News analysis

Cheika's scrum makeover gives Australia chance of winning ugly

Australia's head coach Michael Cheika has, the year he has spent as head coach, been attempting to transform the image of Australia's forwards.
Australia's head coach Michael Cheika has, the year he has spent as head coach, been attempting to transform the image of Australia's forwards.PHOTO: AFP

It is part of the deal for the Australia forwards, whenever a game against England is nigh, to talk about the improvements in their scrum and how the frailties of the past are no longer relevant.

This time, it would seem, the words are being spoken with a real deep-seated conviction, as though the discussions of tight-forward play are something that they relish.

Not only has their scrum demonstrably improved in recent months, but their rolling maul is also now looming as a formidable weapon to employ against England on Saturday.

These are the Wallabies, remember, brilliant ball-handlers, supreme foragers at the breakdown, a delight for the neutral, but not so adept at the ugly stuff, right? Not any more, not if Michael Cheika's plan comes to fruition in the next few weeks.

At Twickenham, there should be a beastliness to complement the beauty of their play.

These are the Wallabies, remember, brilliant ball-handlers, supreme foragers at the breakdown, a delight for the neutral, but not so adept at the ugly stuff, right? Not any more... At Twickenham, there should be a beastliness to complement the beauty of their play.

As a man who made his fortune in the fashion industry, Cheika knows well the value of a makeover and, in the year he has spent as head coach, he has been attempting to transform the image of Australia's forwards. A well-travelled coach, having worked in Italy, France, Ireland and Australia, Cheika has recognised the value of importing elements of other rugby cultures.

The impact on the scrum of Mario Ledesma, the former Argentina hooker, has been well documented and has its roots in French club rugby, where scrummaging is so revered. For much of his career, Ledesma played in the Top 14 and, when he hung up his boots, he worked under Cheika as a forwards coach at Stade Francais.

Ledesma, part of a fearsome Argentina pack in his playing days, has introduced a passion for scrummaging, not just to the Wallabies' front row, but to the rest of the pack too. Here is Ben McCalman, the flanker, on how Ledesma has enhanced the collective ethos at the scrum.

"There's always focus on the front-rowers, being the most important position in the scrum, but (Ledesma) works on the collective," McCalman said. "As a back-rower, you feel part of it. He's a very passionate guy and that's rubbing off on a lot of the players."

From the short time they spent working together in Paris, Ledesma was recruited again by Cheika at the Waratahs. When the head coach made the step up to the national team, Ledesma followed him again. In their opening Pool A game, against Fiji in Cardiff last Wednesday, the scrums were conspicuously stable. Both teams were pushing straight, the ball was held in the scrum with great control, allowing Will Genia, the scrum-half, to pick his moment to launch his free-flowing backs.

Given the Wallabies' humiliations at the set piece against England in recent years, the game will be something of a litmus test of the improvements Ledesma has made.

"We've had a lot of (scrummaging) contests over the last few months building towards the next few games," McCalman said. "We've done the work and now it's time to show it."

As well as this Franco-Argentine influence on their scrummaging, the Wallabies have added a rolling maul to their armoury that has a distinctive Irish flavour, with its roots in Munster's rumbles downfield.

The rolling maul has been a powerful attacking weapon for the Brumbies in Super Rugby in recent seasons. Their technique was refined by Laurie Fisher, who had witnessed the value of the tactic when working as forwards coach with Munster. Fisher left Canberra for Gloucester last year, but the seeds he had sown bore spectacular fruit for the Brumbies this year.

David Pocock, the flanker, has many virtues, but he has seldom been a prolific try-scorer. Thanks to the Brumbies' driven maul, though, he scored two hat-tricks in Super Rugby last season.

Spotting another opportunity to bolster the status of the Wallabies' forwards, Cheika has grafted the Brumbies' mauling expertise on to his game plan. Stephen Moore, the Brumbies hooker, fills the same positions for the Wallabies and Pocock can be found near the rear.

So Australia's pack will come to Twickenham confident of laying a few ghosts to rest. It is worth remembering that, for all the brilliance of their backs in the 1991 World Cup, Lynagh, Campese et al, the decisive try against England in the final was scored when Tony Daly, the prop, flopped over the line after a forward surge. To show how far they have progressed, do not be surprised if Australia try to turn the clock back on Saturday.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2015, with the headline 'Cheika's scrum makeover gives Australia chance of winning ugly'. Print Edition | Subscribe