RaboDirect Pro12: Afoa turning on power to grasp glory
Ah, the dark arts of the front row.
Maybe not quite the secret society it once was, but there’s no avoiding the importance of a solid set-piece even if, these days, the scrummage is beset by a stream of re-sets, free kicks and penalties which are seemingly never far away every time the front rows go through that ‘touch, pause, engage’ routine.
It happened to Ulster last Friday night when the first three scrums saw referee Alain Rolland penalise the home side’s front row for various misdemeanours.
John Afoa (pictured) chews on the memory before coming over, well, rather technical about his area of expertise and how Ulster played cute as they went on to put the squeeze on their opposite numbers.
“For me the scrum is something that you have just got to take your time with,” the 28-year-old Kiwi says.
“I’m sure people watching on television want a quick and fast game, but if you don’t do it right you’re just going to get the resets or the collapsed scrums.
“We have a positive attitude and with our pack we want to keep the scrum up and we don’t want any resets.
“I think at the end of the day it’s not the refs, it falls onto the players,” Afoa reckons before delivering his treatise on Ulster’s ultimate set-piece dominance last Friday night.
“We thought the gap (between the front rows) was too big and both teams were over extended and that’s why the scrum was collapsing.
“The ref wanted a big gap but, in the second half, we actually closed it up and the result was that not only did the scrum stay up but we were able to do our business.
“So, we kept them on their feet and we were able to really get some pressure through,” Afoa adds with a knowing smile at how Ulster got round Mr Rolland.
“With our pack we can scrum with a big gap or a small gap and that works to our advantage.
“Sometimes in the conditions we just close teams up and then really use the back five (second row and back row).
“In fact our back five have been brilliant and I think that is what has given us the edge over other teams,” the All Black World Cup winner argues.
Munster will attest to having experienced that surge of power from the Ulster scrum and, indeed, two tries were scored from simply pulverising the Munster eight’s put-in and splintering their set-piece which in turn caused mayhem for scrum half Duncan Williams.
But, of course, Afoa’s game is clearly about so much more than his effective combination of scrummaging knowledge and power.
We have already witnessed his desire to carry the ball so it was hardly that surprising to see Afoa score his first try for Ulster in only his sixth appearance in the shirt since his — initial — arrival in early November.
He enjoyed the moment but doesn’t want to really linger on it now.
“The try was actually pretty flukey,” Afoa modestly says before finding comfort in the team ethic.
“Ruan Pienaar passed the ball to me when he could have gone over himself but I’m just happy with how the team are going and with my part in the team.
“There is a real buzz in the side, we've got Munster out of the way and we’re looking for a massive performance against Edinburgh tomorrow night then go into the two big games after that (the Heineken Cup clashes with Leicester Tigers and Clermont).”
As for the current hot topic in Irish rugby — namely the controversial player eligibility changes for non-Irish qualified squad members from 2013-14 onwards — Afoa is perfectly pragmatic in his assessment of the situation which sees him in Belfast until the end of that season.
“When I signed to come over here it just wasn’t about playing it was about helping the younger guys through,” he added.
“We have Adam Macklin and Paddy McAllister and a couple of other young guys and I’ll work with them and it will be like an apprenticeship for them.
“I’m just here to help and I’m feeling good.”
So far, he’s surpassing the job specification.