Allan Massie: Scrums need props back in right role

Scrums are supposed to be a means of spreading play. Picture: TSPL
Scrums are supposed to be a means of spreading play. Picture: TSPL
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Coaches will often say that they regard the tight-head prop as the most important player in the team. There is this much reason to do so – that the side which achieves supremacy in the scrum will very likely win the match. Certainly, nobody can deny the importance of the set-scrum in the game today.

Unfortunately, it is important in the wrong way. It has become primarily a means of winning a penalty rather than of getting the ball to the backs, which used to be its first purpose. Consequently, though, few of us understand just what is going on in the scrum. The referee’s arm goes up, and the side he favours has the chance to kick a goal or improve its field position. Meanwhile, the props of the team judged to have offended retire with bemused expressions of 
innocence.

Last season, the IRB issued a directive ordering referees to observe the law which requires the ball to be put in straight. For the most part, referees have shrugged their shoulders and ignored this command. Perhaps once a match they take heed of a squint feed and award a free kick to the non-offending side. Then, conscious of having done their duty, they take not a blind bit of notice of squint feeds for the rest of the match. Indeed it is quite common to see a scrum-half put the ball deep into his side’s scrum, and the next thing that happens is the referee’s arm going up as he awards a penalty to that scrum-half’s team.

It is ridiculous, but it happens all the time. It does so because the Blue scrum, with its hooker denied any chance to win the ball legally, will attempt either to disrupt the Red scrum illegally (and hope to get away with it) or try to push the Red scrum off the ball and this will often 
require illegal actions.

There’s another consequence of the way the scrum is refereed. Nobody really hooks now. The “hooker”, better referred to as the man in the middle of the front row, doesn’t strike. Either he has no need to do so, because he knows his scrum-half will put it in squint, or he can’t because, expecting a squint feed, his feet are in the wrong position to strike. So we sometimes have the absurd sight of the ball lying like a new-laid egg between two front rows – perhaps because the scrum-half has carelessly put it in straight – and both sides trying to walk over it.

The man in the middle of the front row will usually have both feet too far back to enable him to strike, so that he is, in effect, there to shove rather than hook. The designation of numbers 1 and 3 as props is likewise out of date. The word “prop” indicates that the player’s first purpose is to support his hooker, to prop him up as he strikes. But this is no longer what the so-called props are there to do. Their function now is not to support the hooker, but to disrupt and destroy their immediate opponent, legally if possible, illegally if not. Since the referee may have only a dim understanding of the mechanics of the scrum, a cunning “prop” will often not only escape punishment for illegality; he may find that it is his opponent who is penalised.

If you look at old coaching manuals, where there is often a diagram showing how forwards should place their feet in the scrum, you will see that the prop has his outer foot forward of his inner one. This enabled the loose head of the side putting the ball in to follow it once it had hit the ground and his hooker was striking so that he was in a position to protect and guide the heel. As for the two props on the side of the scrum opposite to that in which the ball was inserted, each had his outer foot forward to prevent the ball from coming out of the tunnel. It was normal then for both hookers to strike – heels against the head being highly prized – and since the striking position required the hooker to be supported by his props, they were less able to engage in a struggle with their opposite number. They were more concerned with the ball than with their opponent.

Modern props have both feet back, often indeed with the inner foot a little ahead of the outer one. They are no longer props but shovers and disrupters. This is partly because the referees’ wilful ignoring of the need for a straight feed has altered the mechanics of the scrum. There being no hope of a strike against the head, the side not putting the ball in will naturally and sensibly engage in an eight-man shove. Their opponents will do likewise, because their hooker doesn’t need to strike, since he knows the ball will be put in squint.

Insisting that the ball be put in straight is the first step to getting the scrum back to what it is intended to be – a means of spreading play. Legislators also need to rule on the position of props’ feet, making it illegal for them to scrum without having the outer foot ahead of the inner one. If this doesn’t mend matters, it might be made illegal for a hooker not to strike, thus outlawing the eight-man shove.

As a first step, let us dock professional referees a percentage of their match fee for every squint feed that the cameras show them ignoring. Double the financial penalty if, having ignored a squint feed, he then gives a penalty against the other side. That’s all I have to say about the scrum – at least till the next time a referee’s managing of it infuriates me. Apologies in advance if that happens next week.