When two sets of 900kg units collide, it is pretty tough to ask four players to keep it from going up or down, and downright unfair to ask one person to decide the cause. So I was scratching around in the stats for this year’s “Most penalised” Super Rugby players given that Heinrich Brüssow was again excluded (remarkably, to my mind) from the recent Springbok training squad, the reason given to him being that his penalty count is too high.
And apart from Brüssow not being on that list, there was one other startling revelation. Not only is the most penalised player in this tournament a loosehead prop, but 9 of the 20 most penalised players are loosehead props!
Most Penalties Conceded in Super Rugby 2013:
1. Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders) 18
2. Ben Mowen (Brumbies) 13
3. Greg Holmes (Reds) 12
3. Steven Kitshoff (Stormers) 12
5. Matthew Hodgson (Force) 10
5. Sam Carter (Brumbies) 10
5. Scott Higginbotham (Rebels) 10
8. Ben Alexander (Brumbies) 9
8. Morne Mellett (Bulls) 9
8. Schalk Ferreira (Kings) 9
11. Ali Williams (Blues) 8
11. Beast Mtawarira (Sharks) 8
11. Deon Stegmann (Bulls) 8
11. Ed Quirk (Reds) 8
11. Nick Phipps (Rebels) 8
11. Pieter Labuschagne (Cheetahs) 8
11. Rene Ranger (Blues) 8
11. Salesi Ma’afu (Force) 8
11. Scott Fuglistaller (Rebels) 8
11. Steven Sykes (Kings) 8
That is extraordinary, and points to only one thing – like the breakdown, which is also subjectively refereed at times, the scrum remains a huge problem area. Now I am far from wanting to get rid of the scrum – if that happened we may as well call it Rugby League, and nothing could be further from my mind. Rugby Union needs the scrum!
It may be the game’s most static situation, but given that the backlines have to be five metres back, the scrum is the one place where the defence is on the back foot, especially if you get a good right shoulder. Hence teams now scoring more tries from set pieces than in the past.
And while there are indeed fewer of them per game these days, they remain a problem area. IRB Chief Medical Officer, Dr Martin Raftery, presented some findings earlier in the year showing that the number of scrums per game went from an average of 31 to 19 between 1982 and 2004, with this trend maintained into the 2011 RWC, where there were only 17 scrums per match.
Perhaps because referees now play a lot more advantage from a knock-on, and with teams now good enough to use the ball from it, the advantage is often over before needing to call a scrum. Which is a great sign for the game, but even with fewer of them, the scrum remains the most penalised part of the game.
Referees are being encouraged by the IRB to make decisions rather than have resets, and it seems they are favouring the attacking side. Since 1982, when scrum penalties were evenly distributed between the feeding and defending scrums, as of 2004 the side feeding the ball has enjoyed a 6:1 advantage in having a penalty awarded to them.
Clearly, something has drastically changed if the defensive side has become six times more likely to give away a penalty at scrum time. And with the loosehead props given the responsibility of keeping the scrum up, more often than not, it is these poor buggers who are bearing the brunt of the whistle when the scrum collapses.
I am not sure we can blame the referees here. I once MC’d a discussion at False Bay rugby club where scrum luminaries such as Guy Kebble, Keith Andrews and Charl Marais were asked to look at various scrums that were either reset or penalised, and prompted to give their reasons for said reset or penalty. I do not remember a single scrum where we all agreed!
Bath University has conducted extensive studies measuring forces on scrum machines, and the key finding is that because of the speed of engagement that professional packs are able to generate these days, the Peak Engagement Force – which measures the force on the ‘Hit’- is twice what it was 20 years ago.
And not even today’s man mountain type props can keep the resultant force of this colossal collision from going either up or down on occasion. And we want the ref to decide who caused it?
So through no fault his own, a loosehead prop could be penalised by a referee being asked to make a decision rather than reset the scrum, that leads to his side losing a Super rugby, Heineken Cup, Six Nations, Rugby Championship, or even World Cup final?
That simply cannot be right, and the IRB need to come up with a solution sooner rather than later.
I have a few, but perhaps you do too? Share them in the comments section below
Penalty stats courtesy of rugbystats.com.au.
By Tank Lanning
Tank is a former Western Province tighthead prop who now heads up Tankman Media, and sprouts forth on all things rugby on his website Front Row Grunt.