IN HIS essay The Problems of Knowledge, Bertrand Russell described an experiment where people were asked to look through a keyhole and describe a table they saw inside the room. But when the door was opened, what was revealed were cunningly placed lines of string. Russell deduced from this that a false perception leads to false knowledge.
This is a roundabout way, but an important one, to get to the issue of the Wallabies' scrum. Its emphatic performance against the highly rated England pack revealed once again that British referees (particularly) have a false perception of the strength of the Wallabies' scrummaging, and penalise it, unfairly, as a consequence.
The tendency of British referees is to see the string-scrums of European teams as table-scrums. This is what happened when Nigel Owens, a Welshman, refereed the France-Australia Test. He gave the Wallabies' pack no credit when it did, from time to time, beat the French pack at scrum time. And it is not only the Wallabies' scrum that suffers from this false perception. Last weekend, the All Blacks' pack monstered the fearsome Italians at scrum time. Every time Italy fed the scrum, All Black Tony Woodcock forced the "world-class" tight-head prop Martin Castrogiovanni to pop out of the scrum. Irish referee Alain Rolland refused to penalise Italy for the repeated popping-up transgressions. But when Italy finally got one strong scrum shove on, the All Blacks were penalised.
One of the features of the Wallabies' fine victory over England was that French referee Romain Poite refereed what was in front of him at scrum time, rather than what he perceived was happening. At the first scrum in the Test, with the Wallabies on defence, Poite ruled that England had pushed early. He correctly awarded a short-arm penalty against England. The Wallabies' scrum seemed to be energised by this decision. Ben Alexander did such a demolition job on the mohawked Joe Marler that the latter was taken off early in the second half. The scrum dominance established by the Wallabies, and accepted by the referee, was crucial to the result of the Test. Towards the end, England had chances of putting down five-metre scrums.
In the past, these scrums have been a weapon for England to defeat the Wallabies. They provided a relatively easy source of penalties and the occasional push-over try. Not last weekend. England had to take lineouts, which were defended with more ease than five-metre scrums were defended in the past, or against France.
Back to the Test against France. The first scum, on the Wallabies' five-metre line, had the referee penalise Nick Phipps for a crooked feed. The next feed to the scrum by the French halfback was so crooked that I gasped as it was rolled in. A back-row move from the scrum, following this feed, led to France scoring an early and important try. Nathan Sharpe, the Wallabies' captain, said this scrum was the turning point in the Test. I can't read the mind of Nigel Owens, but I reckon it is possible he believed Phipps was helping a weak Wallabies' pack and the French pack was so strong it was immaterial where the ball was fed.
The point about all this is that the main chance of the Wallabies losing on Sunday revolves around whether the Italian pack can smash their scrum. The moment of truth will come when Castrogiovanni bores in illegally (which he does all the time) or is lifted. If the referee, the South African Lourens van der Merwe, penalises him (as he should), the Wallabies will be well on the way to winning the Test against an Italian side that showed against the All Blacks that they have some new flair in their attacking play.
Italy, with a strong win over Tonga and a gutsy loss to the All Blacks, and well coached by Jacques Brunel, look to be a strong Test side capable of beating the leading teams in world rugby like the Wallabies. Is this a false perception, though, or real knowledge?