The Tri Nations 2020 was a reawakening for Argentina. Under the sensible nurturing of ex-Wallaby forwards coach Mario Ledesma, they rediscovered much of their pride and true rugby identity.
In the Tri Nations they reclaimed their traditional defensive resilience and organisation, conceding eight tries in their four games. In the three games where they selected their first choices in every position on the field, Los Pumas conceded only three tries in as many games. They were mean and they were tough.
The return match against the All Blacks eventually blew out, 38-0, with four Kiwi tries in the last half-hour, but that Pumas side contained only six starters from the first game, in which they had achieved an historic victory over New Zealand.
The other article of faith which Ledesma has resurrected is the scrum. He used his deep knowledge of French club rugby to find a gem, hidden in plain sight, in the burly shape of 35-year-old tighthead prop Francisco Gomez Kodela.
Gomez Kodela has done the rounds of the French Top 14, moving between three different clubs – Biarritz, Bordeaux and now Lyon Olympique Universitaire – over a ten-year period. That experience stood him in good stead during the Tri Nations, and the Argentine scrum at last found an anchor after years of uncertainty.
But Ledesma did more than introduce new starting tight forwards like Gomez Kodela and Julian Montoya. He revived the old pattern of Argentine scrummaging, summarised by the word ‘bajada’.
The main visible difference in the bajada lies in the binding of the players in the second row. The ‘under-bind’, with the second-rowers binding with their outside arms through the legs of the props in front of them, is replaced by an ‘over-bind’, where they wrap their outside arms around the hips of the prop.
The effect of the bind is to pull the props towards the centre of the scrum and enable both locks to direct weight and power through their inside shoulders. Instead of pushing exclusively on the prop with the under-bind, as former South Africa and Brumbies coach Jake White pointed out, the force goes to the number two.
“All the power is directed into the hooker. In other words, they scrum along an imaginary arrow drawn pointing inwards from either side of the number eight, which means all the power is directed towards the hooker.”
This is why so many Argentine players who started as props – like ‘Topo’ Rodriguez, ‘Freddie’ Mendez and Diego Cash – ended up at hooker, where their extra size and strength allowed them to conduct the power coming through from behind.
The mechanics of the bajada could have an important role to play in simplifying law interpretations at the scrum, where far too many set-pieces finish in either resets or penalties.
Here are some of the key scrum laws as things stand:
19.7 The players in the scrum bind in the following way:
a) the props bind to the hooker.
b) the hooker binds with both arms. This can be either over or under the arms of the props.
c) the locks bind with the props immediately in front of them and with each other.
d) all other players in the scrum bind on a lock’s body with at least one arm…
d) all players’ binding is maintained for the duration of the scrum…
19.19 Players may push provided they do so straight and parallel to the ground. Sanction: Penalty.
In summary, all players in the scrum should be bound to one another, maintain their original bind and push straight throughout the duration of the set-piece.
The problem with the under-bind is that it tends naturally to pull the two second-rowers apart as they struggle to stay in the sweet spot behind the backside of the props in front of them.
This, in turns, means scrums often tend to break into separate sub-units with their own agendas, and over-rotate on one side or the other.
Let’s take a look at how this tends to manifest in practice. South Africa used their strong pool of props and hookers to scrummage for penalties in the latter stages of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. They reaped the reward for apparent dominance as they were able to rotate up on one side of the scrum.
Here is a set-piece from the semi-final against Wales, observed from the optimal eagle eye view from above:
It is clear right from the start that the Springboks are only looking to work on one side of the Welsh scrum. As the ball reaches the base, all of the Bokke feet are stepping out towards their left, which means that all of the pressure is coming through on the outside of Welsh tighthead Tomas Francis.
As the scrum develops, both the left flanker (Siya Kolisi) and the left lock (Lood de Jager) are working as a sub-unit to push the hips of the prop in front of them (Tendai Mtawarira) out on to an acute angle:
The right lock (Eben Etzebeth) has already moved his right shoulder well past the backside of the prop he is supposed to be supporting (Frans Malherbe) to follow the rotation up on the loosehead.
The scrum ends with both South African locks pointing directly towards the touchline, rather than straight downfield – mission accomplished:
The other sub-unit of the South African scrum (composed of Frans Malherbe and number seven Pieter-Steph Du Toit on the right) has remained largely static, and Malherbe’s opponent, Wyn Jones (in the red rectangle), is in the same place in both screenshots.
Referee Jerome Garces penalised Francis for pulling out of the contest, but at the end he is still on his feet and in a pushing position. It is difficult indeed to see what else he could have done. The problem has been created by South Africa driving towards an area outside his right shoulder which he cannot defend.
How should the attacking team be rewarded for this kind of effort in the scrum, which involves not pushing straight or maintaining original binds?
If the Welsh back-row is forced to retire behind the hindmost foot of the scrum, there is an inviting space to attack between the Wales nine and ten. That is reward enough.
The bajada method naturally avoids the kind of over-rotation seen in this example. Here is the beginning of the Pumas’ World Cup game against France:
The right lock is binding around the hips of the tighthead prop (Juan Figallo) and the power is being generated through the middle of the scrum:
After winning a clutch of early scrum penalties, Argentina found themselves camped close to the France goalline:
The French tighthead (Rabah Slimani) gets some early purchase, but the Pumas’ strong middle-row binding means they hold together tighter and straighter for longer as the opposition scrum first over-rotates, then begins to disintegrate:
Somehow, referee Angus Gardner found a reason to reward the French effort with a penalty. It is symbolic of the times.
The reliability of Argentina’s technique was demonstrated by three different tighthead props starting games since Ledesma revisited the bajada. Gomez Kodela and Santiago Medrano forced two penalties for scrum collapses by Scott Sio against Australia:
Again, the power is being transmitted forward in a straight line, with the hooker and tighthead on point.
The Pumas’ single most impressive scrummaging performance since the World Cup came in their historic win over New Zealand. In this game, Gomez Kodela gave his redoubtable opponent (All Blacks loosehead Joe Moody) all the trouble he could handle, on both sides of the feed:
Under pressure, the Pumas are able to keep the scrum straighter for longer and drive through the middle as their opponents rotate away to the side – even if the effect is unnecessarily amplified by the flanker on Gomez Kodela’s side (Marcos Kremer) dropping his bind and slamming into Moody’s left hip.
The recent news that Pumas hooker Julian Montoya is no longer able to join up with the Force for the upcoming Super Rugby season will come as a huge blow to the Western Australian outfit. Montoya was the best rake in the 2020 Tri Nations.
With Tom Robertson, Montoya and Santiago Medrano starting, and Angus Wagner, Andrew Ready and Kieran Longbottom to come off the bench, the Force would have enjoyed the strongest scrum in the Australian competition.
The presence of those two Argentine Test front rowers might just have persuaded the Force to switch to the bajada, and give it the higher profile it most surely deserves in the modern game.
Stalwart Leicester and England prop Dan Cole once commented: “[The Pumas] scrummage with a certain pride, a certain sense of honour. They don’t like cheating.
“To the Pumas, the scrum is a pushing contest where the unit going back loses. The Italians have taken it on board to some extent, and it’s always been there in French rugby. But for the Argentines, it’s such a major point in their game – and they’re good at it. Very good. ”
Changing under-bind to over-bind in the middle row, and enshrining it through law, will go a long way towards curing the malaise of constant resets, and false penalties awarded for an over-rotation of the scrum. More power will be delivered through the middle of the front row, where it belongs. Rotating the scrum should be exclusively used as a tactic designed to open up an area for attack, and not rewarded by penalty.
It is just a crying shame that the Force will not be able to profit from the presence of Montoya in the middle of their ’empuje coordinado’ in 2021. He leaves a world-class hole to fill.