By Justin Palmer
Like it or loathe it – and New Zealand coach Steve Hansen is certainly no fan – the rolling maul has proved an effective try-scoring weapon during the Rugby World Cup.
It is a familiar sight and tactic. A team kicks for the corner and from an ensuing lineout drive, the player with ball tucked under arm hides himself behind a phalanx of team-mates who plough forwards relentlessly towards the try line.
Fans love it, a visceral roar usually accompanying the remorseless progress, with the try line coming ever closer.
Illegal to intentionally collapse, it can leave even the best defences retreating in disarray against a surge of well-choreographed brute strength.
Witness South Africa, whose burly forwards were given a taste of their own medicine when Japan, a side not renowned for their physicality, piled men into a rolling maul that ended with captain Michael Leitch scoring the opening try of their sensational victory.
When done well a maul with momentum is almost impossible to stop. But some say they are a dull blight on the game, difficult to officiate and a grey area to exploit.
Australian loose forward David Pocock has become a specialist in the art, highlighted by his two tries in the pool stage win over Fiji.
Pocock perfected the manoeuvre at his Super Rugby side the ACT Brumbies but was keen to stress the team element.
“Those tries come from all the hard work so I can’t take credit. They set the platform and it’s pleasing as a forward pack to get those rewards,” he said.
“The rolling maul is one aspect of our game when we get the opportunity, you take it. We’ve seen a lot of teams using it as an attacking weapon in the 22 this year so there will be more.”
But accusations of skullduggery abound.
Former England hooker Brian Moore suggested after the Fiji game that Australia “illegally drive their mauls from lineouts”.
“Scrum illegalities, which all packs – including England – indulge in, might cost three points but what Australia do with their driving mauls is equally illegal and it rewards them with tries and many more points than any number of scrum infringements,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
All Blacks coach Hansen believes the laws need to change.
In July he was moved to describe the rolling maul as “bloody boring” after watching Argentina hooker Agustin Creevy score twice in Christchurch.
“You can’t take it out of the game but you’ve got to make it a fair contest,” he said.
His suggestion was simple.
“There’s never been anybody injured in a collapsed maul yet, but there’s thousands every week that get penalised. Just make that legal then it becomes a fair contest.”
Hansen will be aware that the rolling maul is one tactic South Africa will be keen to exploit given the chance in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final. Stopping those opportunities will be key for the All Black forwards at Twickenham.
“The drives are a key weapon for them, big men in the lineout, so initially you have to be disciplined so you don’t give them penalties,” said number eight Kieran Read.
“Don’t give them a chance to kick out to the corner.”
For Read, it’s just another part of the game.
“It is there to be utilised. It’s a great thing that it keep all different shapes and sizes in this game which is great. It’s something you have got to adapt to and we’ll certainly get it this week.”
In the bunker of their hotel this week, Hansen and his assistants will be viewing tape after tape of the Springbok pack, with their game against Ireland last year of particular interest.
Not only did Ireland win 29-15, the men in green showed how to stop the maul by not contesting the lineout and then springing a man to attack the ball carrier.
If the All Blacks have a weakness, it may come from the lineout drive – a vulnerability Hansen will do well to address.