Adam Hathaway says last week’s flare-up in Oxford was a glimpse back to the old days, and there is nothing wrong with that, and reflects on how squads are going to be stretched next season.
Last week at St Edward’s School, in Oxford, England trained against Georgia on Wednesday and Thursday.
That is the Georgia who are renowned as one of the best scrummaging packs on the block and have some pretty hard hombres on their books.
So punches were exchanged. Brilliant.
Georgia’s forwards’ coach is Graham Rowntree, formerly of Leicester, England and the British & Irish Lions as player and coach. And Wig, as the former prop is known, is a pretty hard hombre.
The England gaffer Eddie Jones is not averse to a bit of niggle so it was no surprise he got the Georgians in and it was no surprise his invitation was accepted. Game, or training, on.
Georgia is a country that was so hard up that they used to have to scrum in training using machines made out of old Soviet tractors back in the day and they only got membership of the old International Rugby Board, now World Rugby, in 1992.
Georgia is also a country which has got a bit of a gripe with the blazers who have not given them a shot at getting into the Six Nations and they have got the severe hump about the proposed World League.
In short they have got a point to prove.
The Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi holds more than 55,000 people and is packed to the rafters when Georgia play Russia. Rugby is their national game and they love it.
So you have a scrum session with 16 blokes, who all weigh about 18 stone or more, and all 16 of them are all stocked full of testosterone and straining at the leash to go mano-a-mano. The gloves are off so let’s find out who the big dogs are.
Then add in the bit that Georgia did a bit of a number on England’s scrum in a similar session last year, in London, and what do you reckon happened?
Yep, there was a fight and God bless the lot of them – from both sides who got involved in the fisticuffs – because there is not enough of it around.
Rowntree’s old club Leicester were famous for their free-for-alls on a Tuesday when he was playing. Conveniently Tigers used to hold media sessions back then in the clubhouse next to the training pitch and more than once the fights in practice were more of a story than the quotes that came afterwards.
Once we hardly needed to attend the press conference after seeing one England captain lay out a future England captain on the mud after clocking one on the chin from the upstart. That lot used to have a rumble even if they were playing touch.
No wonder Leicester now do their press stuff in the football ground over the road.
And there have been many more famous training ground altercations when Queensbury rules rather than the laws of rugby could have been invoked.
Not that we saw the punch-up in Oxford. Her Majesty’s Press don’t to see all the action at training sessions but a few school pupils saw what was, apparently, a good dust-up.
No-one wants to see players belting the living daylights out of each other on the training paddock but the old flare-up can’t do any harm. The same as in matches.
When was the last time you saw a player, in a game, land a really good haymaker?
Call RugbySpy old-fashioned but the sight of players pushing and shoving when there is an outbreak of handbags in a match makes us pine for someone to really clock someone. It won’t happen because of the millions of TV cameras around the grounds and, quite rightly, player welfare issues.
But it sometimes boils over and Jamie George, the England hooker, didn’t seem to mind when we talked to him just after training in the City of the Dreaming Spires, and Inspector Morse, where it seems you don’t have to have your nose in a book to learn something.
“I wouldn’t call it a shoeing last year but we weren’t overly happy with how we came out of the session overall,” George told the hack pack. “This time around I thought we came away from the session happy. Georgians can scrum, you know, and we learned a lot.
“They are a good unit. The guys they have there are built to scrum, they are well drilled, obviously Graham Rowntree who is their coach now, I worked with him a little bit and he is a very good coach himself. Yeah, they are strong but so are we and it made for a good contest.
“One thing I will take away from it is it shows we have developed as pack, basing it compared to last year. We probably went into that a little bit naive.”
George Kruis, George’s second row team mate with Saracens and England, added: “We learn from these things. It puts us under pressure. It’s a contact sport. You are put in the heat of the moment and then come away from it with a clear head. It has been great for us. It gives us a chance to go against an opposition we don’t play too much. Chuck some curve balls in and figure it out.”
On the 1997 Lions’ tour to South Africa there were two hookers, Wales’ Barry Williams and England’s Mark Regan, vying to be the understudy to Keith Wood in the Test series and in a scrum session they duly went at it. “At least it shows they care,” was the verdict of the tour manager Fran Cotton and the management didn’t give a monkey’s as you can see it on the DVD of that trip.
In 1980, on the previous tour to Springbok land, two English props Cotton, yep him again, and that Gloucester tough nut Phil Blakeway had a meeting of minds and fists.
And in 2017, a pre-season training session involving Bath and the Newport Gwent Dragons erupted into an exchange of bunches of fives amongst the forwards. That one was quite tasty and is available online.
Even backs used to do it.
In 2008, Josh Lewsey, who was a proper hard case, decked Danny Cipriani during a Wasps training session for being lippy and the mercurial one was put firmly on the floor and in his place.
Ian McGeechan, then the boss at the club, said: “This sort of thing happens every week. I’m quite chuffed it was two backs involved. Look, what’s new? These are rugby players after all. It’s simply not an issue.” And that is from Geech one of rugby’s sages.
The session in Oxford last week was a good old throwback. The players are preparing for Test rugby and, in case you hadn’t noticed, Test rugby is the most brutal of sports – just don’t do it every day.
After Saturday’s game at Allianz Park where Saracens beat Northampton 36-17 Mark McCall, one of the shrewdest judges of the game, told us about the stresses on squads and what is to come next year. It makes you wonder how worthwhile the Premiership season will be.
RugbySpy is a massive fan of McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, and we are not going to query his maths when he mapped out what is going to happen in 2019-20.
There is a World Cup, warm-up games and a Six Nations to get through and Saracens will have at least eight or nine players involved in those. Pretty big dogs too.
In the meantime McCall will have to plan a Premiership and European campaign so he is lucky he has players like Max Malins, Matt Gallagher and Joel Kpoku to hand whilst Owen Farrell, the Vunipolas and the rest are away on Red Rose business.
But the Premiership next season looks like it could be skewed a bit and something has got to give. As McCall would say it is above RugbySpy’s pay grade to come up with an answer to this conundrum but here are his thoughts.
“By my calculations the international players, in the regular Premiership season are going to play five games for their club,” McCall said.
“So a lot of players are going to get a lot of rugby. We don’t want them to play too much rugby. There are 14 international matches next season and you want to put your best team into Europe. We’re going to need everybody.”
This is a proper Rubik’s Cube problem and unless Theresa May manages to give us 60 weeks next season most Premiership outfits are going to be stretched to the limit. Next season will be an all hands to the pump job and not just at Saracens.
RugbySpy will be packing their boots. We might get a game.