Analysis: the Scotland scrum vs Marler

Analysis: the Scotland scrum vs Marler

For the first time since anyone can remember, Scotland will enter a Calcutta Cup match this Saturday feeling that their forward basics – the set-pieces of lineout and scrum – may be more solid than those of their England counterparts under Eddie Jones.

I believe that there are real grounds to support this feeling. South African Josh Strauss will add further physicality and leadership to the Scotland forwards at #6 – and Strauss was a player of Springbok quality before he left South Africa – while Free Stater W.P. Nel was one of the two top scrummagers at tight-head (along with Puma Ramiro Herrera) during the recent World Cup. Add in the Gray brothers in the engine room and you have the makings of an imposing unit, a force to be reckoned with.

Since his debut against Italy in the warm-ups to the World Cup, Nel started in six games and Scotland won 14 penalties from scrum while he was on the field – 11 of which can directly be attributed to Nel’s activity on the Scottish tight-head. It resulted in one try scored and 6 penalty goals kicked, three other prime positions in the opposition red zone, and two potential yellow cards against the opposition loose-head for repeated infringements (Matias Aguero for Italy and Scott Sio for Australia).

Let’s take a look at how Nel operates, with the benefit of some clips from the World Cup quarter-final against Australia.

Scott Sio has been (rightly) credited with much of Australia’s improvement at the scrum since the 2015 Rugby Championship, but he comes off second best to Willem Nel at these four Scotland feeds.

If we take a look at Nel’s mechanics, we can see that:

  1. At ‘set’, his hips are in the same plane as his shoulders, he is completely square to his opponent and he is not binding on the loose-head’s left arm (32:40 & 45:20) – these are all refereeing triggers and Nel is presenting a picture perfect ‘look’ to Craig Joubert. His core stability is therefore excellent because of his technique.
  2. Nel sets up with a very low left-arm bind on his hooker. As the scrum forms at 31:57, he is actually pulling down on Ross Ford’s waistband and his left arm is almost vertical. This gives Nel much more mobility in the shoulders and increases his ability to turn inside at an angle as the scrum develops.

Over the four scrums it is fairly clear that there is no great difference in power between Sio and Nel. It is W.P. Nel’s technical ability that keeps forcing mistakes out of Scott Sio. At the two scrums where the activity on Nel’s side is most clearly visible (32:00 & 45:20), the same process is repeating:

  • After the ‘set’, at 32:07 the impact of Nel’s engagement and square positioning have already forced Sio’s hips out towards touch. Where Nel and Johnny Gray pushing behind him are aligned on very much the same angle, Sio is driving in while Kane Douglas is pushing out, and the two Aussie second rows begin to split as the scrum unfolds. Although Sio comes back strongly in the second half of the scrum -and the refereeing call was probably 50/50 – he does so at an angle and without control.
  • Nel’s technical advantage is even clearer in the next scrum at 45:20. Sio’s head is being forced down on to his chest and outwards toward his left shoulder, and as in the previous scrum he has to take a step outside to relieve the pressure at 45:26. The result is a third collapse (and penalty) on his side.

At the 49:20 scrum, Sio again over-extends and loses his core stability before Nel. Had Romain Poite or Jerome Garces or Wayne Barnes been the official in charge, I have no doubt that the penalty would have been awarded and that Sio would have been sin-binned for ten minutes for repeated infringement – which could well have changed the fate of the entire game!

Why could this be an influential factor?

The English loose-head Joe Marler is under scrutiny for ‘angling’. He was penalised twice for this in the Scotland fixture last season and of course was the victim of a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign during the World Cup – engineered by none other than our esteemed editor Matt before the group game against the Wallabies! (the truth will set you free – Ed.)

With Marler feeling the heat, W.P. Nel is just the right man to force the issue and bring the England loose-head back under the microscope.


Nick has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and latterly Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Since then, three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for, or won national sports book awards. The latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union. It is entitled “The Iron Curtain”. Nick has also written other books on literature and psychology.

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