Can referees really be successful at scrum time?

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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.

6 thoughts on “Can referees really be successful at scrum time?

  1. Well for a start the SH could clamp down on feeding and make sure the 9 puts the ball in down the middle (slowly creeping into the NH game as well).
    The refs also need to ensure that teams don’t push before the ball has been put in and penalise them if they do (take note Steve Walsh).
    Lastly – props are supposed to bind on the shirt and not the arm – but with the modern shirts and size of these guys, I imagine that’s nigh on impossible – so why not introduce special prop shirts, with a strap for the opposition prop to bind onto? After all, it should be a contest of skill and strength and not tightest shirt wins!

  2. Good article Tank, the stats are staggering. It has been said many times before so nothing that hasn’t already been discussed but it seems so obvious to me (an ex-tighthead and referee from the amateur days of rugby) that I can’t understand why it hasn’t been at least given a trial. Why not return to passive engage and only when the referee is satisfied that the scrum is stable does he step to the side so the s/h can put the ball in (straight in my day)and only then could the shove come on, it was how I used to ref myself and hardly ever had a collapse, the stronger pack would normally win the ball often against the head.

  3. Have,nt seen a straight put in for years now.
    Scrum laws shd have been changed b4 the last World Cup.
    And in the Northern Hemisphere its much worse than down south where the game is more flowing.
    Ti be fair its not the refs…but the laws that need changing..

  4. Think this understates the compressive forces on the hit. This paper measures the forces against a scrum machine rather than another 900kg advancing towards you. If you lose the hit you are also experience a very rapid deceleration, so a really high impulse.

    Having the props form and bind before the back 5 join, thus ensuring spines are square and straight before the big forces are being applied, seems a much safer way to go. A well formed scrum can last longer so it becomes a way of the stronger side grinding down the weaker one over the course of the game, spending 10-20 mins or so setting scrums to have many 1 second scrums that fail on the hit isn’t fatiguing and attritional.

    Balls not going in straight/hookers not hooking/refs struggling to adjudicate/etc aren’t the main issue to solve, the problem is the scrum is now all about the hit.

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