How to deal with a problem like the scrum

I’ve played in the front row since I was 8. Nominally, I was made a prop in mini rugby. As a short and chubby lad at 11, I was made hooker for my school. I’ve represented my county and my country at school boy level in the number 2 jersey. In senior rugby I’ve played in positions A, B and C.

As every man and his dog likes to cliché, scrums are a notoriously difficult part of the game to understand ‘unless you have played there’. They are one of the key differentiators between Union and League, where the scrum is simply a way to restart the action. Scrummaging should remain an important part of a team’s ability to exert authority and superiority over their opposition.

It is universally acknowledged however that they are broken.

The CEO of the IRB, Brett Gosper, has made them a priority, and wants suggestions from the rugby community as to how we can improve things. Scrummages eat up too much game time, are difficult to referee, are dangerous if set incorrectly and can seriously impede the enjoyment of a game for both the seasoned and casual rugby fan, let alone those playing.

In the professional era body shapes have changed, and the power exerted now is huge. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have safe, quick scrums at both amateur and elite levels. Some areas, however, are easier to fix than others, and as a former team-mate of 2 different props to have seriously injured their necks, I would much rather things are done safely.

1. Time wasted from resetting scrums over and over

The problem here is that the clock isn’t stopped. Without exaggeration, I’ve seen it take up to 5 minutes to get through a single scrum. The solution here is so simple – stop the clock between resets, get it right, get on with it.

2. Guess work from referees

steveConsistency is what we are looking for. The majority of time referees spend with players is taken up with them telling us what not to do. This needs reversing for scrums. Referees need to devote more time learning the intricacies of the front row and the many reasons why a scrum may collapse. We need to get away from the idea that just because a scrum is going forward they get the penalty. Steve Walsh and Craig Joubert are particularly guilty here.

It is a highly technical position to play, and some grass-roots school work from officials surely would help. Referees also need be more honest. If he doesn’t have a clear view or is simply unsure he should reset the scrum. We are all sick of referees blowing for penalties when it is more often than not six of one, half a dozen of the other. If you don’t know, say so. We’d much prefer this than a lottery.

3. Early engagement

While there are small advantages to be gained from engaging early, most referees do not understand them. The main gain is to lessen the hit from the opposition or to put your opposite number on the back foot. This has been going on since rugby started. So long as the scrum is steady by the time the ball is put in there is no major problem.

To my mind, there is a simple solution to this; get on with it. Either that or reset the scrum and get on with it. It is disproportionate to penalise a team for what could be a slightly early move from the locks, or a twitch from a prop.

4. Feeding at the scrum

Referee! Stand in line with where the scrum half puts the ball in. Use your eyes. Look at where the ball goes. Blow whistle/don’t blow whistle as appropriate.

5. Boring in & popping up

This is the technical bit, and I have some sympathy with referees here. Some props simply see these as part of scrummaging and are those clichéd ‘dark arts’. To some extent I agree and all players will push their luck as far as they can. We’ll have a look at both though.

Not scrummaging straight (or boring-in) is not allowed because it allows you to turn the scrum, and/or force such pressure on one of your opposite front row that they pop up. By properly policing the ‘hit’, and making sure players are square before engaging you solve the problem at source.

However, ‘popping up’ can happen as a result of good scrummaging from both teams and does not always need to be penalised. Having said this though, the referee should blow his whistle for the team that loses an advantage because the other team’s front row have come up early. In fairness, ‘Boring in’ and ‘Popping up’ are pretty well refereed these days.

6. Binding

When forming a scrum you are meant to grip on the jersey of your opposite number, but not on the arm. There should be penalties against those who do not bind properly, or at all. It is dangerous. However, there should be a second’s worth of grace if a prop loses his grip, which is certainly possible with the skin-tight jerseys all teams now wear.

Binding on the arm has to be a penalty, but is often missed by officials. It is dangerous because it destabilises the opposition scrum. By this I mean that forcing your opposite number’s shoulder down rotates the entire upper-half of their body. This in turn means that power coming through from the second row is then only transferred to the front row by going down in to the ground. The majority of scrums in which I have been involved that have collapsed, did so because of this. It is, as I said, part and parcel of front-row play and has been part of the sport for as long as scrums have existed, but can be fixed through proper refereeing.

This is important. We need scrums to be part of our sport, but they cannot go on as they are. This is something that I have not seen addressed properly anywhere.

It is time for rugby to issue an SOS – SAVE OUR SCRUMS!

By Chris Francis (@McKrisp)

15 thoughts on “How to deal with a problem like the scrum

  1. Some good points, however refs also need to stop saying take the hit and penalise the sides who hit the scrum, as to do so (and I do it myself to avoid being pinged for not taking it) means You are pushing before the ball comes in which is an offence. Steve Walsh as you’ve noted is terrible at this.

    1. Can anybody remember when engagement instructions from the ref were brought in?
      I seem to remember seeing scrums on videos from the 70’s and 80’s, and possibly even the 90’s where the scrums just kind of happened. When I was playing at college, I don’t remember being told by the ref when to crouch, etc. There was no ‘hit’, the front rows just folded in, and when the ball was put in, normally straight, both sides pushed like hell, and both hookers had a go for the ball. The ball was usually won by the attacking team, because they knew when the ball was coming in.
      The referee was left to referee what he could clearly and easily see – whether there was a scrum offence, and then the feed into the scrum. All the other bits that the ref does nowadays, the engagement, not looking at correct bindings, and not watching the ball land at the second rows feet are refereeing issues. Take all those away, and the players, who surely know what’s happening in the front row, will sort the rest out.
      Retro scrummaging, that’s what we need!!

  2. Binding is something which is a problem at all levels. I think the solution to this would be to ensure the ref is on the open side of the scrum with the assistant official on the blind side policing the bind from the side line. Too many times you see props getting away with bad binding because the ref is on the other side.

    Another thing to consider with resetting would be that if the scrum fails twice, packs be forced to set on the third attempt before anything else. I don’t mean fully uncontested scrums, just the engagement. It could save time, and necks.

    Nothing on this article about the put in either? In my opinion, wen the put in is straight, and the hookers actually hook, the scrum is safer as it takes away the initial impact that we see in today’s game.

    Now, you may shoot me and my ideas down people. I’ll let you, it’s the weekend!

  3. Great insight, one question and one point …

    What impact do you think the changes to the engagement sequence will make next year?

    Whilst I have some sympathy with refs over it being a difficult area to get consistently right, I find it inexcusable that between 3 officials they can not spot the difference between an arm, a sleeve and a shirt.

    1. Hi Matt,

      It will be interesting to see what impact there will be. I’ve yet to see it in action, but the theory is sound as it will lessen the hit – something some of the other posters have commented on.

      It should also make sure that props are square to one another more regularly.

      Hopefully a positive step, but all depends on how it is implemented by referees – this seems to be the major issue for me.



  4. All excellent points and well argued. I’d like to see the ‘hit’ taken out of scrums completely by getting the two front rows to bind together before the locks and flankers bind on. That eliminates the inherently unstable hit and ensures that the referee can establish, with far greater certainty, that both front rows are square on before any sort of pressure is introduced. Wholly agree regarding the crooked feed comment. I’m fed up seeing a scrum half put the ball in directly to the number 8’s feet. Rant over, it’s beer o’clock time.

  5. There is a lot of good points made and all are sound reasons for the scrum becoming what it is in today’s game. Having seen some games (new rule) where the binding arms remains in contact with the opposing prop there does seem to be less collapse and more completed scrums. However I do have to agree and take the point of the referee and the linesmen referring and managing the scrum further. Feeding the ball in straight does appear to help prevent collapse as both hookers are doing what they should be doing and trying to strike the ball, this also means that the props are doing what they should be doing and aiding the hooker by keeping the scrum up so they can see the ball and ‘hook’ it. Ref’s need to be pinging scrum half’s far more regularly for this offence which again I believe would help alleviate these scrum problems as getting the ‘hit’ is a way of combating the feed under the 2nd rows feet. Time will tell, but it needs to be sorted as we do not what the scrum to become the farce it is in league.

  6. In a perverse sort of way, I will miss the scrums of today, as I can’t imagine anything getting Mad dog that worked up.

  7. i recently played a few games as a comeback from a LONG injury layoff. in my absence from the game, the scrum had become a MASSIVE issue.

    however, what i noticed (albeit at not the highest of levels!) was that the scrum was still being used as a way to restart the game. we had very few (if any) reset scrums, simply because the packs would hit, bind and then steady before the ball. some scrums were more dominant than others, and they would demolish the scrum with a good push. the issue of feeding was still occurring though.

    i think one of the biggest factors at professional level is that the scrum has become a weapon for milking points, rather than a chance to restart the game. this has meant that players are cheating more and more, trying to con a pen out of the ref. this has brought out the issue that a fair chunk of refs actually have a pretty poor knowledge of the scrum (something that amazes me – how can you be at the top of the job without knowing all of the aspects of it!?)

    i did like a suggestion that i read a few months back, of having a “scrummage ref” come onto the field. not only do i think that this would provide greater understanding of the laws (plus some of it may rub off on the likes of Walsh) but also you can have an official close-up on both sides. this would increase the levels of congestion around the scrum though.

    at the highest level the feed would also increase competition, but that is supposed to be being policed at the moment…

    another problem is, as we saw in the Lions vs Baa Baas game, players have no regard for the laws and they will bind how they please. they take advantage of poor ref’s knowledge and BLATANTLY cheat knowing that they will get away with it.
    Fair play to Adam Jones for “playing the ref”, but some of his scrummaging in Hong Kong was as illegal as it comes. he clearly had Walsh’s number and decided that he could do as he pleased to Paul James, as long as he didnt hit the ground first/was going forward he wouldnt get pinged. again, Jones and Walsh had a meeting in Cardiff earlier this year, and that was a contentious time too. after the game the welsh props allegedly admitted to collapsing the scrum 6 times and THEY were awarded the penalty.

    its all well and good getting pretty-boy refs who can run around a field and love seeing themselves on the big screen, but their lack of knowledge at the scrum is unacceptable. and to be honest, this lack of knowledge is the real stem of all the scrum problems.

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