Last weekend’s Rugby Championship fixtures, for many, served as an introduction to the IRB’s newly initiated scrum laws. The new regulations are the result of several years of study undertaken on behalf of the sport’s governing body, seeking to reduce the massive engagement forces borne by front row players, and thereby improve safety at the set piece. It is also hoped that the directive, whereby opposing props “bind” prior to the engagement, will help to cut down on the number of collapsed and reset scrums, with referees also being given clear instructions to penalise squint feeds and packs pushing before the ball is put in. In the wake of two entertaining games of rugby, and two thumping bonus-point victories for New Zealand and South Africa, we are left to reflect upon our first look at the trial laws.
The opening exchanges between the two sets of forwards in Sydney were decidedly awkward, with each pack seeking to sound out both the new regulations, and each other. Referee Craig Joubert – oft criticised for being overly-pedantic – made it clear to opposing scrum-halves Aaron Smith and Will Genia that he would not tolerate squint put-ins after a few early free-kicks conceded by both. Despite some contentious decisions early on, Joubert – rather refreshingly – was almost a guiding figure for the two number nines when it came to feeding the ball in at the set piece, as they initially struggled to meet with the South African’s understanding of a legal put-in. The referee pulled few punches with regards to the delivery of the ball, penalising Smith, Genia and their replacements where he felt necessary.
Over in Soweto, arguably rugby’s top two exponents of the scrum were locking horns. The referee, New Zealand’s Chris Pollock, was even more whistle-happy than Joubert when it came to policing the put-in, though his decisions made no bearing upon the huge margin of victory for the Springboks. His unnecessary reliance on the TMO (Television Match Official) to check and double-check blatant incidents of Argentine foul play (that took place metres from his on-field position and in his plain view) was far more disruptive to the flow of the game than anything that occurred at the set piece.
An interesting comment on Twitter from Glasgow Warriors and Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter called the mettle of the officials into question, suggesting that referees would shy away from penalising a crooked feed were the resultant kick to decide the outcome of a game. That, in itself, remains to be seen, with this week’s clashes ending in such lopsided scorelines. On the evidence so far, however, the men in the middle will no longer turn a blind eye to one of the sport’s wearisome anomalies.
The issue of the “squint feed” is still lacking in clarity at this early stage, and will initially serve as a source of frustration for half-backs. “Teething problems” such as this were anticipated by the IRB, and it will take more game-time and experience for scrum-halves and indeed match officials to get to grips with the new laws. When the punishment for this particular discrepancy may lead to the loss of either three points or significant field position, and referees seem stringent in their interpretations of what represents an illegal put-in, we can be quietly confident that crooked feeds will soon be on the decline.
Hooking, in itself, was another issue that raised its head this Saturday. In the modern game, many professional hookers have either never struck at the set piece, or have not done so since their schoolboy days. With the added enforcement of a straight put-in, and the more even initial contest between packs, the skill has become both relevant and important once more.
Perhaps owing to this lack of experience among the game’s elite hookers, the IRB appear to have permitted them to stand with their striking foot poised and ready in the tunnel to heel the ball back. This created almost a “pinball” effect, with the delivery from the scrum-half coming in sharply and being immediately seized upon by the hooker. We saw that, when the hookers were slow to strike for the ball, there was a very real possibility of the scrum being won against the head as the opposing pack began to drive through. Stephen Moore of Australia found that out to his cost.
There were some interesting views among the respective elite coaches too, with a clearly frustrated Wallaby commander-in-chief Ewen McKenzie labelling the refereeing of the put-ins a “lottery”. Steve Hansen of New Zealand was more pragmatic in his reaction to the set piece, stating that, “Once we get that sorted out and the half-backs put the ball in straight, we’ll be fine. And obviously, at the moment, they are being very, very vigilant on it.
“We said there would be teething problems but the great thing is we didn’t have too many collapses. Once we iron out the whole thing and get used to it, I think it will be great for the game.”
Clearly, there is plenty of work still to be done to ensure the trial laws are a success. We must remember that we are less than three weeks into a year-long trial, and that in the grand scheme of things, the problems we are encountering in these preliminary stages are both minor and resolvable. On Saturday, there were fewer collapsed scrums, and as a result, fewer resets. The scrum already looks to be becoming more competitive, and arguably more entertaining, with ball won against the head in both matches.
Ironically, probably the most straightforward aspect of the IRB’s initiative – the put-in – looks set to cause the most disruption at the set piece. Some may point in anguish to the high number of penalties dished out by both Joubert and Pollock, but this was always to be expected given that the referees were getting their first live taste of the new laws, and the scrum-halves were enduring probably the first game in their entire pro careers where they were not permitted to simply deliver the ball in at the feet of their second rows.
The IRB do look to be taking positive steps thus far, and the initial signs from this weekend give us cause for cautious optimism that the scrum is beginning to embark on an upward curve. The coming weeks and months will be crucial and indeed fascinating, but it seems that the onus has been placed firmly on rugby’s elite number nines to ensure set piece success is straight and true.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images