How shrewd England have transformed worst-ranked scrum under Steve Borthwick

Swift improvement: England have dramatically boosted their set-piece under Steve Borthwick  (REUTERS)
Swift improvement: England have dramatically boosted their set-piece under Steve Borthwick (REUTERS)

England have carried out a low-key charm offensive to transform their scrum under the shrewd guidance of new boss Steve Borthwick.

The head coach has overseen a drive to change the perception of the Red Rose set-piece, alongside technical adjustments and training-ground graft.

One of Borthwick’s first acts in the hot seat was to canvass opinion as wide as possible at World Rugby and with top referees to find out where officials felt England’s scrum was falling short. England finished the autumn with the worst-ranked scrum of all the tier-one Test nations.

Borthwick and scrum coach Richard Cockerill have quickly whipped the set-piece into a far more stable, solid offering, and that change has as much to do with changing officials’ minds as altering England’s approach.

“In our first week, Wayne Barnes was with us and we went through the scrums,” said Saracens’ England hooker Jamie George. “He was saying, ‘this is what I see, this is the trend, so this is what you’ve got to change’. We’re taking some good steps forward there.

“We need to take the officials with us, as well as us learning, too, so that’s why we get 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 turned around what specialist coach Cockerill believed officials considered “reckless” before the turn of the year.

Borthwick’s England can already be characterised as built in the boss’s pragmatic image, and the former Test captain wants the set-piece to be successful, but also safe as houses.

Cockerill was doubtless a firebrand hooker in his playing days, but has carried out Borthwick’s scrum assignment to the letter.

“Richard is very clear on how he wants us to scrum, he wants us to be clean but also aggressive, a scrum that goes after the opposition,” added George.

“At the same time, though, we had to change the previous perception. And that’s still ongoing, it’s not done yet. Those are the messages we are going after. So, we’ve had referees in pretty much every time we’re in camp for that exact reason, to check that we are showing the right pictures that referees will want to see.

“Probably there was a perception of our scrum before that we might mess around and end up on the ground, but that’s gone.”

England will need all the set-piece ballast they can get at Twickenham on Saturday, even despite a clutch of front-row absentees for the powerful French.

George believes England’s tight work continues to improve under Borthwick, however, especially having fared well against a Saracens colleague in the 31-14 victory over Italy.

“I play with Marco Riccioni on a weekly basis at Saracens and he’s genuinely one of the best tight-head props around,” said George. “He’s superb and we were able to put him under pressure in that game.

“The main progress for me has been the pictures we’ve been presenting: a very straight, very square, very legal scrum that just wants to take opponents on.”

Bristol prop Kyle Sinckler explained Cockerill’s method.

“The only way you get better at scrummaging is by scrummaging,” said Sinckler. “Last year, our set-piece wasn’t up to standard. It was about accepting that, then getting to work.

“A lot of it comes down to perception, but we all know that perception becomes reality. We had a reality check, we were angry with where we were and, hopefully, it’s now getting better.

“We’ve been working to turn it around, to the point where people say, ‘there’s no way England gave away that penalty, because they’re so dominant’.”