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
Consistency 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.
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!