Scrum’s the word: Tatafu Polota-Nau on the Wallaby front line

“The good thing about sport is that you have to expect the unexpected, just because you’re going well in one area, it can always come back to haunt you.”

Unfortunately for Australia, this turned out to be a rather prosaic statement about the Wallaby scrum from Waratah hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, when I caught up with him a couple of days before the recent Bledisloe Cup clash in Hong Kong.

He felt that a pack which started the year in strife – with the absences of Benn Robinson, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore and Polota-Nau himself, leaving an internationally naïve front row to be ravaged by England in Perth – had seen much improvement across the Tri-Nations and earned a great deal of valuable experience in the process. The return of Moore, Alexander and Robinson to the fray in recent games only served to steady the ship and all was well. Or so it seemed…

Two weeks later and the Wallabies head into a potential firestorm at Twickenham against an English pack that isn’t so much smelling the blood of a fragile Australian scrum, but already feasting on the kill. An average performance at scrum time against the All Blacks in Hong Kong was a warning sign, but the way the eight disintegrated at times against Wales last Saturday was almost a return to the bad old days of Twickenham 2005 – and nobody predicted that on scrum coach Patricio Noriega’s shift.

Ironically, Polota-Nau made his Wallaby debut in that match. Having achieved the rare feat of test selection at the age of 20 before having even played at Super Rugby level, he had a tougher baptism of fire than most, coming on as a replacement on what was a black day all round for Australian scrummaging. He remembers it well:

“Baptism of fire is probably an understatement if anything. The situation was the match at Twickenham where Matt Dunning was stretchered off, so I think you could share my view that I was s***ting myself! You sort of forget it once you get out there and get on with the job but initially, yeah, you definitely feel the pressure.”

As the saying goes – ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ – and coming out the other side of that game, albeit with a loss, has served Polota-Nau and his team mates well. They’re unbeaten at England HQ since:

“What’s so good about it from my view is that every single match after that at Twickenham, we’ve won – and touch wood it keeps going,” he says. “But going through the progress we’ve made from that situation is definitely rewarding.”

And that’s the thing, it had been progressing. The renaissance started under former test hooker Michael Foley, an assistant to previous Wallaby coach John Connolly, and was continuing under the watchful eye of Noriega. A fearsome looking individual, you can bet that the Australian pack has been worked to the limit this week in preparation for the English onslaught that awaits. As Polota-Nau tells it, the former Wallaby/Argentine test prop is not a man to cross, at least as far as rugby is concerned:

“He’s probably one of the most passionate blokes I’ve ever met in terms of applying himself to coaching. When he speaks, he doesn’t say much but you can definitely feel it because the way he presents it just sends shivers down your spine because of how passionately he describes each certain scrum. That’s a really, really positive thing that the guys take out of it. If looks could kill, you’d probably be dead by now, but away from rugby he’s one of the most gentle giants going around.”

Both Noriega and the reconfigured front row with the returning Stephen Moore, will have their work cut-out against an England pack that last week came out on top against an All Black scrum many consider to be the best in the world. As Polota-Nau notes, breaking down that engrained English mentality towards the scrum is half the battle.

“I think they have their own strategy in terms of how they want to get their approach just right. But what’s good about it is that everyone buys into it and that’s the most important thing. If you get at least one person not buying into it, then that can make the biggest difference of all.”

Last week, it appeared that several players weren’t ‘buying into it’ for Australia as their problems at the engagement stemmed from the Wallaby pack not working as an eight. Despite the criticism that the front row tends to bear the brunt of, it requires all members of the pack to pull – or in this case – push their weight to be successful. Polota-Nau tries to put it into layman’s terms.

“For people that don’t understand much about scrums, it’s a physics derivation where it’s force = mass X acceleration. The more force you can produce as one group, the better the effect it can produce against the opposition. It’s quite simple, people complicate it by visualising the roles that different people have to play in the scrum but at the end of the day, you’re all trying to work as one solid mass, rather than different guys doing different things.”

If they can master that tonight and have at least 40% possession throughout the match, the Wallabies should have too much firepower for their hosts. However, it’s a big ‘if’….

First published by Ruggamatrix on November 13th, 2010

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