Iain Morrison: time to tackle scrum problems

Set scrums are taking up too much time.  Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Set scrums are taking up too much time. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images
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IN the Southern Hemisphere’s 2014 Rugby Championship, New Zealand hosted South Africa in Wellington and it turned out to be one of the most exciting matches in years. It all came down to the final few minutes before New Zealand scraped home with a two-point victory. And former Kiwi scrum-half Justin Marshall was still unhappy.

He labelled the scrums “a shambles” before adding: “We just need to find an answer to get them a lot crisper and cleaner... It just soaks up so much time.”

Indeed it does. The scrum time averages something like 15 minutes of a match but it is not unknown for them to waste 20 minutes, or one quarter, of all the allotted playing time. Southern Hemisphere scrums might be seen as more reliable than their northern relations but that may be changing.

In the middle of the last Super Rugby season the Otago Daily Times ran this rhetorical headline: “Are scrums killing the game?”, citing a Highlanders/Chiefs game as evidence for the prosecution. Its sentiments were echoed by The Guardian earlier this year which trumpeted: “Patience with the scrum is running out.” Last year, the former England international Austin Healey wrote: “The scrum is killing the game in the Northern Hemisphere.” As it stands the set scrum has precious few friends and it is easy to see why.

The situation in England and France has got to the stage where teams use the scrum as a means of milking penalties and points rather than simply to get the ball rolling again. It even happened in Thursday’s Varsity match, and it happens almost everywhere else.

“Instead of being a means of restarting the game, it has become a way of winning penalties,” rugby pundit and former England hooker Brian Moore noted a while back. “The whole edifice has become a grotesque farce and is blighting the game.”

If the big spenders of England and France are the main culprits – why work on skills when you can buy in beef? – the problem is less obvious in the Pro12 although not entirely unknown, as Edinburgh fans will testify. When Leinster and Glasgow both lost to Aviva opposition in the second round of European competition a couple of weeks back they did so largely thanks to English excellence at the scrum.

Bath’s pack milked ten points directly from the set scrum against Leinster (one penalty try, one penalty) and Bath loosehead Nick Auterac won the man-of-the-match award. So it’s difficult to sympathise with Mike Ford when the Bath boss moaned about the set scrum after his side lost to Northampton by three falls and a submission in a woeful wrestling match last weekend. Saints won five scrum penalties in the first half alone, earned a yellow card for Bath’s other prop Henry Thomas, and a scrum penalty in the 72nd minute secured Northampton the penalty kick that JJ Hanrahan knocked over to clinch the match.

“It’s just a lottery,” Ford wailed to reporters after the game. “Referees referee scrums and they don’t know what’s going on. It’s ruining the game.”

His words might have carried a little more weight had Ford delivered them after Bath’s scrum beat Leinster but his point remains valid: everyone is cheating and the poor referee is supposed to know who is cheating the most. It makes for a poor spectacle for fans unless, of course, they happen to sport a couple of a cauliflower ears and a nose wider than it is long.

The scrum problem needs resolving but the hard bit is downgrading its importance while maintaining World Rugby’s stated goal of maintaining a competitive scrum at the heart of the game. Almost every suggestion has been aired but the solution is surprisingly simple and it has been tested in junior rugby for many years. If the adult game adopts youth rugby’s laws which prevent any team from driving a scrum more than five metres, matters would immediately improve immeasurably.

As things stand a dominant scrum in the adult game can drive the opposition back 95 metres to gain a pushover try from their own five-metre line so the opposition concedes a penalty instead.

Adopt the five-metre rule and provided the weaker scrum retreats the five metres in good order, without breaking off, standing up or collapsing, they won’t be penalised. The dominant scrum is rewarded with those five metres gained, putting their attack on the front foot and throwing the defence on their heels. No side will want to concede five metres but if the alternative is a penalty then they would be dumb not to.

The scrum maintains its integrity because any team that is tempted to field a couple of flankers in place of their props would still suffer because the opposition can still go for a pushover try from a five-metre scrum. Strong scrums would still earn points but only five metres from the opposition try line so while the role of the prop would be downgraded they would still make a major contribution.

Without an inevitable penalty to tempt them into holding the ball in and milking three points, teams would use the scrum to restart the game unless, of course, it is awarded five metres from the opposition line. When that happens the attacking team will turn the screw and all those gnarled old veterans in the stands will remember why they watch the game.