Scrum guru reflects on changes

Date published: February 18 2014

Scotland scrum coach Massimo Cuttitta reviews the IRB scrum directive and tells Planet Rugby about Scotland's scrummaging style.

Scotland scrum coach Massimo Cuttitta reviews the IRB scrum directive and tells Planet Rugby about Scotland's scrummaging style.

Massimo Cuttitta is in the middle of a scrummaging demonstration when his phone bleeps. The Scotland Scrum Coach is not subjecting Ross Ford, Moray Low and Ryan Grant to a gruelling machine session, rather using the Murrayfield Hotel's salt and pepper cellars to show me how a scrum-half can offset the position of his put-in, giving his hooker the best chance of a clean strike.

“Ach, that's Gregor,” he tells me.

The Gregor in question is Glasgow Warriors boss Townsend, whose pack the ex-Italian international frequently puts through their paces. He's not long back from one of countless trips west; on this occasion dealing with a tweak to the set-piece laws proving especially troublesome for the Warriors eight.

“They're changing so much,” said Cuttitta of the IRB's year-long global scrum trial, which began in August.

“We've got to have the right laws for the safety; there's a lot more pressure in the front row now.

“I feel the scrums take a little bit longer than what they used to. We're waiting for the scrums to stabilise, for the second-rows to come up to the pushing position, for the binding to be in place – consequently, it takes a bit longer.

“Overall, I'm happy with it. I miss that heavy engagement contest; I'm a bit old-fashioned that way. But it's become a lot more technical. As a coach, you have to be technical with your forwards.

“In a lot of the first scrums we saw, the ball would just sit in the middle with no strike. There was so much pressure coming through neither team could strike for it. Out in New Zealand they've come up with stats saying there's a lot more neck injuries and toe problems.

“Before it was all big hookers who would hit, chase, and walk over the ball – I don't mind that, but now the pressures are very equal, and there's not a hit. Before a bigger pack would have dominance right away on the engagement.”

Striking is a touchy subject for Scottish fans. Many have questioned with growing frustration why hooker Ford does not the heel the ball, and often leaves it sitting untouched in the tunnel at the mercy of his opposite number.

Cuttitta latches on to my train of thought long before I finish asking the question:

“You want to know why we're not striking for the ball with Fordy,” he states.

“Fordy is a tall hooker, he's a big boy – have you seen the size of his legs?

“It's hard for a big, tall guy to strike for the ball. So, by putting the pressure on low, he walks over the ball. Occasionally, he loses the ball because he doesn't strike for it. That's something we have to work on.

“As soon as he lifts his leg, he's forced to lift his body up awkwardly. As soon as he lifts his body up, that pressure comes against him. It's important to sink low and strike, and when you've got big legs like that, it's virtually impossible.”

In spite of recent poor results, and two opening Six Nations losses that have left head coach Scott Johnson in the firing line, Cuttitta is encouraged by the national side's set-piece. Though some question where the next crop of Test front rows will come from, the Italian reels off a list of youngsters progressing well under his watchful eye.

“In Scotland, we don't have a lot of boys; these are the players we've got. I've got to develop them – I can't just say I'll go and pick someone else, I don't have someone else. I've got to get Moray Low, Geoff Cross, and Ryan Grant and make them better. That is my role, and it takes time.

“Even Italy have got a lot more players than we have. People have got to understand that yes, we want to win, but it takes a bit of time because our depth is not there yet. We have to bring on youngsters.

“We've got D'Arcy Rae and Lewis Niven who we need to work on. We've got Robin “Bomber” Hislop, we've got George Hunter.

“We've got Alex Allan,” enthused Cuttita, “he's a boy that will become first choice for the national team very soon.

“We need to play these boys.”

So while Cian Healy and Nicolas Mas are unlikely to lose sleep over packing down against any of the above, Cuttitta is confident he has the raw materials to produce a dominant Scottish front row for years to come.

There's also the curious case of Stuart McInally, the Edinburgh back-row who announced a switch to hooker at the start of the season. The 47-year-old has invested hour upon hour in McInally's learning, going into “much more detail than normal hookers do”.

“Before he could even start scrummaging, I had to teach him how to fall down,” said Cuttitta.

“If the scrum collapses, how do you fall? You lift your neck, fall onto your chest, and your feet just slide.

“We went through all that; we went through scenarios where the tighthead was in trouble, scenarios where the loosehead was in trouble, and scenarios where he was in trouble, and how to take it down. He's now a project for the World Cup next year.”

In keeping with Johnson's developmental Scottish vision, Cuttitta is keen to ensure the techniques in the tight practiced by the first team are mirrored down through the age groups. Every Scottish prop with a chance of national representation should arrive at the Italian's doorstep already armed with the knowledge to advance as his “type of scrummager”.

He trains the U20s side by side with the first team, and makes sure the seniors know all about it when their deputies come out on top. And he places such importance on teammates having a feel for one another that he often directs his pack to scrummage with their eyes shut, or drop their bindings after the engagement.

“We have our way of scrummaging, right through all the age groups,” confirmed Cuttitta.

“That's what we want – they're all speaking the same language. We've come together and agreed one way of scrummaging, Scotland will scrummage that way.

“When I go round the clubs, they're all bound the same way as the national team, they all go through the same breathing drills as the national team.

“Starting down there, in three or four years' time when they come to me, all I've got to do is refine their techniques. My type of scrummager is already there. ”

Cuttitta's fierce loyalty to friends and colleagues is legendary at Murrayfield, and in between condiment illustrations, he is at pains to throw his weight behind Johnson and his fellow coaches.

We're shaking hands and packing away when he instructs me to turn the Dictaphone back on.

“I will support my boys, and I will support the coaching staff and Scotland,” he began.

It was clear to me his closing words were only half in jest: “'til death”.

By Jamie Lyall