The Cobus Visagie column

Date published: September 22 2011

In this week's exclusive column, former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie highlights the importance of scrums at the World Cup.

In this week's exclusive column for Planet Rugby, former Springbok prop Cobus Visagie highlights the importance of scrums at the World Cup.

Visagie earned 29 caps for his country and was the cornerstone of the Springbok team that reached the 1999 World Cup semi-finals. He earned the nickname “Drieman”, or 'three man', because he played number 3 and scrummed like 3 men. He won four Currie Cups with Western Province and earned 43 Super 12 caps with the Stormers. In 2003 Visagie moved to London to join Saracens for whom he played in 121 games and was voted in the Premiership Team of the Season for three consecutive years.

The importance of reputation

In a game that is regarded by many as one of the ultimate team sports, it is still a revelation how a team can be hamstrung by the loss of two or three players. The late Dr. Danie Craven coined the phrase: 'Every player is replaceable.' Well, I think it held true in the amateur era at a rugby club like Stellenbosch University with more than 1000 players, but the Australian management will convince you otherwise after Saturday's nightmare against Ireland.

I have always rated Steven Moore as one of the best hookers in the world and regard him as the cornerstone of the rebuilding of the Wallaby scrum over the last four years. He was sorely missed as the Aussie scrum capitulated against an Irish scrum that has never been rated as a dominant force on the international scene. Although I agree that David Pocock's absence was a significant contributor to the lack of continuity for the Wallabies, the truth is they lost the psychological game in the scrum and it spilt over into the rest of their game.

The problem is that the issue around the vulnerability of their scrum will not be changed in one game. The seed has been planted in the minds of the officials and opponents and they will target them in this area as the World Cup progresses. Mark my words: the way the Aussies have always tried to limit their damage in the scrum is to collapse every scrum they are not comfortable with on the engage. It will be interesting how the match officials respond to this tactic in this tournament.

In the past you needed to build a hard-nosed reputation with your scrum to intimidate your opponents and the “fear factor” you built over a campaign was your inherent reputational capital. Today this reputation is worth even more with the referees, who when in doubt, will give the decision to the more dominant team on the field.

However, the intensity of a scrum is sky high at the start of a match and that is when players want to establish their dominance. The problem is that the referee's only recourse is to fall back on his perception of the past performances of teams, as well as the known technical errors of individuals. I can assure you that the kind of conversations and accusations of technical irregularities that fly around between scrum coaches and match officials before games, make any TV soap opera look like an amateur skit.

Therefor the scrum is one of the areas where we have seen the most significant change in emphasis since the 2007 World Cup. There has been a massive emphasis on the scrum in both the English Premiership and the French Top 14 and it is best illustrated by the number of tightheads being contracted for over Euro 300k.

An example of the elevated importance of the scrum in France is the fact that the last two years the 32-year-old William Servat has also been selected above the younger and more agile Dimitri Szarzewski, who was always earmarked as the successor to Raphael Ibanez. I also predict that even England has now finally realised that Steve Thompson is a better scrummager (and better disciplined) than Dylan Hartley and will start the games with him moving forward.

The scrum has been an area of focus for New Zealand for the last decade and they have had the most consistent scrum on the world stage, successfully making a transition from the trailblazing Carl Hayman to the dominant Franks brothers under the guidance of Mike Cron and the Aussies tried to follow suit.

Although I believe the Southern hemisphere nations boast more talented individuals in the frontrow, it sometimes blows my mind that a team like the All Blacks and even Argentina don't use their scrum as an attacking weapon on their own ball by keeping the ball in the scrum. They still have the mind-set that it is just a starting phase on their own ball and a weapon to disrupt opposition scrums.

In 2007 referees still had a mind-set of penalising aggressive scrums, but the directive now is that the dominant scrum should be rewarded. If there is one sure way to milk penalties these days, it is to keep the ball in the scrum on your own ball when you are dominant and wait for the opposition's loose forwards to pick up their heads to prepare to defend. Immediately the contest becomes a battle of eight versus five, especially if the scrum is not in an attacking position where the opposition expect a big scrum. It is an excellent way of winning penalties through your physical dominance and kicking yourself into an attacking field position where you can attack from. In the process you leave mental scars on your opponents and create the perception of dominance to stand you in good stead with referees in future games.

Talking about refereeing, England is finding out very quickly that it is one thing to get away with cheating in the ruck area with the very average refereeing in the Premiership, but it is mind blowing that they have not been able to make the adjustment in their discipline. I believe it is because of the systemic cheating culture and inconsistent refereeing in the Premiership. The bottom line is that just like the reputation you have to live and die by when it comes to your dominance and technical proficiency in the scrum, teams will fail or succeed at this World Cup depending on their technique and discipline at the breakdown.

Finally, although I predicted a victory for the Samoans against the Welsh, I don't believe they will be able to overcome the Bok assault. The result is that the World Cup has been turned into a futuristic Tri-Nations before the winner can go the final against the '4 Nations' winner. This is not the final stages that I was hoping for; nonetheless I am looking forward to join the action in New Zealand next week with some former internationals on the cruise ship, the MS Volendam.

Follow Cobus on Twitter @ Drieman3