Richard Cockerill: ‘The scrum is still a mess’

Speaking at the launch of the 2013/2014 Aviva Premiership, Leicester Tigers head coach Richard Cockerill was typically forthright in his views surrounding the new scrum laws about to come into effect in the Northern Hemisphere.

“It’s different,” he said. “It’s taken a little bit of getting used to – we’ve played a couple of games and it’s been a little bit messy – a different mess, but still a mess. I don’t know whether it’s de-powering the scrum or not, or whether you’ve got a generation of hookers that are now being asked to hook again after it’s been a pushing contest for such a long time, but we’ll have to see how it works out.”

Does he think it’s improved from the evidence seen so far in the Rugby Championship?

“Certainly not in the first test (between NZ and Australia) – you’ve got two of the best scrum-halves in the world laughing at each other because they’re worried about feeding the ball and getting a yellow card. The referees are behind that a bit because they’ve not had time to practise it, certainly in the Southern Hemisphere – obviously Premiership referees will have had a little bit more practice going into it.”

And he is in no doubt about the fact that there has been a glaring lack of communication between those that make the laws, and the guys currently coaching and playing the game at the highest level. Not mincing his words, Cockerill suspects the new changes are being driven by the Southern Hemisphere’s desire to devalue the scrum – interesting comments, particularly in light of the Lions’ comprehensive victories over Australia this summer, of which the foundations lay firmly in dominance at scrum time.

“The thing is, the lawmakers change things but nobody’s asked the Premiership coaches about the laws of the scrum, so I don’t know who changes these things and on what agenda they’re acting.” he said. “They say it’s safety, but it looks like the Southern Hemisphere just trying to devalue the scrum so the ball comes in and out a bit quicker and it makes it a bit more even when it gets to the Northern Hemisphere.

“We’ll have to see. You’d like to think that with the coaches and players we have in the premiership, at some point the people that make these laws up would consult us rather than just change it.”

Scrummaging frustration aside, Leicester’s director of rugby says pre-season has been progressing well despite the shadow of his ban hangong over the squad.

“My activity in the week is no different, it’s just on match-days that I can’t have any contact with the playing staff – but most of the team are thankful for that anyway,” he joked. “I’ve got a superb group of coaches with me – Paul Burke, Richard Blaze and Geordan Murphy – as well as lots of very experienced players. Does it affect the team? Probably not. Does it affect me? Certainly. But that’s what happens when you break the rules I suppose.”

Last season was a huge one for the traditional powerhouse of English rugby, as they banished the bottlers tag and romped to a convincing victory at Twickenham to claim the title. Cockerill insists, however, that the level of expectation surrounding the club has not stepped up.

“At Leicester the expectation is always huge. We won the championship and an hour later… the chairman says ‘well you should win it because you’re the best side’, so that’s just the nature of Leicester being Leicester. Our goal is to try and win it again now. We’ll be champions everywhere we go, so for us every game is a tough game because everyone raises themselves to play us. That’s the nature of it and the squad that we have. That’s the job any coach at Leicester inherits.”

The Tigers have long been associated with a power-focussed game, labelled ‘boring’ and ‘unadventurous’ by their (perhaps jealous) detractors. The stats paint a wholly different picture, however, with the Leicestermen topping the try-scoring charts for the last four seasons in a row. This is no accident.

“If you want to be successful you have to try and play; you have to have an open game and try to score tries,” noted Cockerill. “I think if you try to keep the game close, to grind out games at the death, it’s a very dangerous game to play.

“At Leicester we’ve always been accused of being quite a negative side, but over the last five or six years we have become a very positive team, certainly with the players we have. And the mindset going into games is that you need to score tries to win, first and foremost, and then get bonus points. I think you have to come with a positive mindset, and you’ve seen that across all the sides. You have to make sure you do that in the right way, but I think the positive mindset to try to outplay teams is a good mentality to have.”

As is the Leicester way, Cockerill is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. The talent across the premiership this season is impressive, and not just out on the pitch.

“I think the coaching across the board in the Premiership is very strong,” he said. “We know all about Dean Ryan at Worcester and what he brings to the Premiership – he’ll make them a lot stronger. Then Newcastle have got Dean (Richards) and John Wells – I know them well enough to know they’ll produce a hard team to play against, and they’ll be very difficult to beat. They’re two very astute rugby men.

“I think across the board it’s going to be more difficult than it’s ever been – any side can beat any side on their day, and those sides in the bottom half last year have improved and will come with better squads. It’s going to be more competitive and harder than ever, which hopefully will make it a better competition.”

Despite bemoaning the scrum, Leicester’s director of rugby is looking forward to the new season. And although he might be stuck in the stands, metaphorically tearing his hair out at not being involved, you can bet the Tigers will continue to play under the Cockerill blueprint that has served them so well up until now.

By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

10 thoughts on “Richard Cockerill: ‘The scrum is still a mess’

  1. Dear Mr Cockerill. I love your views and the way you express them, but why in the world would it be led by the SH?
    NZ have a very strong pack and SA scrum weighed almost 1000kg on the weekend.
    I’m sure you can find out who made the law amendments if you wanted to and not make silly accusations.

  2. Agree with Armand. SA and NZ have always selected a powerful scrum. Ask Phil Vickery about his encounter with the Beast in the previous Lions series.

  3. What a load of rubbish Cockrill is talking (again). The new rules aren’t about depowering the scrum at all, but about making it so it doesn’t collapase every single time. Of course the ‘hit’ between the front rows had to be reduced, or otherwise things would have just contined in the same vein.

    Not only that but now the scrum has actually gained some technique back, meaning its just just a meathead competition about who can smash who out of the way first, but more a test of pushing technique.

  4. I’d strongly disagree with many of Cockerill’s comments here, having researched and written about the scrum for TRB in the past few weeks.

    There is no doubt that the new laws are a work in progress, but we are approx 4 weeks into a 12 month trial – condemning them at this stage is daft, and pretty unnecessary imo. It’s going to take time for players and officials to grow accustomed to the changes. Scrum-halves can no longer chuck the ball in about the ankles of their second rows, hookers must strike rather than rely on squint feeding and winning the hit to secure possession, and packs are not able to “bail out” by collapsing if the initial hit is unfavourable.

    Referees, too, must properly and correctly enforce the new laws – particularly the crooked feed – or the entire enterprise will be counter-productive. That made Peyper’s policing of the scrum in Wellington all the more disappointing.

    Smith and Genia were penalised for squint feeding because they fed the ball in squint! It’s illegal! And it was hardly surprising given it was their first competitive game under the new laws. When scrum-halves learn to put the ball in straight, and correctly, then they will not be punished.

    The scrum is becoming a greater contest, despite the loss of the “hit”, and should favour technical ability more so than sheer brute strength. There have been fewer collapses and resets, and there have been a number of scrums won against the head.

    Cockerill may be correct that the IRB could have done more consulting with coaches etc with regards to the manufacturing and implementation of the laws, but they are the result of over two years of research by the University of Bath and a scrum steering group. I don’t agree with his remarks on the protocols being a SH brainchild, or that they will favour the SH. The primary aim was increasing safety and player welfare, and that definitely looks to be the case thus far, with a big reduction in the engagement forces.

    I would contest that Cockerill’s comments are borne largely of bitterness and frustration, and don’t really offer any sense of perspective or balance re the new laws.

  5. Cockerill bemoans not being involved in the process. The reason coaches were not involved is because they would have blocked everything.
    The IRB have made 2 clear points here:
    1 The hit is not, and never was, part of the game. It was a cheat introduced by coaches for an unfair advantage before the ball is in play.
    2 Crooked feeds will not be allowed. The sanction is harsh, 3 strikes and its a card, but these can be relaxed once scrum halfs get the message.
    These changes are here and here to stay, and its not surprising that Cockrill is kicking against them, his team being one of the worst offenders at scrum time.

    1. Firstly, the hit is not a “cheat” it’s a technique that developed within the laws of the game and it is that that should have been (and will now be) dealt with. The entire idea of the hit was you hit harder than your opponent and made it more difficult to bind legitimately and therefore they break the law when they fail to bind. This entire thing came about because referees stopped penalising non-straight feeds and so the only way to win at scrum time was to hit harder or cheat better.

      Secondly, Leicester weren’t the worst offenders at scrum time. Hit straight and hard and bind and it’s legal. They were just better at the hit than a lot of other teams. I’m not saying they never cheated or got away with stuff, but they were typically dominant and that often gets you some lee-way with referees.

      Cockerill’s unhappy with the way that the laws have been changed. It will depower the scrum and it will benefit teams that were not able to hit as well, such as Australia. However, the scrum should have been less about the hit and more about the strike and push and ironically, years of fiddling with it to make it safer has made it more dangerous. Hopefully, this implementation will improve it, but I do sympathise with coaches who might well have wanted them to wait a year while they experimented with it and had their input, rather than just implementing it outright. I understand Cockerill’s concerns, I understand his frustrations, but he has (as Cockerill does) over reacted so that everyone knows he has concerns.

      I’ve seen enough thus far to say that teams will still deliberately collapse to get a penalty, referees will be reluctant to call either way and they will still allow teams to play the ball out of the scrum after it has collapsed, a blatant contravention of an important safety law. Props still bind “questionably” and a lot are releasing their binding to get a hit before reengaging the bind. It is (as it has always been when they’ve changed the rules) about the referees and law makers keeping on top of the way that players try to manipulate the laws and adapting rather than just letting players get into a rhythm of seeing what they can get away with.

  6. I have to say, as one of the teams most proficient/professional/cynical (delete as appropriate) at smashing over the mark at the scrum engage I am not surprised he feels the need to whine about the new laws.

    It is unfortunate though, that scrum halves have had no time to practice putting the ball in straight. That must be a terrible invonvenience. How on earth can they get around such a lack of practice?

  7. Wookie. You claim the hit is legitimate and then explain why it isn’t. Any manoeuvre that prevents the scrum coming together square and stable and moves the scrum before the ball enters the scrum is illegal. It’s as legal as leaving the line out once formed but before the hooker throws in or as legal as being in front of the kicker before a restart. Ball is dead. Nothing should happen. The crooked feed is a result of the big hit scrum and can now be fairly policed out of the game.
    I look forward to a season of props working when ball is in, of hookers hooking and scrums being fed straight. Question is rookie, do you want those things, Cockrill obviously doesn’t.

  8. That was largely to do with how you hit. Straight engagement, legitimate binding and not pushing early. It was not illegal to engage forcefully. Under the law, the front rows had to come together straight and bind and take the hit. Of course, you can criticise a team for being forceful in their engagement but that was always the problem with the rules, if you didn’t hit hard enough, you wouldn’t bind, you’d end up in a poor position and you’d end up being responsible for the collapse and that’s how the scrum has evolved under the crouch/touch/pause/engage and crouch/touch/set sequences, focussing on the hit. It was made worse by the fact that scrum halves were unofficially permitted to put the ball in not straight so the only chance you had to win against the head was to win the engagement. I don’t buy that scrum halves had to feed crooked. Any scrum that stayed up (of which there were few) would not have impeded a straight feed. When the rules were trialled at lower levels, even in the English Championship they didn’t have scrum halves feeding straight and even as these rules came to a close you would see fewer collapses in those games and straighter feeds. Indeed, the hit still does exist under the new laws, though it is tempered by the bind.

    I want improvement and I’m far from saying Cockerill is accurate in his criticism of the new rules. However, I do agree that the introduction has been hasty and sympathise with Cockerill and other coaches who have raised their concerns (of course they’ve not been talked about as much because they’re less outspoken than Cockerill) about the manner of the introduction. When crouch/touch/pause/engage was introduced in the 06/07 season, the rule was trialled in the first division as it was then for an entire season, coaches had the opportunity to look at the laws, see how they were refereed and implemented in a game and time to offer feedback. These rules were decided on in April(?), without advice and criticism of coaches, without giving them an opportunity to see it in action and learn about it over a reasonable period first. Conor O’Shea was saying the other day that in two pre-season games they’d had one where the rules worked fine and one that turned into a free-kick-fest. The emphasis on the fact that Cockerill said something has somewhat undermined the concerns that a lot of coaches do have.

    I think the new rules will be an improvement, genuinely. However, the referees need to referee it properly which is the main area that went wrong with the former rules, otherwise we’ll end up with a new farce in a year’s time. I also think that because of the hasty introduction, the first few months of the new rules will see a lot of chaos with teams and referees less sure of what’s going on.

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