Sifting Through The Scrums

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.

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Dundonian Alan has played rugby all over the world for various teams including Dundee High School, Heriot's and the Scottish Club International. Now writing from London he covers all issues international and unreported.

7 comments on “Sifting Through The Scrums

  1. Kev on

    Back to the numbers game i’m afraid. With only 2 pro teams we’ll always have limited choices on both sides of the scrum as well as hooker. Gets worse with Murray unable to feature on Sundays.
    Also IMO the IRB should discuss the problems and the solutions with front row players not referees!

  2. Old Whistler on

    (1) When a player is forced upwards out of a scrum, the referee nearly always penalises the player who is forced up, whereas Law 20.8 (i) says that the player doing the forcing should be penalised.
    (2) I feel the engagement process could be curtailed: the referee usually allows a pause after the “touch” so the “pause” is redundant. Indeed, if the referee is satisfied that the front rows are the right distance apart, “crouch” then “engage” is surely enough.
    As a player who never played in a scrum, I would welcome the views of someone who does.

  3. A.D. on

    We use the rules every week and my view, which is shared by most front-rowers i talk too, is that it is more dangerous to have a longer cadence. Think about it; the longer the engagement process is, the more likely it is for someone to jump the gun and cause a collapse.
    When I was learning to scrummage “crouch…touch…engage!” was enough for me. Players get annoyed with collapsed scrums too, don’t forget, and the elongated cadence means that more time is spent waiting for a collision no different than if the cadence was shorter (although spending longer in a crouch does fatigue your muscles, if we are looking at small edges…which is why some teams take their time to go down into a crouch).
    The issue is, and always will be, the coaching of technique. Under 18 rules mean pretty much no shove and therefore yields no tactical advantage. Rugby in Scottish private schools is pretty cuttroat. As a result schoolboys (and girls) dont learn proper technique ’til they are playing adult rugby. By then it is too late. Twin this lack of technique with the modern obsession with bulk then- added weight+unfamilliar technique= a collapse more often than not. Generations grow up with without knowing proper technique and as we look for bigger and faster players the scrum suffers.
    Scrums should be coached (by proper accredited scrum coaches) throughout Scotland with kids of about 16 years old. Good technique is easier if you learn it young, but pretty hard to pick up once you’ve learned seasons of bad habits…

  4. A.D. on

    And on point number (1) from ‘Old Whistler’, the modern ref never really understands scrummages, and they are usually pretty nervous about them, so even if a player ‘pops’ someone, if their whold back has gone backward (even an inch) or it is their put-in they will usually avoid the penalty against.
    The onky exception of this is if they have dropped their bind first. The bind is a good let-off for refs- it’s easier to spot!

  5. Ian on

    I think refs should be encouraged to make more use of the free kick at the scrum to discourage late engagement. ‘Touch-engage’ should suffice for scrum safety: I see no improvement in safety by adding an additional ‘pause’. Together these might speed up the action at the scrum.

    What’s more: stop buggering about with the reg’s and enforcement/instructions to refs. It is getting very hard to ref modern rugby and the scrum is the best evidence of that. Pandering to scare mongers doesn’t help. Scrums are an exhibition of raw rugby: the experienced fans relish the technical aspects and the newcomers the pure spectacle. Let’s not lose a crucial attacking platform in order to emulate rugby league.

  6. Old Whistler on

    Thanks for those comments, A.D.. Perhaps one problem with today’s refs is the requirement for them to be young, so they are unlikely to have much experience of playing. When I played (we’re going back a fair bit now!) refs were generally ex players and so had a feel for the game, and if they were former front row players, even better. They may not have been the quickest round the field but they knew what was going on in the scrum!

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