Last Saturday, I like many watched in dismay as England were beaten in the rugby world cup final. South Africa were big, strong and dominant in the set piece. It was a shock to see the England scrum going backwards to be penalised six times. I also watched as our tight- head Dan Cole was twice lifted upwards, illegally I would suggest. These days referees favour the team going forwards and it would have taken a brave and educated man to make the reverse call against the Springboks.
I have been annoyed by some of the criticism on social media from friends purporting to be scrummaging experts. In reality few will have experienced any form of competitive scrummaging and certainly not in the front row. I thought Dan Cole made a heroic effort having to play 78 minutes with no back up, He had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The scrum is a lonely place when you are under pressure and being beasted. You have to take it like a man and battle for all your worth. A proud prop never ever gives in, right to the death. Dan Cole did this in the world cup final.
AS an ex- tight head prop forward saluting Dan Cole’s huge effort, I thought I might try to explain exactly what it feels like as a prop forward when you are being beaten up by a technically proficient and far better opposition loosehead. Only once in my entire career as a prop forward was I ever in this position. It was in National league 3 playing at home for Aspatria against Plymouth in 1994. I should say that the scrummaging laws were different in those days, but the principles remain. Here’s what happened: –
It is a blustery day at Bower Park, Aspatria. We’re mid- table and entertaining Plymouth. I’m now a first team regular at tight head prop. This is my second season with the club and my second season as a front row forward. I’m certainly no great scrummager but I get by with the support of a massively strong pack of forwards. I try very hard to make up for my lack of technical proficiency by running with the ball and playing like another back row forward. I can only get away with this since the scrummage laws have tightened up. Your head must not dip below your hips meaning in theory the scrum should not collapse. Scrums still collapse!
I must admit that I don’t run too hard for the first five minutes of any game. I do not want to be blowing hard at the first scrum. I want to hit hard and establish my platform for the afternoon. Being inexperienced I need to get the first one out of the way and gain some confidence. I still worry a lot about this before games. I don’t believe I am good enough.
The Plymouth loosehead looks a big strong guy, and he is. It is their put- in at the first scrum. I charge in trying hit as hard as I can. He doesn’t take a backward step. I try to exert some pressure with my right arm by squeezing my elbow down over his left arm. I often have some success with this move. On this occasion I can’t move his elbow one inch. Not a good start. Alarm bells.
As their scrum half prepares to put the ball in, I go for a big downwards dip to try and stop their hooker from striking cleanly for the ball. My prop immediately collapses and as I am pushing downwards, I face plant hard on to the grass. It hurts – “bastard”.
We reset. This time I am wary of driving downwards at the hit, so I try and hit upwards. He seems to anticipate this and as we engage, he tries and succeeds to pull me down rather than I push him. For a second time, I try to drive up, but nothing happens. I can’t move him. They heel the ball and the scrum breaks up.
Next time we meet it is our put- in to the scrum. We engage in a thumping hit. Now I need to stay strong, but this guy is altering his body position constantly. Little shoulder drops, hip drives, changing the position of his head. I push down hard and clamp my right arm inwards to try and bend him. He responds by immediately dropping his body position. I feel like he might collapse the scrum and we are actually slightly going backwards so I don’t want to give a penalty, I then drive upwards and in doing so move my right leg forward, Immediately he has a window of opportunity and he too drives up. He nearly lifts me off the floor. I’ve never yet been airborne. I survive – just. Hell, this guy is making me uncomfortable. I’m definitely on the back foot and not enjoying this one bit.
At the remaining scrums in the first half I am decidedly under pressure. He never lets me get comfortable. In one scrum as I clamp with my right arm for all I am worth, trying to twist him. He simply lifts his own elbow below mine and raises my right arm up, relieving all the pressure I have been trying to bear. No one has ever done that to me before. Fuck me this guy strong, too strong. In fact, I’m in trouble.
At the next scrum I look him the face. Is he laughing at me? Nothing, no reaction, no acknowledgement. He is cool, calm and thoroughly professional. He knows he has the ascendency and he is in control. Just doing his job.
In the second half my losing battle continues. I’ve got my “sit on the right knee” get out of jail card that Syd Graham taught me. We engage and he sees me bring my right knee forward. Before I can get my shoulder on to it, he drives up and lifts me. Jesus, I can’t even get down to my knee, then he changes the angle and he is pushing straight and I’m going backwards in short steps. This is a bad scrum.
Our hooker Nigel Brown is annoyed “stop fucking paddling” he shouts as we break up. There isn’t much I can do. I’m being beaten by a much better prop. I need to run around with the ball and show what I can do. The problem this battling in the scrum has taken it out of my legs. I haven’t much energy to get on to the ball. I’m just running from scrum battle to scrum. We’re not losing them against the head, so technically I’m still doing my job but it’s hurting. I’m lucky to have Nigel up to his usual box of tricks. He’s negating their hooker, but he can’t do anything about my prop.
We’re in enemy territory, mid field between their 10m and 22m line. It’s our scrum put- in and we have a back row move called. Tank Richardson our powerhouse No 8 and captain is going to pick up from the scrum and there is a fancy run around involving our young flanker Mike Tinnion and Scrum half Graham Campbell. I know the back row are not going to be pushing that hard in the scrum because of the planned move. I urge our other flanker Martin Maughan who is pushing on me, to give it all he has got. I’ve also got the legendary Fred Story behind me in the second row. Despite is age and lack of fitness he is the strongest second row scrummager I have ever played with. He has bony shoulders and I have a bony arse which is often bruised after games because Fred pushes so hard.
We engage and there is a quick feed from Graham and lightning strike from Nigel. We have won the ball, but Plymouth instigate a huge secondary surge. I sink my hips down desperate to keep a straight back. The straight back is everything here, I must stay strong and ride out the pressure. The ball is stuck between Fred’s feet, but he is pushing behind me for all he is worth. He doesn’t yield an inch. Sadly, I am starting to yield. Fred is starting to lift my feet off the ground and my opposition prop has worked his head underneath my chest. It is slow motion but slowly I become airborne. My back is still straight, but my feet are at least two feet off the ground. My neck is still bound into the scrum and the pressure is enormous. I’m holding my prop in the scrum with everything I’ve got. I mustn’t let my head pop out. I feel like I want to scream loudly but can’t.
“Ease off Fred” I groan. “put me down” But he doesn’t. in fact, he pushes harder. It feels like an hour goes by as I am stuck in mid-air being concertinaed with my feet dangling. Eventually Tank manages to drag the ball back, the planned move is executed to perfection and we score a wonderful try in the right-hand corner which I don’t see at all. The Bower Park crowd goes wild.
I am now on terra- ferma and walking back to the halfway line with big Fred.
“Fucking hell Fred why didn’t you ease off”. Fred laughs at me,
“Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”.
Later in the changing room the banter starts. Lots of pig squealing noises. My teammates are letting me know that I am now officially a member of the Flying Pig Club. I’m more bothered by the fact that my opposition prop totally destroyed me. Had me beaten all ends up. I know I tried my best and never gave up in any scrum. I know I did take it like a man and would have battled all day and night if I had to, because that is the pride a prop forward must have. “You can beat me, but you will never beat me” is the attitude all props carry with them.
Now I have even greater doubts about my own ability. What if this starts to happen to me on a regular basis? What if I’m shown up for what I really am, a back-rower masquerading as a prop? Thoughts of comments made to me by many people keep ringing in my ears. “You’ll never make a prop”.
Despite the win I’m not in good spirits. On Monday evening on ITV Border news rugby round up. The opening credits feature that scrum with me in flying pig mode as Aspatria score the wonder- try. The clip is repeated twice more. I am so embarrassed, especially as the good- natured banter continues at training later in the week.
On Friday afternoon we are on our way down to the South to play another league game. Our coach Tommy Borthwick decides to put on the video of the whole Plymouth game. I hunker down for a long 80 minutes watching myself being obliterated in the scrum. On the screen it doesn’t look as bad as it felt at the time and I see a couple of opportunities for things I might have tried.
Later we’re at that point of the game where we score and course I’m up in the air. Again, there is a chorus of pig squeals and I have no choice but to laugh and shrug my shoulders. You are only as good as your last game. Despite my fears, in the next game I end up playing loose head prop for the first and only time for Aspatria. I did quite well and had the better of my prop. Who knew that could happen? It just goes to show, every game and every prop is different. You have to put the bad days at the office behind you and know that there will be games in future when the boot is on the other foot and you are the one inflicting pain.
As Fred Story rightly said, “Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”. As for the flying pig scenario. That game against Plymouth was the only time in my whole career as prop forward over many seasons that I was ever lifted off the ground. Never again was I forced to endure the pig squeals. I wish I had known that would be the case back in 1993!