The deep dark recesses of a rugby union scrum are a chamber of horrors shrouded in myth and secrecy, but Newcastle Falcons hooker Joe Graham explains to MARK SMITH why this pile of 16 heaving bodies remains such an integral part of the game.
THERE can be few sporting contests where collective brute strength and physical confrontation are fought out in more raw and unashamed fashion than a rugby union scrum.
Tug-of-war is about as close as you will come, but minor rope burns pale into insignificance when considering the sheer physical force going through the spines, legs, necks and shoulders of your average rugby forward.
These are the warriors who put their heads where most of us would think twice about putting our feet – the snarling combatants straining sinews over every inch of territory.
“The scrum is a pride thing,” says Graham, the 24-year-old who will make his tenth appearance of the season against French side Lyon in this afternoon’s Amlin Challenge Cup opener.
“There is nothing better than being in the scrum and the feeling you get when you are beating your opposition.
“The pride of beating them upfront is immense. It gets the crowd and the players going and everything else follows on the back of that.”
That he can talk with such relish about a contest so dangerous tells you all you need to know.
It is what his kind live for, especially in the front-row union – those guys with the cauliflower ears leaning on the club-house bar and reliving their greatest shoves for anyone who will listen.
The adage goes that the forwards decide who wins the game and backs decide by how many.
Even in the professional age there is much to be said for that, with tight-head props among the most expensive players on the pitch.
In Euan Murray Newcastle have one of the best in the business.
A rock in the Rugby World Cup, his wage of around £300,000 per year comes despite his insistence on sitting out Sunday games for religious reasons. That their latest European opener comes on a Saturday can, in part, be put down to that, although the scrum itself has had to negotiate some choppy waters of late.
Derided by many for the continued collapses and protracted ‘crouch, touch, pause and engage’ pantomine which proceeds every hit, the impact of the whistle and an ability to read officials is now almost as important as the push itself.
Graham added: “The referee has a massive role to play around the scrum, and we do realise that it is hard for them. There is a lot going on that they probably do not see or fully understand, and it can be frustrating when it goes against you.
“The hand goes up for a penalty and you ask yourself what it was for.
“They can help you or hinder you, but they are doing their best and you just have to get on with it.”
Connoisseurs of the scrummaging art have a mouth-watering matinee in store for them this afternoon as Lyon pitch up at Kingston Park to tackle the Falcons.
French rugby has long been renowned for its emphasis on the shove, where every inch gained is greeted with raucous approval. Win the scrum and win the game, goes the Gallic mantra, and Lyon lock Christian Short does not disagree.
The Gosforth-born lock, who packs down for this afternoon’s visitors in the city of his birth, said: “If you are not a good scrummager in France then you do not get to play much.”
It is a game which promises a degree of redemption for both sides, with Newcastle bottom of the Aviva Premiership and Lyon just one place better in the French equivalent.
A 16-all draw with fellow strugglers Worcester was all the Falcons could show for their monumental efforts last time out, but Graham insists the ship remains on course.
He added: “The mood has been good. Everyone is positive and they have been back into their training looking forward to today’s game.
“We were frustrated last Friday because it was there to be won.
“We had two chances to score tries but we did not take them, and it would have been a different game if we had managed to convert those opportunities.
“The boys are desperate to get it sorted, though, and we have been working hard through the week.” A two-week breather from the suffocating pressure of fighting for their very lives is a welcome to relief to some, with Graham stating: “The Amlin Challenge Cup is a new start for us.
“It is a chance to go out there and just play some rugby.
“If we express ourselves and get stuck in today then we can put a few things right which did not work last weekend.
“We have stuck with a strong side for this game, and it is a chance to build a campaign.
“We need to move forward as a team, and today is an opportunity in front of our home fans to start with a win on the board in this tournament.” With Lyon providing a step into the unknown in the first ever meeting between the two clubs, he adds: “The analysis side is always a bit different when you play overseas teams, because more often than not you have not seen too many of their games and you do not know all of their players as well as you do in England.
“We have done our homework as usual and studied them, and it is pretty much what you would expect from most French sides.
“They have a big pack who like to scrummage, a bit of flair and a desire to chuck the ball around. We are aware of what they will bring.”