Allan Massie: Captains must grasp the fact that scrum has become a lottery

ONCE or twice in a match the ball is thrown in squint to the line-out. The captain of the non-offending side is offered a choice of line-out or scrum. Almost invariably he opts for a scrum.

As things stand now, and as things will continue until the IRB has the nous and nerve to reform the law relating to the set scrum, this is daft. It is daft even if you have been dominant in the scrum. It is daft because the scrum has become the means by which you win or concede a penalty, rather than a way of winning or losing the ball. So you opt for a scrum and are penalised and find you are 40 yards back down the pitch or three points adrift. Doesn’t look like you made a bright decision, does it – especially when you think that teams win their own line-out ball some 90 per cent of the time?

Lesson for captains. Never opt for a scrum because the scrum has become a lottery. I saw a match recently in which a team had the put-in at a five-metre scrum. The opposition were penalised twice. “Scrum again,” said the captain, and his forwards promptly conceded a free kick for “early engagement”.

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Captaincy itself and qualifications for captaincy have been matters for discussion recently – and not only in Scotland. It seems to me that, apart from leadership qualities, which are obviously essential, there are two necessary qualifications. First, the captain should be sure of his place in the team; this is why, for instance Declan Kidney has made Paul O’Connell captain of Ireland in the absence of Brian O’Driscoll, and why I assume that Philippe Saint-Andre will stick with Thierry Dusautoir. Second, the captain should be a player whom the coach expects to leave on the field for the full 80 minutes, rather than one in a position in which he is likely to be substituted after an hour.

As far as Scotland is concerned, the first of these requirements should probably rule out Alastair Kellock because, good leader and fine line-out operator as he is, he can play only at the expense of either Jim Hamilton or Richie Gray. The second requirement rules out whichever of our scrum-halves starts, and also Ross Ford, because scrum-halves and hookers are nearly always substituted well before the end of the match. Successful generals aren’t withdrawn from the field in the middle of a battle.

Some people, coaches among them, say the choice of captain isn’t that important, and the great thing is to have several leaders in the team. Certainly you want players ready to take responsibility, but too many leaders can be almost as bad as having none. They may after all disagree with each other.

England would probably have won the famous 1990 Grand Slam match if they had had only a single leader. Left to himself, the captain, Will Carling, would probably have opted to try to kick a penalty towards the end of the first half when England were camped in the Scottish 22. His forwards, led by Brian Moore, thought differently, and insisted on scrumming, several times indeed. No score resulted. We were all very grateful for the division of opinion between England’s leaders. Successful rugby XVs are seldom run by a committee of leaders.

Andy Robinson will be keeping fingers crossed over this weekend and the next. Of course, he will think, it will be great if Edinburgh and Glasgow finish the pool stage of the Heineken in fine style, but it’s just as important that key players come through unscathed. At the moment we are doing better than most of our rivals in the injury stakes. But then we need to. In general we win international matches only when we can escape injuries, put our best XV on the field and have all of them at the top of their game.

Injuries and a post-World Cup clear-out mean that the England team which will line up at Murrayfield in three weeks time will have an unfamiliar look. It may be very good indeed, but it will certainly be a bit short of international experience. In this context I’m already beginning to feel somewhat sorry for young Owen Farrell. He is suffering the build-up which the English media and public like to give a new hopeful. From what I have seen of him, he looks a very neat and stylish player, and a good goal-kicker. I trust for his sake that he is also modest and level-headed. He’ll need to be, because he is already being hailed as the new Jonny, destined to be the redeemer of English rugby. That’s a lot to pile on the shoulders of a 20 year-old. Two or three years ago Danny Cipriani was given the same sort of build-up, and where is he now? (Playing for Melbourne Rebels, actually.).

More worryingly from our point of view, English journalists are saying that Stuart Lancaster’s first match in charge is going to be a tough one. Scotland away? They shake their heads and say, “very demanding”. One much prefers it when they come north confident they are going to walk all over us.