As the Stormers tried to bully the Blues into submission last Friday night, one South African journalist sent the following pithy tweet. ”Heaven help us South Africans if the IRB ever bans the maul. We’d actually have to play some rugby …”
It was tongue-in-cheek of course, but not without truth. The maul has become the South African weapon of choice this season, particularly at the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls. So how can the Waratahs stop it against the Stormers on Saturday? There are several schools of thought.
The first, rather worryingly, is that you can’t. If it is set up quickly from the lineout, with depth and the right body position, the odds of preventing South African packs trampling over the top of you lengthen considerably: especially as there seem to be fewer penalties this season for putting men in front of the ball.
This raises the curly question of legality that the tweet alluded to. Mauling is certainly a skill, in that it requires timing and organisation, yet you could say the same thing about putting dummy runners in front of the ball to rumble into defensive lines. But that’s one for the IRB to deal with.
The second is that you can, and that is, in itself, a skill. Blues second-rower Ali Williams disrupted one Stormers lineout maul last weekend with a combination of long arms and aggression. In the previous round his teammate Luke Braid was penalised for trying to do the same thing against the Reds.
However, the waters get murky here. Very murky. Earlier this week, SANZAR referees boss Lyndon Bray admitted Williams should have been penalised, while Braid was actually on the right side of the law. That penalty against Braid, late in the Reds’ game, cost his side the match. In other words, you can be right in trying to stop the maul and still be wrong.
The third, and the one that has been most effective against the Stormers this season, is stopping them winning lineout ball in the first place.
It was the tactic used to great effect by the Crusaders in round seven when they beat the Stormers in Cape Town. However, not all teams have a second-row partnership of Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano, and the Stormers were missing outstanding youngster Eben Etzebeth that day. Still, you can predict a lot of lineout ball will go the way of Andries Bekker.
The fourth, and it’s an avenue open to the Waratahs because of a particular skill set in their back three, is to get out of their own territory. If it’s done effectively enough, the maul is taken out of the equation.
Cam Crawford’s tries have attracted the headlines since his introduction, but it’s his booming right boot that can also deflate opposition packs. He has been a real asset. Similarly, one reason why Drew Mitchell will no doubt still be very much in the minds of Wallabies selectors is his left peg. The Waratahs will want to use the ball of course, but that’s probably what the Stormers, with their suffocating defence, want too.
For all the celebrating about the Australian conference’s good record against New Zealand sides, the relatively poor one against the South Africans has been brushed to one side.
The Waratahs’ win against the Kings last weekend was just the fourth by an Australian side against a South African rival, compared with nine losses and a draw. That’s the sort of statistic that will get Warren Gatland thinking about what sort of brand of rugby he might use in a couple of months.
Favoured Brumbies forwards probably had question marks scrawled next to their names after the Crusaders went direct last Sunday and found hints of a pudgy underbelly.
The Waratahs’ pack can have question marks next to them erased if they cope with the confrontational Bekker, Etzebeth and excellent young loose-head Steven Kitshoff. If you want to play rugby against this lot you’ve got to get your hands dirty first.