06 September 2013

The Scrum Conundrum

In the build-up to the new season there has been quite a lot of discussion about the new scrum engagement protocol. It is without doubt the latest attempt by the IRB to improve the scrum. But on previous occasions, adjustments to the scrum law were driven by a perceived need to make the scrum safer, and rightly so. But this time round the objective is to tidy up the mess that the scrum has become as a method of restarting the game.

The public in general and television producers in particular have become aware of the amount of time wasted during the average game by setting and re-setting the scrum. We have all seen the running clock in the corner of the screen telling us how much time has elapsed since the scrum was set for the 1st time.

The advice to referees to avoid re-setting the scrum and make decisions regarding offenders, has done little to resolve the dilemma. The result has been a plethora of penalties and free-kicks doled out at scrum time, with the actual offender too often escaping the wrath of the referee.

Things came to a head last season when the scrum statistics for the 2013 Six Nations made for grim reading: Scrum Collapses – 59%, Scrum Re-Sets – 30% and Penalties/Free-Kicks Awarded – 51%. Things had to change and they have. The IRB have introduced the latest version of the scrum engagement.

As a retrospective it is worth pointing out that at one point in time, not a million years ago, the scrum engagement was controlled by the players. The referee gave the mark and on a nod and a wink both packs engaged. Back then there were the occasional re-sets and penalties awarded but not at the epidemic proportions we have today.

But over time the gradual realisation that the harder and more forcefully you engaged a scrum the more likely you were to dominate it, led to a substantial increase in the ferocity of scrum engagements. That, combined with the onset of professional rugby and the inevitable increase in athleticism of the professional rugby player, made the scrum less safe.

Over the years the IRB have made numerous law changes to make the scrum a safer place. They have reduced the number of players in the scrum and banned pushing beyond the mark at under-age level. The also introduced the engagement protocols we have become used to over the years. But the latest change to the protocol has less to do with safety and more to do with maintaining the scrum as a viable way of restarting the game.

Up to last year the engagement protocol: CROUCH – TOUCH – PAUSE – ENGAGE definitely wasn’t working and it also took longer than launching the Titanic. When you think about it, asking two packs of forwards, weighing on average over 900kgs, to collide as explosively as possible, the odds of them staying on their feet has to be low.

The new protocol of: CROUCH – BIND – SET, along with speeding up the process, definitely reduces the impact on engagement. Having to bind before the engagement is the most essential change as it brings the front-rows much closer together. This reduces the impact on engagement considerably. Some people claim a reduction of 25% on the impact, I would argue even more on the evidence thus far.

The new engagement definitely makes it easier for the scrum to “stay up” on engagement, but whether it is safer depends on the degree of the impact on engagement. Reducing the impact too much on engagement will lead to a loose scrum.

It is a bit like closing a car door. Not enough of an impact and the door will not close properly and possibly reopen while the car is in motion. Whereas a good solid “klunk”, and the door is nice and tightly closed.

A former international tight-head once told me that there is nothing more dangerous than a “high and loose scrum”. If it’s loose it is likely to fall down once it begins to move and if it’s high there are a lot of things that can go wrong on the way down.

So despite binding before engagement it is important that the scrum is allowed a solid engagement and not forced to just fold together.

The scrum-feed has also been adapted in that the scrum-half cannot feed the ball until the referee is happy the scrum is stable. Also, believe it or not the scrum-half must feed the ball straight between both front-rows. Yes that’s something that has been in law since the game began but has been effectively ignored in recent years.

At the start of every rugby season the IRB decrees that crooked feeds will not be tolerated and referees warn scrum-halves before every game. But despite that rhetoric crooked feeds have become part of the game. Primarily because referees have so much to watch when refereeing a scrum that the scrum feed is way down the list of priorities.

If the ball is fed straight into the scrum the hooker will be required, more often than not, to strike or hook the ball. This would be a good development for the game, particularly since it is the laws of the game. Some have argued that hooking the ball is not safe, as we have not been asking hookers to hook the ball for some time now. That’s just a red herring. We would not dream of justifying a crooked throw into the line-out and in the same way we should not justify a crooked feed into the scrum.

How all this plays out remains to be seen. Maybe there is a new era dawning in the game of rugby where the scrum will become a means of re-starting the game with a contest for possession instead of a war of attrition between two packs of forwards and a referee while the paying public slips into a coma.

But I have a feeling it is not over yet and we will be re-visiting this topic again.