Newcastle Rugby Union: Scrum battle to play big part in decider

TOUCH, PAUSE, ENGAGE: The battle of the scrum will play a big part in determining the winner of Saturday's grand final. Picture: Stewart Hazell
TOUCH, PAUSE, ENGAGE: The battle of the scrum will play a big part in determining the winner of Saturday's grand final. Picture: Stewart Hazell

FOCUS and accountability. It is the simple but vital message that Steve Barretto has been drilling into the Wanderers pack.

Barretto, a former Leinster and more recently Merewether prop, has been working with Wanderers on their scrum for the past six weeks.

“Besides a few little technical things, they didn’t need much help, more a fresh set of eyes,” Barretto said.

“This is their fourth grand final; they are good players. It was a matter of getting them to focus. Focus on each scrum and their job. Making each player accountable.”

Barretto, who has been in Newcastle nine years and anchored the Greens scrum in their undefeated 2011 campaign, pointed to the game-changing tight head scrum Wanderers lost to Hamilton in the penultimate round as an example. The Two Blues were leading 30-29 and only had to secure their own feed and boot the ball into touch to beat the Hawks for the first time since the 2015 major semi-final. Instead, Hamilton produced an eight-man shove and Wanderers, who had hooker Ryan Jackson in the sinbin, folded. Hamilton powered through and No.8 Steve Sione picked up the ball to crash over for the match-winner.

“That one Hamilton scrum in particular,” Barretto said. “Everyone looks at it and says ‘the front-row is weak’. Hamilton were completely focused on that scrum. Wanderers had seven men for a start and a flanker with his arms resting on his back. Essentially Hamilton had eight fully-committed at the scrum compared to six. What hope have you got?”

Hamilton’s scrum was the difference in last year’s 37-28 grand final win over the Two Blues. An arm wrestle early became a torrent in the second half as the Hawks pushed Wanderers around at will and won five consecutive tight heads.

Hawks coach Scott Coleman refers to the scrum as a weapon and it has been the launching pad for many of Sione’s 23 tries this campaign.

Since Barretto, whose son plays under-9s at Wanderers, has been working with the first-grade pack they have demolished Southern Beaches and Maitland at the set piece in the final series.

“Steve has really educated them about scrummaging; what to look for and how to work through different situations,” Wanderers coach Viv Paasi said. “He has built confidence in them that I haven’t seen before.”

Hamilton have boasted the same front-row rotation of Pete Bakarich, Pete Maxwell, Faavae Sila, Steve Lamont and Geraint Weaver for the past two premiership victories.

Paasi said it was “pretty glaring” in the grand final that the Two Blues needed to improve the set piece, especially the scrum.

The addition of English-born hooker Ryan Jackson has added size, power and experience to the front-row. Lee Marshall has emerged as a bankable loose head, Dave Waller has benefited from a year overseas and Ben Christensen (shoulder) and Blake Walsh (knee) have returned from long-term injuries.

“This weekend is a big test for the boys and I have no-doubts they will come out firing,” Barretto said.