16 Nov

The Italian Job
by Tracey Nelson
16 Nov 2009

With a total of 8 penalties awarded against the All Blacks at scrum time on Saturday night, the blame is flying back and forth between the New Zealanders and the Italians. We take a look at what was going on in the dark, dirty world of the scrums.

The Italians had 15 scrum feeds during the test and only two of those resulting in the halfback clearing the ball without a scrum reset, while the rest of the scrums involved at least one reset (one first half scrum resulted in three). More importantly, the All Blacks conceded 8 penalties and one free kick – all but one penalty going against the loosehead prop. What was going on that first Wyatt Crockett and then Neemia Tialata (who switched to the loosehead side when John Afoa subbed on for Crockett in the 59th minute) bore the brunt of the referee’s whistle?

From the very first Italian scrum it was game on, and following two resets Australian referee Stuart Dickinson awarded a free kick against Crockett for not binding. The next three Italian scrums resulted in penalties against Crockett, again for either not binding correctly or slipping his bind bringing the scrum down on that side. Crockett was up against the impressive Italian tighthead prop Martin Castrogiovanni, who had previously made mincemeat of the Springbok front row the prior weekend when premiership side Leicester had beaten the touring South Africans.

The All Black coaches claimed the Italians were boring in, so we decided to take a closer look and see if there was any truth behind this claim. In particular, we looked at the scrum set in the 45th minute of the game on the All Blacks’ 22m line. As the two packs ready themselves to engage, Crockett is standing slightly behind hooker Cory Flynn, while tighthead Tialata is standing level with his hooker. Meanwhile the Italian pack have aligned themselves so that their tighthead prop and openside flanker are slightly angled in towards Flynn.

On the engage call from the referee the Italians adjust their hit so that their loosehead and blindside flanker also angle in on Flynn, while both locks push their angle at our tighthead Tialata. This effectively means both sides of the front row are boring in on Flynn and pinning him – a technique known as "the wedge". The wedge puts the entire force of the Italian scrum onto Tialata and while he manages to hold his ground at first thanks to his lock (Tom Donnelly), the other side of the scrum isn’t faring as well.

Crockett has packed high and angled under Flynn while his lock, Anthony Boric, splinters away from his fellow locking partner either due to his flanker (Liam Messam) not binding tight and straight or in an attempt to adjust to the pressure he can sense coming through Flynn. The upshot of this is that Boric and Messam essentially wheel the scrum towards and onto Crockett, resulting in Crockett getting popped out of the scrum unable to hold his bind any longer.

The mechanics of the All Black scrum on the Italian feeds meant that only Tialata and Flynn were managing to maintain a straight angle, because the rest of the pack were flying helplessly and wheeling onto their own loosehad. It was very clever manouevering by the Italian pack, and worked effectively because while the wedge was driving Crockett inwards, the middle row of the Italian scrum still drove forward and for all intents and purposes looked straight to the referee. The Italian halfback also managed to delay his feed until the wedge was formed.

Further confirmation of what is going on can be seen by checking the Italian blindside flanker. He is stopping his prop from popping by leaning on his reat and pushing in a manner similar to the way you would attempt to push a car uphill. The two All Black flankers were not pushing in on their props, and therefore that resulted in the locks splintering and the scrum wheeling on the loosehead side.

It was some great artistry by Italy, and its difficult for a referee to detect, except… he missed the requirement for the Italian tighthead prop to bind to the opposition loosehead’s arm. Castrogiovanni (and his replacement later in the game) both let go of their bind, lift the shoulder and arm and slide under Crockett and Flynn, which should have resulted in a penalty against him. As far as we can see, Tialata was doing a very good job at TH and holding his ground but a combination of a couple of illegalities, a wonderful wedge driving forward and the All Blacks seeming to screw the scrum did us in.

Thanks to the ever-wise John Cawston for his knowledge on all things scrum-like, and confirming our suspicions that the Italians certainly did a job on us.

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