Waratahs coach Michael Cheika’s decision to appoint a defensive coach rather than a full-time set-piece guru was always fraught with danger – and the price for it could be revealed on Sunday against the Lions, who boast the best scrum in Super Rugby.
The Waratahs defence has proven strong under the work of assistant coach Nathan Grey. But the Waratahs set-piece is still a work in progress – especially in a scrum that, heading into this week’s 14th round, rates second worst of the 15 teams.
While the success rate of the Lions scrum is 93 per cent, the Waratahs scrum’s average sits at 82 per cent.
The Waratahs lineout, which receives part-time coaching from former Wallabies second-rower Dan Vickerman, fares better with a 10th placed rate of 84.2 per cent compared with the Lions, whose lineout is pegged 12th on 81.6 per cent.
Such statistics would not surprise Cheika. During the South Africa tour, he recognised the overall shortcomings in the set-piece, which used to be a strength of the Waratahs, after they were exposed in a 32-10 loss in round seven to the Sharks in Durban.
“I have to take a bit of the blame for the reason why the team isn’t performing at scrum and lineout,” Cheika said last month after the Waratahs beat the Stormers in Cape Town 22-11 in round eight.
“I probably wasn’t very good at either of them as a player, and I probably don’t pay as much attention to them as I should. I like attacking football and defence and that type of stuff.”
The Waratahs set-piece has made some progress since; but so it should with time spent together.
And with five rounds to go after the game against the Lions’, the Waratahs need it to become a strength – quickly.
How big a challenge that is, especially in the scrum, will become clear in the Lions clash at Allianz Stadium.
Waratahs captain Dave Dennis, who runs the NSW lineout, said he and Cheika still had faith in the scrum being self-coached.
That role is primarily left to Waratahs loose-head prop Benn Robinson, with added input from hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and props Sekope Kepu and Paddy Ryan, who are all Wallabies. This week Manly assistant coach Damien Cummings has been assisting.
“[Robinson] has been around the club long enough. He has put his head in enough scrums to know what is going on,” Dennis said.
But Dennis knows their scrum has to improve if the Waratahs are to start winning consistently and make the finals.
“We have spoken about how, if we want to push on, our set-piece has got to be up there with the best in the competition,” Dennis said.
Ryan, who started at tight-head in NSW’s last game, a round 12 win over the Hurricanes, likes a self-coached approach to scrummaging.
However, he said it took time to adapt to. Asked if not having a scrum coach had an impact, he said: “It probably did early on. We didn’t scrummage well against the Brumbies [round five] or the Sharks [round seven], but I think since then it has really started to turn around.”
Nevertheless, Ryan knows the Waratahs face a huge challenge against a Lions scrum intent on handing NSW a lesson of their own.
“We have a big test this week – these guys have one of the best scrums in the comp,” Ryan said.
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