In the last few months there has been a lot of press about the scrum. In more than one medium we hear the same lines: the scrum goes down too often; it is boring; there is too much match time wasted. Former internationals have had their say. Purists are pitted against fans of free-flowing rugby. Hundreds of solutions have been offered.
Yet covertly the IRB seem to have chosen their way of dealing with the ‘problem’.
During the Autumn Internationals there were clocks set up in the corner of BBC coverage to tally-up the ‘dead time’ that scrum resetting created. However, as well as fuelling age old debates about safety there began fresh discussions about whether scrums were killing rugby.
You can appreciate why this would cause panic within the IRB. Attendances are were fairly low across the board during Autumn and the festive period (even considering the global financial issues) and grumblings amongst the faithful must be a worry. Experts are split. Rugby cannot afford more bad press after the ‘Bloodgate’ debacle and drug bans.
So as the Heineken Cup kicked off again there seemed to have been an unmentioned change. As Perpignan took on Leicester last month, two formidable scrummaging packs, there was a brisk element to the scrum exchanges. This carried over into the Munster game against Ospreys. With the exception of 5m scrums almost every time there was a collapsed scrum the referee gave a penalty to the team in possession, without a reset.
This served two purposes. Firstly, it discouraged collapses and secondly; it ensured the ball was in someone’s hands within 30 seconds of a scrum. During both of these games the scoreboard was constantly ticking over with points won because of scrum penalties.
Worryingly, though, it means that the scrum is now a negative force. In midfield during Munster v Ospreys teams would collapse if they knew they were not getting a tactical edge because with their put-in they would just get a kick to touch. More perplexing still, there was a scene in the Perpignan v Leicester game where, 5m from Leicester’s line and with loose-head Ayerza struggling to cope with Frenchman Mas, popping-up stopped the Perpignan scrummage from driving over for a score. What did referee Alan Lewis do? He yellow carded both hookers instead of giving Ayerza a yellow card or the Catalunians a penalty try.
If Paddy O’Brien and the other international referees have decided this is the plan for scrums worldwide then this could be an issue. In games with technically poor scrummagers there will be a game with more kicking and the danger element will not be removed. Stoppages aside, though, by rendering the scrum as ‘just a restart’ we risk losing a skill only found in rugby. The ‘problem’ is one of entertainment, and with more expert coaching of scrummaging at schoolboy level we would not have it in the future. Everything is determined by what guise rugby will be under in 10 year’s time.
Such changes may also have an impact on our teams. It is perhaps a good thing that Both Edinburgh and Glasgow are slinking out of the H Cup. Moray Low appears to have lost some momentum recently and under pressure, this season at least, he usually opts to collapse rather than pop up or change angle. The Glasgow bench has holes (I do, however, think a lot of this comes down to Lineen’s continuous use of the ‘cavalry’ substitution where he changes up the front row with 20 mins to go because “that’s the done thing!” He is hardly an expert. More often than not Glasgow should leave it as is for 80 mins because their good scrummagers are on the pitch!).
Edinburgh, as well, flatter to deceive. Last night against the Scarlets Edinburgh changed their entire front row on 55 mins. Obviously front 5 players can’t play every minute of every game. That is unrealistic. However the front row they brought on is not near enough the same standard as the line-up they replaced, in scrummaging terms at least. This showed when they lost ball against the head which shouldn’t really happen against the Scarlets.
This has a knock-on effect for the national side. Jacobsen, Ford and Murray (regardless of form, particularly in Murray’s case!) will be our starting front row for the 6N. Behind these three the Scrummaging options are not great. Our best possible loose head replacement, Ali Dickinson (who is regularly criticised himself) is out for the long-term. There isn’t much else to replace Chunk with! I would like to see Welsh train with the squad at least because he improved greatly after being introduced to the next level, before taking a backwards step this season. Give him something to aspire to.
Ford is undeniably our best scrummaging hooker. You can’t get around it. Thomson would/should be in the frame if he ever got fit!
Murray will be backed up by Low, but both players need to start dominating players in their club games to get their confidence back. They are bloody important!
So if this unwritten, unreported trend continues let’s hope that by the 6N our players forget the H Cup and are full of confidence. With the cadence at the reset and the current interpretation and rulings you have to be dominant to win that penalty or free-kick. Going down shouldn’t be an option.