Welded to a tractor, bolted against a brick wall, screwed to the bumper of a Land Rover; it’s lucky for props the world over that someone decided to invent proper scrum machines.

Rewind the clock no further than the 1980s and head to any rugby ground. Odds are you’d have seen some kind of contraption designed to test the forwards scrum proficiency, but arguably looking more like something from a Mad Max dystopian universe. 

Often designed by the local handyman, it could be made of anything from random bits of scaffolding to assorted wood to scrap car parts. Padding was a bonus, more than an inch of anything resembling foam would be luxury. By and large your props would be packing down against a bit of steel or driftwood loosely covered with whatever remotely soft furnishing they could lay their hands on. If your shoulders hurt now after a few scrums, think back to the props of yesteryear who’d have bits of 2x4 boring into their shoulders and, God forbid they slip, a clubhouse brick wall would be there to cushion the blow.

Not all were likely to cause serious harm or permanent disfigurement. Some were made in the workshops of skilled carpenters, steelworkers, welders and even engineers. Some were works of art that even if it may have caused dislocation on every hit, would also have won the Turner Prize if the creator moved in the right circles. And, they weren’t all rubbish. Some were good. Really, really good.

Like the one made by Tim Francis, the head of sport at Dulwich College in London. Something of a part-time inventor, his first prototype was of the ‘cotton reels and matchsticks’ kind, but he was on to something. He didn’t have the players to pit scrum-on-scrum, so he needed something for his young charges to hit. And ideally not something that would result in a tangled mess of bloodied bodies if the tighthead’s studs slipped.

His invention would be the foundation of scrum machines the world over: the Powerhouse, which used cricket rollers filled with sand or water. Crucially, from the start, bungees would be applied to give some form of cushioning so that packs weren’t hitting against an immoveable object. Even in the days when forwards were more lumpy than six-pack-bumpy, there was still a fair amount of force driving through your average pack and the considerable padding of a chunky tighthead’s shoulders couldn’t be expected to take all of it. 

In an era when player safety wasn’t exactly high on agendas, Tim needed more than just a decent prototype and some comfy padding. He needed proof. It came from an unlikely source, the 1984 Australia team. Tim had persuaded coach Alan Jones to try his Powerhouse and it proved to be with devastating effect. In the third match of the Grand Slam tour they faced Wales and obliterated the opposition pack at Cardiff Arms Park. When Wallaby No8 Steve Tuynham dotted down after his side had driven the Welsh scrum over their line, the deal was done. A year later, England – who had trialled the machine a few years before – were fully on board with Tim’s machines, and the modern-day scrum machine was born. 

 Tim Francis, inventor of the modern-day scrum machine, demonstrates the Powerhouse with the University of Cape Town in 1982

Tim Francis, inventor of the modern-day scrum machine, demonstrates the Powerhouse with the University of Cape Town in 1982

More than 30 years later, in the middle of the Somerset countryside, where cows seem to outnumber people and in a patch of land that was surely once a farm, the descendants of Tim’s Powerhouse are being built. Every year, the neighbouring cows watch anywhere between 70 and 90 Rhino scrum machines in that familiar blue livery roll off the production line, destined for rugby clubs across Europe. Production line seems almost too crass a word though, as in tribute to those rugby pioneers from yesterday – the engineers, welders and steelworkers – they’re still pretty much made by hand. 

Quite often that hand belongs to Gary Hunt, who’s been welding together Dictators, Premiersleds and Powasleds for close to 13 years. Dust your club’s scrum machine for fingerprints and odds are, it’s got the Somerset forward’s digits on it. “I’ve been in engineering most of my life,” explains Gary, who lives
a clearance kick from Rhino, “I wanted to be in the army but a rugby injury put paid to that, so instead I went into a garage apprenticeship.”

Since then he’s made everything from engines to bits and components for motor homes, Wembley Stadium and even MacDonald’s. “If it uses metal, there’s not a lot I haven’t made.”

Dust your club’s scrum machine for fingerprints and odds are, it’s got the Somerset forward’s digits on it.

On paper, his job is straight forward. “I put the machines together,” he says, “there’s a guy on site who cuts materials and does the details, then it’s my job to weld it all together.”

Gary reckons that, aside from a few here and there, most of the scrum machines that have left Rooks Bridge have been the result of his handiwork. Given he’s been there for a dozen or so years, that’s probably not far off 900 of the big blue beauties – enough to make any prop go weak at the knees. 

Part of a core five-man production team, Gary’s not even the longest-serving with that honour going to Rob (13 years), Dave has a paltry six years to his name and two comparative newbies Darren and Luke (18 months). Each has their own role. The base of every machine starts off the same – as 7.5metre lengths of raw steel, mostly Welsh, and part of the 18 tonnes or so used by Rhino every year. “The steel gets cut up by two large bandsaws and then goes off to detail to be drilled, counter sunk and tapping (adding any thread required),” explains Gary. 

Although they have some cool bits of kit – including a water cutter that powers through steel at mach 2 – everything is done by hand, there’s no super clever automated machines here. It’s graft, grunt and ingenuity, not button-pressing robotics. “I then put everything together,” continues Gary, “before it gets shot-blasted (the process of cleaning steel) and then powder-coated in ultra-marine blue – that’s the official name of Rhino’s blue colour.”

The powder coating is essentially the painting process where it gets a coat of polyester paint and then baked in an oven (which reaches 180 degrees) for about 40 minutes. After it’s cooled, it gets painted again, and baked again. No half-baked measures here. 

After that, it’s assembly. Your average Rhino scrum machine is made up some 462 different bits, so while Gary has already welded, bolted and screwed a fair few of them together, there’s still the base, the skids (or wheels, depending on machine), fixings, stickers, pads and bungees to be pieced together.

“It then goes on a palette and put on the warehouse rack ready for customers,” continues Gary, “we usually make them in batches of about five at a time, so it takes me two days to weld it all together. Together with the other bits of the process, we can probably finish the five machines in a week.”

While Gary and his Rooksbridge colleagues are applying finishing touches to Rhino scrum machines on this side of the world, down in New Zealand, in an almost identikit middle-of-nowhere, cows-for-crowds location – Feilding,  just outside Palmerston North – its Kiwi siblings are being rolled onto paddocks and pitches. 

Rhino acquired New Zealand-based Powa back in 2012 and, ever since, you’ve been able to get a  scrum machine in the UK that combines Gary’s craftsmanship and the know-how of legendary All Blacks scrum guru Mike Cron, who worked with Powa to develop the original Powasled.  This fusion of know-how continues to ensure that Rhino/Powa machines are first port of call for rugby coaches - when the British & Irish Lions faced the All Blacks last year, they’d both been training on Powasleds made in the UK and NZ respectively, perhaps another reason the two sides were inseparable.

Back to Gary and, he admits, that in a way, he’s a victim of his own success. “Rhino machines are built to last,” says Gary. “We’ve got rollers out there that are 25 or 30 years old and still being used. It’s such a rugged piece of equipment, they last forever – I guess that’s not an ideal business model really!

“I love seeing them, it’s more than just metal to us. When I see a set of white posts I look for something blue nearby. I’m nearly 50 and even before I worked for them, that ‘something blue’ always meant Rhino – now though, if I don’t see it, I actually get a bit of a sinking feeling.”

 Words by Alex Mead. Pictures by  Nick Dawe

Words by Alex Mead. Pictures by Nick Dawe