame themselves for allowing the situation to arise.
On two further occasions in that game they had issues with their feed/hook, however they managed to escape unharmed.
In this example below, we can see that as the ball is fed into the scrum, Owens is packing down so low that he can’t get his right foot around the ball to hook it back. You can see below that the ball is just sitting in front of his right knee, which is touching the ground.
And once again, after the ball sits there momentarily, Lovotti tries to counterattack as he did earlier. However, this time JP Doyle spots that he just wheels the scrum, rather than drives over the ball. Watch how he takes a couple of steps to the left before he pushes in on Samson Lee.
It was the correct decision to penalise Italy, but it was still a major let-off for Wales. However there was still time for a third hooking malfunction.
In this example, Webb’s put-in simply rolls across to the far side of the scrum, and Francis eventually does quite well to get a couple of steps forward and clear over the ball. Another let-off.
Rob Howley decided to start Francis and Rob Evans for the game against England, but there was still another high-profile malfunction with their put-in.
After winning a penalty close to the English line, they took the bold option of a scrum rather than a kick at goal, or even a lineout. It backfired.
It starts with Evans getting his body too bunched up at loosehead. We can see below how the angle at his hips is just under 90 degrees, which gives him less power as he tries to push off his legs.
At this point, the ball has once again got caught up in the front row. Dan Cole spots this, and attacks the gap between Evans and his hooker Owens. And because his body had been too bunched to begin with, Evans slips onto his knee.
From here, it’a all about damage limitation and Evans scrambles back to his feet, trying to lock out his body, and as we can see from how you can draw a straight line from his head to his heel.
If we watch it back in full, we can see how Cole pounces as soon as he sees the ball stalling in the channel, and wins a huge penalty for his side. Winning a turnover like this is as good as a try for a prop.
Against Scotland, the put-in was again an issue in the final scrum of the afternoon, but just as against Italy, Wales scramble to recover the ball. Nicky Smith manages to think quickly and whips his side of the scrum around to avoid a turnover.
Below we can see how Webb’s feed gets trapped between the packs, with the tip of the ball just visible below. You can also see how Scotland’s scrumhalf Henry Pyrgos spots the ball getting trapped, and starts calling for his team to drive over it.
Nicky Smith reacts well though, stepping around the ball to protect it, and while you can argue that he wheels around rather than driving over the ball, he just about rescues the situation. By this stage though, the game was up for Wales.
All of this represents a real pattern though. In their three games to date, Wales have had the put-in to the scrum 15 times, with clear hooking issues in five of those. For a side to have difficulty getting the ball in and out on a third of their scrums, it’s something their opponents should be targeting.
To do so, Ireland will have to commit to the eight-man shove, and Tadhg Furlong will have to be quite vocal in communicating to the rest of his pack when to drive in unison.
Their opening scrum against Italy is a great example. We can see how the entire Irish pack time their shove to perfection just as the ball is fed, with each member of the pack appearing to push forward at the same moment, driving the Italians back and winning a penalty.
On Ireland’s ball they’ll have to be wary of Tomas Francis. The Exeter tighthead has improved quite a lot this season, and held his own very well against Joe Marler in their game in Cardiff.
On a couple of occasions in the championship, he’s also caused problems for the opposition in defensive scrums, targeting the hooker and splitting him from the loosehead.
Against Scotland, one example early in the second half shows how well he attacks Gordon Reid’s inside shoulder, causing the loosehead to collapse, and on another day it could have resulted in a penalty for his side.
He gets an early nudge on Reid as they engage, causing the Scottish number 1 to pop his hips out.
And as the ball comes in, he really drives in at Fraser Brown, causing Reid to become separated from his hooker. All three Welsh front rows are driving in the same direction, while we can see that the Scottish angles have become disjointed, with each player now coming in from a different direction. The Scottish back row get the ball out just in time, but it showed just how dangerous Francis can be when he gets into the right position.
He was also involved in a similar scrum in the previous game against England, although in this case it appeared that he illegally angled in.
If we look below, we can see that as they set up, he’s already started to wedge himself in between Dylan Hartley and Joe Marler, with Marler driving square and straight.
And as the scrum progresses, he continues to hammer in on Hartley before England scramble away possession.
If Jack McGrath can keep Francis square and protect Rory Best, it’ll give Ireland a real platform to attack in the scrum, whether they want to try to milk a penalty or use the clean ball to launch attacks.
England opted for the latter against Wales, and it appeared to work very well. In the past we’ve seen England try to dominate the opposition in the scrum, and while they have the power to do it, it looked like they were making a conscious effort to recycle possession as quickly as possible.
It’s on the Welsh put-in that the opportunity lies, and with some communication and timing, Ireland can really take advantage.
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