Driving mauls and scoring tries: How forwards are dominating the Premier 15s

Two hookers sit atop the try-scoring table for the Premier 15s – Lark Davies of Loughborough Lightning has already scored 18 tries this season, with Saracens’ forward May Campbell just one behind her.

Davies and Campbell are just two of six forwards in the top ten try scorers this year alongside the likes of Shaunagh Brown and Poppy Cleall and, while there are still two rounds of the regular season to go, the gap between forwards and backs is smaller than ever before.

History not repeating itself

The 2017-18 season saw four forwards score the most tries of any players with Saracens’ Marlie Packer leading the way. However, in total the forward pack scored 122 fewer tries than the backs with Saracens and Richmond FC the only teams to have their forwards lead the try-scoring.

2018-19 was a similar story with Sarries forwards again outscoring their backs, this time alongside Loughborough. Across the league, forwards scored 35 more tries than the previous season, while the numbers for backs dropped by 18.

However, the tries were shared out more evenly by forwards that season as only three forwards made it into the top ten, the Cleall twins combining for 24 tries for Saracens while England captain Sarah Hunter crossed 15 times for Loughborough.

Figures for the last year’s campaign are not available as the season was null and voided due to the coronavirus pandemic with six rounds left to play.

However, 2020 did see the creation of two new teams, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks, who took the place of Richmond FC and Firwood Waterloo. Exeter have taken the league by storm this year and are currently one of four teams to have more tries scored by forwards than backs.

While forwards have not scored more tries than backs overall, the gap is down to 24 and it is not out of the realm of possibilities, that that gap could be closed by the end of the season.

The closing of the gap has come in a season where games have been shortened to 70 minutes and the number of tries overall is down. Furthermore, many players are balancing full-time jobs with their rugby careers, it really is no mean feat.

The humble leader

“Do you know, I don’t think it’s even been discussed,” was the response Davies had when I asked what the reaction of her teammates was to her being the top try scorer this season.

She certainly hasn’t used it as an excuse to stoke up the old rivalry between forwards and backs.

Part of the reason for this is Davies insistence that her focus is not on scoring tries, although she did get another for England at the weekend.

Davies said: “If I happen to get a try in a game, that’s great, but that’s not the overall picture for me. What I want as a hooker is to be performing well at the set-piece obviously that’s a huge proposition.

“It’s always about continual improvement and challenging myself, for me, in terms of what I want to be. I want to be powerful on the ball and in the close quarters.”

The England international is not alone in that outlook, Saracens forwards coach and prop Rocky Clark, who is also the most capped England player of all time, agrees.

Clark said: “I get probably more excited about a turnover scrum or a bit of a high collision carry and getting some leg drive on, that’s the bread and butter for me. But, that said, I always like a little try and a celebration as well.”

Why are forwards scoring more tries?

There are several reasons why forwards are scoring more tries, but the biggest one is perhaps the driving maul, something Davies says Loughborough have been targeting this season.

“I think as a forwards pack, we’ve got pretty ruthless in terms of our maul attack. So we’ll look to go to that, you know, to get some points in the board and I think, probably half if not more of the tries have come from that,” she said.

“That’s a credit to the style that we play in and the way that we’re choosing to play at the moment, and so I think that’s a massive part of it.”

Clark again agrees and espouses the skill of Poppy Cleall, the only player to be in the top ten for tries scored for this season and the last two completed campaigns.

Clark said: “Sarries notoriously for years, we’ve had a fantastic pack and when you’ve got the likes of Poppy Cleall and Marlie Packer, you want to get the ball to those guys and they will do a job and they will finish. 

“Poppy is a big girl she’s hard to tackle so when we’re close to the line, give her the ball and most times she’s going to be able to get over the line.”

“The likes of May [Campbell] who’s scoring a lot of tries and Lark Davies for Loughborough, a lot of hookers are scoring tries now because of the driven maul and that’s become so important in all teams attacking play.”

Forwards tries = the grand prize

The men’s Premiership is a bit different, last season Exeter Chiefs were the only men’s team to have their forwards outscore their backs.

They were also domestic and European champions and, in the women’s game, Saracens are the only team to have had their forwards score more tries in the last two completed seasons, they too won the domestic title in both of those campaigns.

This season’s Gallagher Premiership could challenge the hypothesis of forwards scoring tries leading to overall success as five teams have seen their forwards score more tries than their backs.

Exeter, who are second in the table, are again leading the way with their forwards scoring 15 more tries than their backs and they are joined by Sale, Leicester, Bath and Wasps who occupy 3rd and 7th-9th in the table respectively, while current league leaders Bristol Bears have seen their backs score 14 more tries than their forwards, the biggest negative margin of any team.

Here to stay

Another reason why the Premier 15s may have continued narrowing the gap is that the league has dramatically reduced the number of scrums to help combat the spread of coronavirus and Clark believes this has allowed forwards more time on the ball and more chances of scoring tries.

Furthermore, Clark thinks that forwards will not be stopping scoring tries anytime soon.

“I think it will continue to be honest, forwards scoring tries is becoming more and more dominant now… It’s been really developing throughout the different nations.”

Davies may want to start shouting about her achievement now before everyone gets in on the act.

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