Paying the penalty for weakness in the scrum

Hugh Blake's inclusion in the Scotland squad has caused plenty consternation. Picture: SNS/SRU

Hugh Blake's inclusion in the Scotland squad has caused plenty consternation. Picture: SNS/SRU

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It has always been an advantage to have the more powerful and skilful set scrum. In the not so distant past, this used to mean that your backs got more ball and better ball. This was as it should be. The set scrum was a way of restarting the game, just as the line-out is. It means something different now.

Backs are idle spectators at most scrums and seldom receive ball direct from one. Yet the scrum is more important than ever; it has become primarily a means of winning a penalty, and Glasgow lost to Bath last week because the dominant Bath scrum reaped a rich harvest of penalties.

It sounds daft, but if you have a weaker scrum, you are one step away from conceding a penalty any time you drop a pass or knock the ball on while being tackled. Glasgow outshone Bath in attack and their defence was better organised. Nevertheless, they lost because the laws are what they are at present.

Talking of the laws, Bath’s second penalty try resulted from what has long seemed an anomaly. Terrific defence by Finn Russell and Sean Maitland prevented the Bath winger Anthony Watson from grounding the ball over the try-line. So the referee called for a five-metre scrum, with Bath putting the ball in – quite correctly according to the law. Yet, if Watson had been held up a few inches short of the try-line and unable to ground the ball, the put-in would have gone to Glasgow, as indeed it would in the same circumstances in any other part of the field. Why the difference? What’s the reasoning behind it?

As national squads prepare for the Six Nations, coaches’ first concern these days must be with the medical reports. It may simply be chance but it does seem that there will be an awful lot of first-choice players missing the first matches and perhaps the whole tournament. Are there more injuries than usual? England are peculiarly badly hit, but we aren’t in much healthier a condition, while having less in the way of reserve strength.

There has been a lot of talk about the violence of collisions in the pro game today, and certainly there seem to be more cases of concussion. Here, however, one has to be wary. Officials and medical staff are much more alert to the possibility of concussion than used to be the case, and players are very quickly whisked off for a ten-minute assessment. Consequently, more cases of concussion or possible concussion are identified. I would suspect that there are fewer examples now of players carrying on and finishing the game with no idea of what the score is.

Nevertheless, players are bigger and heavier than they used to be – or than nature intended them to be – and this must contribute to the number and severity of injuries. The law as to what constitutes a dangerous tackle has been tightened and clarified. I suspect it may soon have to go further still, possibly as far as making any tackle above the waist illegal. It might help avoid injuries if referees were instructed to be less tolerant than most of them are of the practice of going beyond the tackle point and charging into players trying legally to enter the ruck, and of tackles made without use of the arms.

There was an interesting example of such a tackle in the Clermont-Auvergne match on Sunday. Chasing a high kick, the Saracens winger David Strettle shoulder-charged the Clermont player who had just cleared the ball. He was rightly penalised and yellow-carded, but the BT Sport commentators thought he had been harshly treated, because his tackle was only a little late. The fact that it wasn’t a legal tackle seemed to have escaped them.

Meanwhile, the argument over the inclusion of Hugh Blake in the Scotland squad rumbles on. It isn’t Blake’s qualification to play for Scotland that is the issue. He had two Scottish grandparents. So of course he is eligible. It is the fact that he has only just arrived here and has been picked without having played a single professional match in the northern hemisphere that sticks in the gullet.

A player should have to prove himself here before he is selected. He may well turn out to be an outstanding flanker, but it is impossible to escape the thought that his selection is based on the assumption that, as a New Zealander, he must be good enough, and indeed better than any of the other candidates for the back-row who have been omitted from the squad.

We’ve been here before. Sometimes players slotted in without having to prove themselves have justified the coach’s faith; one thinks of the Leslie brothers, John and Martin. But there have been other southern hemisphere imports who proved no better than the home-grown players they were replacing, and, in some cases, a good deal less effective.

Selection is always ultimately a matter of opinion, and it is the coach who suffers he if gets it wrong. But eligibility for selection should be based on certain principles, and one surely is that the player should have proved himself in a domestic setting. If Blake turns in some storming performances for Edinburgh, fine; pick him for Scotland. But, till he has done so, don’t.

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