Tigers scrum coach Tom Harrison offers answer to England set-piece woes

Leicester Tigers lead the league in penalty balance at the scrum so far this season
©David Howlett

To begin the lead-up to England’s Guinness Six Nations encounter with Italy at Twickenham Stadium, Steve Borthwick’s coaching staff has seen some comings and goings.

Leicester Tigers duo Richard Wigglesworth and Aled Walters will join the England set-up at the end of the Gallagher Premiership season, the pair joining as an assistant coach and head of strength of conditioning ahead of Rugby World Cup 2023.

Departing is scrum coach Richard Cockerill. A former Leicester player and coach himself, the 52-year-old had been linked with a move to Top 14 champions, Montpellier, something which was confirmed by the Rugby Football Union on Tuesday morning.

With those rumours about Cockerill’s future having been circulating for some time, Saracens scrum coach Ian Peel has been linked with a move to West London after guiding the set-piece at the StoneX for nearly eight years.

But while Peel has been the most publicly discussed candidate, a look back to Mattioli Woods Welford Road may well provide the answers for Borthwick. Already having recruited Kevin Sinfield and now Wigglesworth and Walters, the Cumbrian may be inclined to sign up Tom Harrison.

Leicester’s scrum coach since 2020, Harrison’s work at the scrum helped in no short part to helping Tigers to an 11th domestic title. The former Loughborough College coach can even be seen in the background of a video posted to YouTube two weeks ago and may well be wearing an England tracksuit before long. 

On Saturday evening, following England’s 23-29 loss to Scotland in their Guinness Six Nations opener, Borthwick lamented the set-piece which he had inherited from Eddie Jones.

“I think you saw some improvement in the scrum today, which I was pleased about, because it has been ranked as the worst scrum in Tier One rugby,” England’s head coach said.

Simply put, England’s scrum had capitulated across the last year under Matt Proudfoot. A conference call a fortnight ago between match officials and scrum coaches from Six Nations sides laid bare the improvements which England need to make after only retaining 85 per cent of their own ball in 2022.

But while England’s scrum was ranked as the worst in Tier One rugby, Leicester’s can be considered to be the best in the Premiership with over a 90 per cent winning percentage across the past three seasons. 

A scrum which was a significant contributor to Leicester’s success last year and through turning to Harrison, Borthwick may get some of the consistency that he craves through turning to a familiar face.

From the time that Harrison took charge of Leicester’s scrum in 2020, the set-piece has ranked best in the Premiership. When looking at decision balance – a statistic measured by the difference between penalties awarded and those against the side – Leicester currently lead the Premiership with 24 decisions having gone their way.

This is some eight penalties clear of their closest rivals, Harlequins, and 17 decisions to the good in contrast to Newcastle Falcons and Gloucester. Currently eighth in the league after contending with a major injury crisis and now with numerous first string players on international duty, Tigers’ dominance at the scrum is still blatantly clear.

Having worked with Ellis Genge and Dan Cole too will not have harmed Harrison’s case to be England’s next scrum coach. That duo were virtually ever-present in the Leicester side which won the Premiership last season, the side finishing with a 34 decision balance in contrast to Saracens’ 32.

Other players have similarly flourished over the past few seasons, with Joe Heyes and Nic Dolly earning their maiden Test caps, while the vastly experienced Argentina hooker Julián Montoya has also continued to impress.

Cole in particular was a major point of intrigue heading into last weekend’s Calcutta Cup. Having won his last England cap all the way back in 2019 Rugby World Cup final loss to South Africa, the 35-year-old has quietly been one of the most dependable scrummagers in the Premiership ever since.

Coming onto the field in the second half, the tighthead was straight into the fray with less than 20 minutes on the clock and instantly won a penalty for his side. How about that for impact?

It is almost a tired cliché to say that everything starts at the set-piece in rugby union. Dominance at the scrum is a sure-fire way to earn kicks to the posts, territory and opportunities to press home a physical advantage further.

As we saw during Borthwick’s two and a half year spell in the East Midlands, that sort of a game is at the heart of what he wants to do, with Harrison executing his role in turning Leicester into a formidable front-row to perfection as the side charged back to the top of the table.

That understanding of exactly what Borthwick is looking for as England’s collision course with the World Cup later this year continues could well be king to the side turning the corner to success.

So far this season, Saracens’ scrum has not quite hit the heights of last season. So far, their free-kick balance is one and penalties for and against the side balance out at zero. 

With Leicester hosting Saracens in two weekends time in the Premiership, the game within the game will be at the scrum as Harrison and Peel go toe-to-toe as one of the biggest vacancies in their field waits to be filled.