Analysis: Six Nations form shows that Irish scrum has bright future
The Autumn troubles seem like an age ago.
After a struggle at the scrum in the November tests, there was a large cloud lingering over the Irish setpiece coming into the Six Nations.
At 35, Mike Ross had lost his place in the Leinster team. He'd been given trouble from South Africa, Australia and even Georgia, and heir to the throne Marty Moore was both inexperienced at test level, and just recently returning from a long-term injury.
Then there was Nathan White, who would have been a 33-year-old debutant and a short term solution to a long term problem. Rodney Ah You's limited game time in November was a clear sign that he was needed, rather than wanted, while Tadhg Furlong was performing well for Leinster, but after just breaking through the ranks there, an International call-up would have been a lot of pressure for a 22-year-old.
However, over the last six or seven weeks, the skies have begun to clear.
Mike Ross went back to basics, attacking less and stabilising more, while Marty Moore showed no side-effects from the shoulder injury that kept him out of action for three months.
On the loose-head side, things are even more optimistic. Cian Healy's hamstring injury has given Jack McGrath a chance to earn some real experience at test level, and the St Mary's man even found himself in many people's teams of the tournament. McGrath's strength at both scrumtime and in the loose allowed Joe Schmidt to reintroduce Healy slowly, and when he was handed his start against Scotland last Saturday, he proved his credentials as the best loose-head in the world right now.
Ross, Moore, Healy and McGrath are now all certainties to make it to the World Cup, and the Irish scrum is set to be a real weapon in Group D.
In the opening game against Italy, Mike Ross gave Matias Aguero nightmares, with the Sale Sharks prop repeatedly collapsing under the pressure of Ross in the opening half.
Here we can see the opening scrum of that game, as Mike Ross keeps his patience, with Aguero binding far too short.
Ross maintains the perfect body position, and eventually Aguero collapses to the ground.
While Ross found a degree of redemption against Italy after being dropped by Leinster, it was nothing compared to the performance he put in against England, which will go down as his best in an Irish shirt.
Coming up against Joe Marler, whose (illegal) destruction of Ross contributed heavily to him being dropped by Leinster, Ross was powerful, stable and highly technical at scrum time.
One of his best drives of the day came early in the game, with Ireland just five metres out from the tryline.
Once Murray fed the ball, Ross got the nudge on Marler, resulting in the tail of the Irish scrum rotating to the openside, giving Jordi Murphy more space to attack the tryline, also removing Ben Youngs as a defensive option.
And Ross won a fantastic penalty off Marler early in the second half, taking advantage of the loose-head's poor angles.
You can see below the emphasis Ross is placing on the fundamentals of scrummaging, keeping his body parallel to the ground, with a 90 degree angle at the hips, and a 120 degree angle at his knees. Marler, on the other hand is all over the place, with his legs near locked out, and driving upwards.
However, the man who gave him the most trouble in the Six Nations is a loose-head he's likely to face in the World Cup, France's Eddy Ben Arous.
Ben Arous found himself thrown in at the deep end after injury to Alexandre Menini, but in this writers eyes, ended up being the outstanding loose-head of the tournament.
Ben Arous gave Ross and Moore real trouble when the sides met at the Aviva, with a combination of power and technique forcing them to collapse on numerous occasions.
In this example we can see how Ross has to lock out his legs to stop Ben Arous, whose perfect technique has Ireland in trouble. On the far side, circled, you can see how Jack McGrath has already fallen to his knees...
While Mike Ross was much improved this campaign, Marty Moore looks like being the long term incumbent for the number three jersey, and he was a valuable asset off the bench.
His best scrums came late on in games, when he held firm under immense pressure.
This scrum in the tail end of the England win is a perfect example, as he keeps a perfect body position, despite Mako Vunipola trying every trick in the book.
Here we can see his strong positioning, long bind and perfect footwork, and note how just his front studs are in the ground, giving him ideal maneuverability.
Vunipola hinges downwards, but Moore doesn't budge...
And when he tries to drive up, again Moore's positioning is perfect.
While we must be cautious about the recent optimism at tight-head, our strength in depth at loose-head is as good as any country in the world.
Cian Healy is arguably the best in his position on either side of the equator, while Jack McGrath is as good an impact sub as any country can offer. Add to that the likes of David Kilcoyne, James Cronin, an ever improving Michael Bent and Denis Buckley playing well for Connacht, and the competition will be fierce to join Healy and McGrath at the World Cup.
McGrath's performances allowed Schmidt reintroduce Healy slowly to the side, and when he was given his start against Scotland, he absolutely tormented Geoff Cross.
In this scrum early in the game, we can see just how much trouble Healy had the Scot under.
Here's the initial shot, with both players showing strong body positions, almost symmetrical to each other.
But as soon as Healy begins to turn the screw, Cross is falling to his left knee...
And the right knee wasn't long coming to the floor. It's worth noting how Healy is doing this while remaining straight and square to his opponent at all times, which is something a lot of props seem to have difficulty doing.
Having a player of Jack McGrath's strength as a back-up option is a dream.
A positive knock-on effect of Cian Healy's injury meant that McGrath has been playin a lot of test rugby over the last six months, and he looks to be improving rapidly.
Before the Wales game, the battle between he and Samson Lee was going to be a real treat for scrum fans, but Lee's achilles injury early in the game allowed McGrath and Ireland to take the advantage at the setpiece.
He powered through replacement Rob Evans on this scrum, earning Ireland a penalty.
Evans initially held his own, but eventually, McGrath's power proved to be too much, as he drives straight through the tight-head, who resorts to trying to drag him down by the arm. Even the efforts of Sam Warburton to drive into him illegally didn't stop him from powering Ireland forward.
While McGrath, Healy, Ross and Moore are certainties to be in the World Cup squad, it likely leaves a spot each for a tight-head and a loose-head to make it in.
And it's absolutely wide open for each. At loose-head, Michael Bent made it back into the extended squads during the Six Nations, while James Cronin featured in the game against Italy, in Cian Healy's absence. David Kilcoyne is also in the conversation though, and whoever does get the nod, it'll mean that two excellent loose-heads are staying home for the duration.
At tight-head, there is also a case to be made for several players but I think Tadhg Furlong will make it through. Rodney Ah You hasn't shown much in any of his test outings, while injury meant Nathan White was unlucky to miss the chance to impress Schmidt when he was in the form of his life in the Autumn.
If you missed any of our scrum analysis during the Six Nations, you can look back at the full library by clicking here.