Amid the current fanfare about England’s bid to reconnect with their supporters at Twickenham with a new attacking style designed to get them out of their seats, internally there has also been a reaffirmation that hopes of making the stadium a fortress again will rely on a scrum that strikes “fear” into their opponents.
Eddie Jones, the former England head coach, once declared that the side’s success would be centred around harnessing the best traditions of English forward power. Yet a win ratio of just 50 per cent at Twickenham in the last three seasons would suggest that the Red Rose set-piece no longer intimidates opposition teams as it once did.
When Steve Borthwick took charge at the start of last year, he inherited a scrum that was statistically the worst in the world, completing only 85 per cent on their ball in 2022. It was also heavily penalised throughout the autumn Test series that culminated in just one victory, against Japan, and led to the sacking of head coach Jones.
The low point came in the final defeat against South Africa when England conceded a total of four scrum penalties. Jones said at the time that he had grave concerns about how the scrum was refereed but the video analysis was damning.
Attempts to rectify the problem were interrupted when Richard Cockerill departed as scrum coach to be replaced by Tom Harrison ahead of the World Cup campaign and although England’s set-piece improved during the tournament in France, ultimately it was South Africa’s ability to dominate England’s scrum in the final quarter of the World Cup semi-final in Paris last October that snatched victory for the Springboks.
When Ellis Genge was penalised for dropping to his knees and then getting up and not driving straight, there was a sense of inevitability as Handre Pollard landed the penalty from 49 metres in the 78th minute.
“The scrum let us down in the semi-final,” admitted Jamie George last month, the England hooker and now the side’s captain. “I mean, you’ve got to give credit to South Africa, the guys that they brought on were pretty useful. But at the same time, the guys that we were bringing off the bench were also outstanding players, so it doesn’t just go down to personnel, it’s a collective situation.
“It was a one-off game. I think generally we scrummaged pretty well during the World Cup so it’s not like a disaster or we’re in a terrible place. It is about how we become the best in the world?
“If we want to play the sort of game plan that we want to play, the England scrum needs to be dominant. And like you think about England historically and you talk about making Twickenham a fortress again – people should fear coming to scrum against England. What the semi-final highlighted to everyone was that this was something that let us down and if we fix it, this is where we can go next.”
The problem for George, Harrison and Borthwick is that time is not on their side. In the short-term, the set-piece has been a major focus of the pre-Six Nations camps, with tailored gym sessions for the front-row forwards, more live scrummaging and technical work.
But, as the concession of two scrum penalties against Italy showed in Rome last Saturday, England’s desire to engage in a scrummaging contest can be undone by opposition sides who are more keen to try to force the referee to make an early decision by messing around at the scrum set-up.
That England are still having to rely upon veteran props such as Joe Marler (33) and Dan Cole (36) – magnificent scrummagers they may be – also says much about the failure of the development pathway system for front-row forwards over the last two World Cup cycles.
What Borthwick discovered when he took over last year was a severe shortage of depth in the front-row forwards, requiring urgent action.
The appointment of Nathan Catt as the Rugby Football Union’s pathway scrum coach earlier this year has helped to address the issue and he has worked closely with Harrison in two key areas: understanding of the players in the system and their specific needs and scrummaging philosophy to ensure greater alignment between the senior team and the pathway.
The work has led to a greater understanding of where all England’s front-row forwards are physically, technically and tactically from throughout the junior pathway up to the senior team.
The establishment of ‘front-five camps’ last year to work with young forwards across the country is another step forward, while Catt, Harrison and Joe Gray, the ex-Harlequins hooker who has taken throwing clinics, have been on the road visiting players with elite potential.
The encouraging news for England supporters is that the pipeline is already starting to generate a new generation of front-row forwards to rekindle memories from when Jason Leonard, Phil Vickery, Andrew Sheridan and Julian White were in their pomp.
Big futures are predicted for the two England Under-20s props, Asher Opoku-Fordjour (Sale Sharks) and Billy Sela (Bath), as well as Gloucester’s 19-year-old tighthead Afolabi Fasogbon, who has been injured for much of this season.
Borthwick has also met with a number of front-row forwards who are outside the squad but have the potential to be involved for England at the 2027 World Cup in Australia.
The biggest challenge for their development however is getting enough game time with the Premiership clubs, which is why Catt and Harrison are to dedicate time and resources to accelerate their progress.