Outspoken former England hooker Brian Moore was invited by the IRB to lead a hands-on workshop this week allowing the game’s elite referees to gain practical experience in the new scrummaging trial laws. Moore has been highly and vocally critical of the state of the set-piece and its policing by officials throughout much of the past decade, and with a wealth of knowledge and first-hand capability gained from over ten years in the England and British and Irish Lions’ front row, he was seen as the ideal man to talk scrummaging to rugby’s top refs. The workshop, held just outside of Paris, aimed to further the understanding of the referees, while also giving them a platform from which to discuss and debate the trial regulations – regulations which are set to be implemented at the highest level for the first time in next week’s Rugby Championship.
The scrum, as such an integral part of rugby, has been every inch the villain of the piece for some time. Many top-class test matches have been spoiled as both a contest and a spectacle by the set-piece collapsing or being repeatedly reset – frustrating players, coaches and pundits alike, and not least testing the patience of the paying customer. In this year’s Six Nations, for instance, around thirty per cent of all scrums were reset.
All too often, scrums culminate in penalty decisions that range from questionable to completely arbitrary, made by officials who are either unsure of the correct course of action, or whom resort to hammering the perceived guilty party at every opportunity. The sport’s viewing value rapidly deteriorates in games dominated by the dull, monotonous nature of reset scrums, and rugby is arguably seriously at risk of driving away potential clientele, in a market that is becoming increasingly competitive. Indeed, the overall playing time can be vastly eaten into under these circumstances, cutting down on the amount of rugby that actually takes place. Over a quarter (twenty-one minutes) of February’s Six Nations clash at Murrayfield between Scotland and Ireland was taken up by scrums.
As the scrum and its reputation continued to trundle downhill, the grumbling voices of disquiet rose to a deafening crescendo, ultimately demanding a speedy resolution from the IRB. It was clear that protecting this treasured part of the game would take some drastic action. The sport’s governing body responded in earnest, launching a global trial in May this year, featuring a new scrum-engagement process that should improve the methods, the refereeing, and perhaps most importantly, further safeguard player welfare in and around the set-piece area.
The new engagement calls are a result of studies undertaken by a Scrum Steering Group (at a cost of some £500,000), made up of former players and current test-match coaches and referees. They advised a call sequence of “crouch, bind, set” – whereby on the call of ‘bind’, opposing props will grasp each other’s shirts in preparation for the engagement. This system means that the initial impact of the ‘hit’ is reduced when ‘set’ is called and the front rows lock horns. A separate body of research, completed over two-and-a-half years by the University of Bath’s scrum forces group, has found that the new calls may cut down engagement forces by up to twenty-five per cent.
In addition, referees will enforce more stringently the need for a straight put-in – another issue that has marred the set-piece for far too long – in an effort to prevent scrum-halves simply feeding the ball into the feet of their second rows. This ‘squint feeding’ has become the norm in pro rugby, and despite its illegality, is seldom penalised. Under the new regulations, the scrum-half will be directed to deliver the ball with the call of ‘yes nine’ from the referee. When this call is made, the packs may begin pushing, which it is hoped will block either side from driving before the ball is put in, another offence that frequently goes unpunished by officials, and can be detrimental to the scrummage. In time, these new rulings may even lead to the resurrection of the lost art of hooking, a once-crucial skill that has virtually bypassed a generation.
The IRB also invited players from local French pro club Massy Essone to try their hand at the changed scrummaging protocols. The results were startling. In a tweet, Moore stated that “the level 3 packs used had never hooked; never fed straight; never not pushed before ball (was) in – they were astonished.”
And why would they have, when, in the modern era, hooking has become obsolete, and players have been permitted to feed the ball squint, and push before it has arrived in the scrummage? During one of the gathering’s lighter moments, the Massy Essone hooker at first tried to strike the ball with his left foot. That a professional hooker was incapable of hooking with the correct technique shows the sheer magnitude of the change from days gone by.
Some argue that lessening the forces and physicality of the ‘hit’ detracts from the confrontational character of the scrum, claiming that the new regulations nudge the set-piece firmly towards becoming nothing more than a method by which to restart play. This is something the sport should, of course, guard against, and there exists genuine concern that Southern Hemisphere teams may take the protocols as an invitation to do exactly that.
However, it is hoped that with the changes now set to be implemented across the board, rugby will see a resurgence in a dying breed of front row players. Rather than the six-feet-plus behemoths that seem to be populating test jerseys numbered one to three with increasing regularity, and who enjoy success based upon their size and strength, the rulings are instead expected to suit those with a lower driving height and body position, and a more honed scrummaging technique. In this way, the IRB claim they are benefitting “stronger scrummagers who are technically more efficient.” Think (legendary ex-Scotland and Lions loosehead of famously small stature) Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan rather than (six-foot five inch tall, nineteen stone English number one famous for bench-pressing over two hundred kilos) Andrew Sheridan.
With the new scrum regulations poised to be introduced globally this year, beginning in Sydney on Saturday, it is hoped that they will bring about a tangible increase in the safety of front row players who bear some tremendous collision forces, while also adding some much-needed clarity and quality to the set-piece officiating. It will take time for the sport and its participants to get to grips with the changes, and there will no doubt be some initial obstacles to overcome.
We should also remember that, such is the nature of the professional game, the elite will more often than not seek to exploit a loophole to benefit their cause where possible. The scrum has back-pedalled rapidly for a number of exasperating seasons, and it will probably have to concede a few more painful yards in order to finally shunt itself from the mire and back to where it belongs at the forefront of rugby.
It is vitally important that we give the directive ample time to take effect, and prevent it from being quickly condemned as another abject IRB failure by the game’s cynics. For, in the words of Moore himself, this really is our last chance to save the scrum.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photos by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images