For a long time there has been a worrying erosion of one of the unique facets of our beloved game – the scrum.
The scrum is an exercise of mental and physical collaboration unlike anything else in sport. It combines the need for physical strength with subtle timing and balance. It also requires the strength of character to literally go head to head with your opposite number. A successful scrum requires eight people to act as a single unit and react to demands set by teammates and opposition, all whilst withstanding huge, dynamic forces from several directions.
It is what allows an Adam Jones to impact on a game as much as a Shane Williams. It allows players of varying body sizes to fulfil a role within the team that is vital for its success and adds to the inclusivity of rugby which I feel is at the heart of the sport.
I fully appreciate that World Rugby has a responsibility to make the game “more attractive” to a new audience. But it seems over the last 10 years that tinkering with the scrum is a major way they think this will be achieved. It isn’t. Done properly, a full-blooded scrum contest is a thing of beauty. Don’t sacrifice the enjoyment of those of us who love scrums for the sake of those with, at best, a passing curiosity for the game.
It saddens me to see the confused mess that scrummaging has become. Whilst I agree that repeated re-set scrums can slow a game down, it can also be a point of high drama to savour (the chants of “heave” at the Principality stadium during repeated 5-metre scrums makes the stands shake). Penalty points gained from questionable refereeing of the scrum devalue the rest of the game as a whole. Two incorrect scrum decisions can cancel out a magical try which you may well remember forever – that cannot be right.
Whenever scrum law changes are mentioned, player safety is always raised as the driving force. Although I am not aware that collapsed scrums cause a particularly high rate of injury (when compared to tackles or the breakdown). They obviously can have serious consequences in some cases and need to be dealt with responsibly by all involved. What the lawmakers seem not to know is by complicating and frequently changing the scrum engagement, the likelihood of the scrum collapsing increases.
Crouch, bind, set
With the weights and forces involved in a scrum, increasing the stages prior to pushing leads to instability. Anyone who has played in the front row will tell you it’s like trying to hold back a racehorse at the starting line.
“Crouch” – fine, it is after this where the logic becomes blurred. As the players are asked to “bind”, this means the opposing front rows end up with the tops of their heads level, and their binding arms fully extended. When they “set”, they move together a few inches into engagement. As their binding arms are now bent and props are required to have a “long” bind, they must release their opposite number and try and re-establish a new grip. With modern skin tight jerseys making this simple act difficult in itself – how about binding patches/grips on the props shirts?
This leads to the first point of instability. The front row must then reposition their feet into the required position. At this point referees usually start to ‘coach’ the players by saying “get your feet underneath your body”. If you have ever tried to a hook a ball with your feet underneath your body, or let a hooker scoop the ball through your legs in the correct channel in that position, you would know that it is almost impossible to do. Your feet need to be behind your body to some extent.
There also seems to have developed a whole lexicon of new phrases surrounding the scrum, most of which are difficult to understand their exact meaning. “Hit up”, “chasing around’, “pre-engagement” and “painting good pictures” are just a few.
The laws of physics and anatomy determine that a loosehead either pushes inward at a slight angle or will pop out of the left side of the scrum.
This is not “boring in” as it has very little effect on the opposing hooker. It also means the gap between the loosehead and his own hooker becomes greater, reducing the impact of the drive from his own second row. Lots of looseheads are being penalised for their “hips coming out” even though if a tighthead rolls his shoulder under, the loosehead has no choice but to follow him.
If a pre-engagement is that the packs close the last few inches between themselves slightly before the ref calls “set”, is this a problem as long as the scrum can continue and no one pushes until the ball is in? It hardly seems worth a free kick as you would be asking them to do it in a couple of seconds anyway.
Not standing up in the front row was introduced to prevent teams doing this to slow down a retreating scrum. Now teams are penalised if a players head pops up even as their own scrum is in the process of a strong advance. This makes no sense. Allowing teams to play off a collapsed scrum if the ball is at the back encourages weaker scrums to collapse once they have hooked the ball, increasing the chance of injury (but this increased risk is deemed acceptable as it speeds up play!)
How often do we see a scrum that has been pushed back some distance penalised? Just getting pushed back is not a penalty offence. If the idea is to see fewer scrums in a game, then don’t make them such a source of an easy point.
Whilst I’m sure the governing bodies make these law changes with good intentions, there is an apparent lack of understanding of the basic principles upon which the scrum is based.
Referees should be encouraged to assess what advantage is being gained from any perceived infringement before awarding a penalty.
As we strive to ensure that all other aspects of decision making are helped by technology, why are we leaving this facet of the game to descend into a lottery? For matches with TMO facilities, the addition of a front row specialist would seem an obvious and welcome addition.
Referees are under huge pressure to move the game along, but this has come at the cost of an appreciation for the nuances of front row play. As in all areas of refereeing, all you can hope for is consistency. If losing your bind, or putting your hand on the floor is a penalty offence, then penalise quickly and every time it occurs.
Having some empathy for the players is also important as you too often see obvious slips penalised. I would much rather see a reset scrum than the referee guess a decision and get it wrong, and affect the outcome of the game.
As one of the less glamorous and more demanding positions in rugby, the devaluation of the scrum will do little to encourage more players to aspire to play in the front row. I fear the day will come soon when scrums are completely abandoned, and as with everything else in life, we will only truly appreciate what we’ve lost once it’s gone.
Author: John Vaughan
John Vaughan. Part time dentist and full time fan of all things rugby (especially Welsh rugby!)