Last Sunday, at a country rugby field, among the autumn leaves gently falling and the cool wind gusting across the ground, Wallabies scrum coach Mario Ledesma took a group of players and coaches through their paces.
The worshippers stood quietly in a rough semi-circle, listening intently to the sermon, which was punctuated with long-range jabs and taps from a sawn-off broomstick.
“Scrummaging is simple really,” Ledesma said. Win the chest. Stay square. Extend the upper body. No need to move the feet, or angle in, or to use any of the dark-arts style tactics so jealously guarded by grizzled, old-style props holding forth in the gloomy corners of bars.
Using those tactics, said the guru, was actually counter productive. If someone in the scrum is doing their own thing, it means that the other seven are down a man. And if two guys in the front row are doing their own thing, then hardly any of the shove is being channelled to where it matters.
The Mario Manifesto laid waste to much conventional wisdom, and left in its place a series of disarmingly simple philosophies. During one exercise, a loosehead prop angled out around his opposing number and wheeled the scrum. After the set piece had disintegrated he came up for air, expecting praise for his crafty tactical win.
Ledesma looked dismayed. No no no, he said. Hips out? Overextended? Wheeling? Such an easy call for the ref, he said in a sorrowful voice.
Later another young tighthead prop drove masterfully through his opponent, straight and level. It was a textbook manoeuvre, and the crowd appropriately oohed and aahed in appreciation, only to see the prop buckle and backpedal before their eyes and end up back where he started.
Ledesma’s puppy dog eyes looked sadder than ever. “Why did you stop?” he asked in genuine wonder. The young prop looked embarrassed. “I thought I’d won,” he said.
“No no no,” Mario said. “Never stop pushing! Never give up!”
“And as for collapsing…Ah,” said the prophet. “Collapsing is just giving up. It is a conscious decision. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”
And above all… everyone must do the same thing. Consistency is the key. Everyone must work together.
“If everyone is square and no-one is adjusting the feet and we all staying on and not collapsing and we are pushing together… then we win. Simple!”
So looking across the rubble of the Australian rugby landscape the last few weeks, it was hard not to put the events in a scrummaging context.
The Brumbies CEO Michael Jones splintered the Brumbies board front row with a straight shove, before the board angled in and wheeled him around, leading to a brief collapse. The referee, after some deliberation, decided to repack the scrum and award the feed to Jones. A ripple of surprise ran through the crowd.
The scrum debacle had followed some brief on-field coaching from Bill Pulver, who ran on the water and relayed a few instructions from ARU HQ to Brumbies chairman Robert Kennedy. Kennedy’s wheeling tactics didn’t work out and it remains to be seen whether he can beat Jones in a straight shove contest.
In Queensland, good guy Richard Graham finally got subbed after taking a bath in every scrum he packed for the last two years, and down south, outgoing Waratahs chief Greg Harris was caught on camera asking for the scrums against the Western Force to be moved out of the Perth mud patch to a better patch of grass in Western Sydney.
A few weeks prior, centre Brett Papworth, more known for his step than his scrum, was busted by scrum coach Pulver for a rant against the big guys up front, saying that they weren’t pulling their weight. Papworth unfortunately proved what many forwards have always suspected, that backs, despite their claims to superior intelligence and confident tone of voice, don’t always get it entirely right.
Whatever the issue facing Australian rugby, the three main tenets of the Gospel According to Mario – stay square, work together, and never stop scrummaging – seem more appropriate than ever.
The underhanded tactics abounding in Canberra and the lack of recruitment transparency in Queensland are but a couple of examples of the opaque political and tactical nature of Australian rugby administration. The average spectator has no idea what really went on behind the closed doors in either locale, he just knows that it stinks. Staying square, they aren’t.
Of course, much of this could be fixed by having the various administrations aligning and acting in the best interests of Australian rugby, but the enmity which has been allowed to build and the lack of engagement from both the ARU hierarchy and the grassroots alike, sees everyone poles apart.
Frustratingly for the ARU, they have become the banker of last resort, but have little say in the administration of the state franchises. Given the six-figure rescue packages the ARU has handed out to embattled franchises over the last few years, it’s perhaps not too much to ask that they pack square and work together a little more with HQ.
As for never stopping scrummaging, whatever happened to the wonderful engagement and goodwill built up during the Wallabies charge to the World Cup final last year? Of course we have had the inevitable off-season with its interminable cricket against everyone (and some of them twice), but the connection seems to have faded away like smoke on the wind.
Instead, a macabre curiosity in Eddie Jones’ early success with England seems to have distracted us from the cool little hookup we had going with our Wallabies last year. Just like the young prop in Mario’s scrum session, we seem to have forgot that just because we made some headway, doesn’t mean we can stop pushing.
Perhaps I’m overdoing the metaphor. Regular readers will know that it is a failing of mine. But standing in the cool, high-altitude air, watching Mario poke and prod with his broomstick, it was hard not to believe that some of the powerbrokers couldn’t have learnt a few useful lessons by being there.
In the last scrum of the session, it all came together. Everyone was square with hips level and backs straight. The halfback fed the ball. Eight upper bodies extended and sixteen feet anchored deep into the turf.
For a beautiful moment, the eight became one, an awesome unit of irresistible pressure, driving forward at will. Faced with such disarming unity, the opposition had no choice but to yield. They fell back and crumbled, beaten.
Mario got it right. If you stay square, scrum together, and never stop pushing, you can’t possibly lose.
Perhaps it’s a timely lesson for Australian rugby.