How shrewd England turned the lowest-ranked scrum under Steve Borthwick
England have been on a low-key charm offensive to transform their scrum under the shrewd guidance of new boss Steve Borthwick.
The head coach oversaw a campaign to change the perception of Red Rose’s free-kick, alongside technical tweaks and a training ground transplant.
One of Borthwick’s first acts in the hot seat was to sound out opinion as widely as possible at World Rugby and with top referees to find out where officials felt England’s scrum fell short. England finished the fall with the lowest-ranked scrum of any Tier One Test nation.
Borthwick and scrum coach Richard Cockerill quickly turned the set piece into a much more stable and solid offering, and that change has as much to do with changing the minds of officials as it does with changing the approach of England.
“In our first week Wayne Barnes was with us and we got through the scrum,” said Saracens England hooker Jamie George. “He was saying, ‘this is what I see, this is the trend, so this is what you have to change’. We are making good steps forward there.
“We have to take the officials with us, as well as teach us too, that’s why we bring them into the camp. It’s not just the guy with the whistle either, it’s the two assistant referees on the touchline.
England’s progress has reversed what specialist manager Cockerill considered ‘reckless’ before the start of the year.
Borthwick’s England can already be characterized as built in the pragmatic image of the boss, and the former Test captain wants the set-piece to be successful, but as sure as houses.
Cockerill was undoubtedly an incendiary prostitute in his playing days, but he carried out Borthwick’s melee mission to the letter.
“Richard is very clear about how he wants us to scrum, he wants us to be clean but also aggressive, a scrum that goes after the opposition,” George added.
“At the same time, however, we had to change the previous perception. And it’s still ongoing, it’s not done yet. These are the messages we are looking for. So we’ve had referees pretty much every time we’re at camp for that exact reason, to check that we’re showing the right footage that the referees will want to see.
“There was probably a perception of our scrum before we could mess around and end up on the ground, but here we go.”
England will need all the set-piece ballast they can get at Twickenham on Saturday, even despite a handful of absentees in the front row for the mighty French.
George believes England’s tight work continues to improve under Borthwick, especially after holding off a fellow Saracens well in the 31-14 win over Italy.
“I play with Marco Riccioni on a weekly basis at Saracens and he really is one of the best tight-headed props,” George said. “He is superb and we were able to put him under pressure in this game.
“The main progress for me was the images we presented: a very straight, very square, very legal scrum that only wants to face opponents.
Bristol stalwart Kyle Sinckler explained Cockerill’s method.
“The only way to get better in scrum is in scrum,” Sinckler said. “Last year, our free kick was not up to scratch. It was about accepting that and then getting to work.
“A lot of it depends on perception, but we all know that perception becomes reality. We were faced with reality, we were mad at where we were and hopefully it’s getting better now.
“We’ve worked to turn things around, to the point where people are saying, ‘There’s no way England gave away that penalty because they’re so dominant’.”
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