The Scrum: A Lost Cause?

This will hardly shock the foundations of the rugby world, but it needs saying. The scrum isn’t working and it needs sorting out (if only to avoid yet another in-game rant from Brain Moore). According to Moore’s article on BBC Sport today only 37% of scrums resulted with play being restarted in this year’s 6 Nations . That simply isn’t good enough. Whilst Moore does a fine job of diagnosing the problem and I agree with his suggestions (the hooker should actually hook, the ball should go in straight) I feel there is one other change that could benefit the flow of the game for the man and his dog on the touchline.

There are a few things to consider here first. One is that the players have a responsibility to the fans and the game as a spectacle, but it is understandable that, as professionals, they are paid to win and therefore if they have an opportunity eek out points or try to take some of the pressure off their team, why shouldn’t they? Second is to the referees and whether there is anything that can be done to assist them in their role. Perhaps a second referee to adjudicate the opposite side of the scrum? Or the touch judge entering the field of play to assist?

I must be clear; I am not putting all of the blame on referees for this situation. I believe that they are largely consistent and get their calls correct. Those who have less patience with the players have my support, Nigel Owens being a tough talking example. However, neither of those solutions seems as though it would fix the problem indefinitely. A specialist scrummaging referee has a certain appeal but instinctively that feels as though it belittles the work of our diligent referees and secondly, it doesn’t do much to reverse the loss of momentum and flow that endless scrummaging is causing.

The only other area to look at is rule changes. A few have been trialled and laid to rest; the ‘SET’ call appears to be here to stay. I am not particularly in favour of making any drastic changes in this department. A more strict (and perhaps nuanced) enforcement and understanding of exactly what goes on in that dark place would help (as Moore prescribes). The only move that I can think would make any real difference (i.e. eradicate the problem entirely) is to pre-bind, 80’s style and just shove when the ball is engaged. Whilst this again does carry some appeal, it is not without obvious flaws. The fact that such a change would likely marginalise the role of the prop forward (potentially right down to the amateur level) leads me to proceed with caution on this one.

My main suggestion to alleviate this area is a simple one, which would not require any drastic changes for the referee or the front rows, but would definitely speed up the game. When a free-kick is awarded (say for early engagement) remove the option to take a scrum. Too often, we have a free-kick given away for early engagement or some other technical but not dangerous infringement, the players run back ten yards, the scrum-half has a look to see what’s on and then stands still and we all get called back to start again. Having a tap or a kick from hand as the only option would not only speed up the game, but would not necessarily over-penalise dominant scrums and as an Englishman I would not want to deprive us of one of our genuine weapons (Cardiff notwithstanding). We might also see a few more tries as a result.

This is a topic sure to spark plenty of debate so let rip below with any suggestions, changes or general moans.

By Patrick Cheshire
Twitter: @jpcheshire

23 thoughts on “The Scrum: A Lost Cause?

  1. A lot of the problems seem to come from the hit and the desire of the front rows to ‘win’ the hit. In fact though the scrum should be steady and unmoving before the ball is fed (straight). Often we see the scrum half still with the ball in his hand as his pack is shoved backwards and then he is penalised. Would it not be possible to set the scrum no pushing at all, with all props bound until the referee is happy at which point he can signal (with a call or whistle) for the scrum half to feed and the packs to subsequently push?

  2. If you had a weaker scrum and you knew it then surely at every opposition scrummage you would go for the early engage. It would become farcical as we would all watch the weaker scrum pack down knowing what was about to happen.

  3. I don’t see how pre-binding, and waiting to shove until the ball comes in would marginalise the props. They will still be able to “position” themselves. Surely it would enhance technique and technicality over the brute strength, aim and timing which is what we have with the “hit”.

    At the top level, surely the touch judge has to ref that side of the scrum – this seems a no-brainer. If the ref always stands on the open side of the scrum, then the touch-judge should be close enough.

    1. would like to see a ‘scrum ref’ on the pitch, give the scrum the same attention as when the ‘linesmen’ go to the posts for a penalty. how can the ref at present see who is at fault when the scrum collapses on the opposite side.

  4. Rules are partially to blame, needs more clarity so that coaches can enforce tactics etc. However Referees can’t be expected to enforce rules and please spectators, if players dont bind (fault of shirts mainly), scrums collapse, get turned etc and scrum halfs dont feed straight or feed at all offenses have to be punished, same as if a referee warns a player to leave the ball and then awards a penalty when the same player puts his hands in the ruck to retrieve the ball.

    would like to see a scrum collapse default to a tap and go only free kick, speeds up the game after the scrum and encourages players to stay alert and move on quickly from a delay in the game.

  5. @Chris I think the idea is it would work with the new directive in the 6N. i.e. 2 free kicks for the same offence becomes a penalty. Also, i think the ref would be able to make it a full arm under unsportsmanlike conduct if they were noticing it

  6. sounds a bit disrespectful given that Bath university was commissioned by the irb to improve scrums without fubdamentally changing them. their research found that crouch -? set let to less resets than crouch touch engage. its work in progress and they are trying to make it better. ptebind eould be a huge change and everyone would be blaming the irb then for disrupting the fliw of the game or indeed fundamentally changing it.

    1. mitchell. agreed that the crouch, touch, set does lead to reduced issues during testing.

      the issue with the old call of “engage” was that some teams went at the end of the word, others were taught to go at the “en” part. using the call of “set” reduced it to a single syllable word, which in theory means the teams have to go at the end.

      however, what was not taken into account through the study is the fact that coaches teach players to study the ref and patterns for the call. therefore they try to anticipate when he will say “set”.

    2. Scrums: something else to throw into the mix, props to have shirts that are not tight fitting. This ought to help the numerous problems when props struggle to bind on.

      1. I’m sure they could design prop jerseys with a straps woven in on the back that the opposing player could grab hold of. With some tweaking they could make it such that it would “rise up” as the player crouches to form a scrum and have it flush with their back when they stand up straight during normal play.

  7. As someone who’s propped at club level since the early nineties, I’m firmly of the opinion that the “hit” is the source of most of the current issues with the scrum – When i first played there was no instruction from the ref after “scrum red” and he made his mark – the front rows would get into position and sort out the engage themselves. That engagement, whilst still a hit of sorts, was some way off the levels of impact we have now. Go back through some Five nations Youtube recordings, with Mr Moore et al invoved, and you will see what is not a pre bind but a combined crouch and hit movement. The current instructions, ever since the refs wanted to call “engage”, CTPE, and the current Crouch, touch, set serves to do very little but coil the springs in anticipation, and hair triggers that lead to early engagement are inevitable. All the front row players are listening for the “S” of set and watching their oppos, and as refs delay the call, the tension builds until something breaks. For me you need to remove not necessarily the hit but the pause, the coiling time. Get rid of the touch, have the players upright and the ref call “crouch and set”, allowing the front rows to engage when ready, not when the gun goes off. Add to this looser shirts for props to eliminate the problems in recent years of being unable to get a bind on the sprayed-on shirts that are de rigeuer now, and we can get the scrum back to being a skillful, but ultimately brief and simple restart to the game. Apologies if I sound like an old fart.

    1. Chris, you sound like most props who have a view on this matter (which is most props).

      Which makes it even more frustrating that the IRB are still struggling to work it out.

    2. have to agree entirely with the 3 lads above. This is complete sense from Chris.

      but what baffles me most is that the so called “professionals” who are working at the IRB cannot come up with solutions like this.

    3. Like the answer you’ve given but can’t see that the IRB are going to insist on baggy shirts for props. Not a commercial reality.

  8. i think a fair few of the issues are arising because of 3 main reasons.

    1- Failure to enforce laws properly.
    2- Lack of understanding by the officials with regards to the scrum
    3- Players attempting to get an upper hand

    I recently played in a game for my School’s old boys team in my return to rugby from an injury. I have been out of the game for a number of years.

    In this game i decided to pay special attention to what was happening in the scrums. The number of free kicks awarded (all game) could be counted on one hand and i recall not a single collapsed scrum.

    the problems arise at the higher levels because referees ignore certain facts.
    straight feed in of the ball and not pushing before the ball is in are both still rules in the law book, and yet at the higher levels they seem to go unpunished. players know this, so the issues have become progressively worse over time, because they are essentially seeing how much they can get away with.
    The lack of a referee to understand the specifics of scrums, and also not having a knowledge of some of the tricks, means that half the time they seem to be guessing regarding the scrums. in two recent outtings for Mako Vunipola he has been negatively affected by poor reffing. Against Wales in his first scrum of the game Jones sits back and almost seems to pull mako towards him. James Johnston did similar in the recent Quins vs Sarries game. In both instances Mako ended up going further forward than expected, and he lost his balance, therefore going over. Credit to both Jones and Johnston for playing this way, as it not only wins pens, but also means that in future scrums Mako had to hold himself back a bit more, thereby minimising the power he can put into the scrum.

    but this is a problem, because refs do not spot what is happening. a prop can use the willingness of someone to want to get a good “hit” against someone, by not committing to it themselves. This can be quite dangerous.

    Props will do what they get away with, and until referees have a better understanding, it will continue to happen.

    The problem seems to stem from this idea of “playing to the ref”. The fact is that the rules in the law book are all the same, so in reality refs should all be pretty similar. However they are not, because they do not all understand certain areas of the game (the scrum and breakdown mainly). So the idea of “playing to the ref” basically means that players are saying “right, the ref has an imperfect knowledge of this area of the game, so we will cheat – thereby matching what he sees to be the correct way (but it isnt) – and we will get the ascendancy.

    again, going back to the example of my recent game. The ref had an imperfect understanding of the breakdown, and so players were going off their feet at the rucks and securing the ball. in the game it was deemed as “playing to the ref” but in reality it was cheating and knowing you could get away with it.

    long story short, props (and scrumhalves) have found areas where they can cheat and get away with it. until the refs start clamping down, the players will continue to do so and ipso facto the scrum will stay a mess

    1. Defo agree, especially point 3 but can you blame them for trying when the ref is standing the opposite side of the scrum.

  9. One thing I’m uncertain about, nobody else has mentioned it – how about reducing the punishments for some things? For me, too many insignificant things at the scrum and breakdown (e.g. not rolling away; accidentally one-off collapse of a scrum) are penalised by a penalty.

    What if in rugby as a whole and particularly the scrum far less is penalized by a penalty, but rather a free kick – or a “touch kick” where players can kick for touch but not for goal? What if only cynical play (trips, ridiculous offsides [or offside as a whole if no distinction can be made], dirty play, interfering with the scrum half from an offside position, tackling in the scrum, repeatedly wheeling/standing up in the scrum) resulted in a penalty, whilst everything else became a scrum/free kick/ “touch kick”?

    How would that change a game? For one, we’d certainly have tries seen as more important than they are now, certainly. Combined with decent binds on scrums, a lack of a hit and the ball fed straight, the scrum would be generally better, I think. And rugby as a whole would be more entertaining, would it not?

    I’m just talking about a general idea – are too many things in rugby at the moment penalized too harshly (i.e. as a penalty). Should some things that are currently punished by a penalty be a lesser offence?

    I mean, one such example to me is clearly that of rolling away from the breakdown. It’s ridiculous how you see some players clearly trying to get out of the breakdown after they’ve made their tackle but have been stopped by opposing players and a penalty is the result. Yes, it is an indiscretion and can be penalized and should be punished. But a penalty? When the players are trying to get out of the way?

    Just stating my opinion.

  10. @Mike In terms of the scrum if the ref thinks its an accidental slip, then he’ll reset. Interestingly, a lot of the pitches were churning up over the course of the 6N (weather didn’t help), however Sarries new artificial pitch has had a much better record on resets, simply because you can’t go down and blame the turf and its much more obvious whose fault it is.

    In terms of the other law changes, the iRB did trial a number of things like that in Super Rugby a few seasons ago and with decidedly dubious results. Essentially, if you don’t risk conceding points/territory then there is no incentive to roll away from the ruck. Players just lie all over the ball, slow it down, take the free-kick, the defence resets and it actually led to less tries and free flowing play than you would have thought.

    The way that area does need improving though I feel, is the where the players are rolling away to. Too often players come away through the attacking sides ‘gate’ meaning they either have to be removed by a support player or stepped over.

    Given the exceptional balance & strength of the modern player when over the ball (looking for a turnover), any slight adjustment loses all moment from the ‘clear out’ and automatically put the attacking team at a disadvantage. There is all far too much blocking of support players attempting to get to the breakdown.

    I feel this is dealt with much better in Super Rugby than up north.

  11. This is wrong in so many ways.

    The LAWS (not rules) need changing.

    A pre-set scrum does not marginalise props – it enhances good technical props over big battering rams.

    It is also consistent with the new medical evidence that the big hit causes cumulative damage to players & it’s only a matter of time before the IRB get taken to caught.

    Refs consistently get their decisions wrong, and consistently blow for engagement infringements but NEVER for feeding.

  12. I might take Ross’ suggestion more seriously if he understood the difference between “caught” and “court”. Agree that a pre-bind would make a big difference but feel it may only be superficial in terms of the game, in terms of players health and safety, it is of immeasurable value. Also agree that referees do a stirling job and are generally consistent in their interpretations. However it seems that only two changes will make a difference to the malaise caused by relentless scrummaging would be for referees to be more ruthless with their yellow card for infringement at scrum time, to keep the process as clean and free-moving as possible. The second would be to eliminate th option to kick at goal for penalties given in the scrum. Enforcing an optionto play rugby covers all bases.

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