Allan Massie: High time the IRB got engaged on scrum fiasco ruining game

IT IS obvious to most of us that something has to be done about the set scrum. Whether it’s equally obvious to the high heid-yins of the IRB is not so evident, but surely they should be thinking about it. If they aren’t, then statistics relating to this year’s Six Nations should compel them to do so – and not only to think about it, but come up with some answers.

For every 100 scrums in the tournament, there were 49 collapses, 33 resets, and 39 scrums resulted in penalties or free kicks being awarded. I say “resulted”, but this isn’t quite accurate, for many of these penalties or free kicks were given before the scrum was actually under way.

In the Scotland-Ireland match at Lansdowne Road, there were 20 scrums – eight collapsed, seven were reset and seven penalties or free kicks were given for scrum offences. The 20 scrums ate up 21 minutes of the match. This is crazy.

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I apologise to regular readers of this column for repeating suggestions that might improve matters. There are two principal ones, and they are both easy to apply. First, the two front rows should engage without pushing, before the second row and No 8 go down. Second, there should be a requirement for hookers to strike. This would outlaw the eight-man shove and would compel referees to insist that the ball be put in straight. At present we have the ridiculous situation that a squint throw at the lineout will attract the referee’s attention, but the squint put-in at the scrum will almost always escape his notice.

The purpose of the scrum is essentially to get the ball back into play while half the players are engaged in pushing against each other and there is space for the backs. The amendment of the offside line a few years ago, requiring players other than the scrum-halves to be five metres behind the scrum till the ball is out, was intended to offer more opportunities for backs. This hasn’t happened, partly because, with neither hooker striking, the scrum-half almost never gets quick clean channel one ball. So, instead of providing the chance for backs to run and make breaks, the scrum has become a means of winning penalties or free kicks. This is ridiculous. More often than not the scrum-half never gets his hands on the ball. The No 8 breaks and takes the tackle to set up a ruck, by which time the defence has spread out, and there is no space in midfield.

It may be that there are simply too many laws – all well-intentioned of course – relating to the scrum. Whether this is the case or not, the truth is that the present laws are not working effectively. The scrum may still, in most peoples’ minds, be an essential part of the game, but it has become an intolerable bore.

There’s another deplorable and boring feature of the game today: the length of time that the ball lies stationary, playable and available at the back of the breakdown for more than five seconds, while the scrum-half or a player in the scrum-half position hovers over it like an anxious mother. In the Calcutta Cup match there were 19 such occasions. They took up almost three and a half minutes.

Here at least the solution is easy. The referee should call “use it or lose it”. Sadly, there is a good reason why he may be reluctant to do so: if they don’t obey his call to use it, he would have to order a scrum. And who can blame him for wanting to avoid that? So eradicating this tiresome practice makes reform of the laws relating to the scrum even more urgent.

Despite everything, this was a pretty good tournament, partly because at least ten of the 15 matches were close enough to have gone either way, and even a couple of those which eventually resulted in an apparently comfortable win for one side were well-contested for at least an hour. This was because there was no outstanding team.

Even though Wales deservedly won the Grand Slam, they came close to losing three games.

It is true that fewer tries were scored than in any season since the Five Nations became Six - only 46 in all, or barely over three a match. No doubt this is in part because defences and fitness have improved, so that there is less space on the field. But it is also because of an evening -up. Italy and Scotland were yet again at the bottom of the table, each losing to the other four countries. Nevertheless neither side was easy to beat.

Ten years ago, 2002, 75 tries were scored in the tournament, but this was largely because France and England were well ahead of the field. Between them they scored 340 points. Wales and Italy at the foot of the table conceded 391 points between them. This year the comparable figures were: Wales and England, total of points scored; 205; Italy and Scotland, total of points conceded: 229. Fewer tries were scored this season because the weaker teams were rarely overwhelmed.

Finally, let me say that the retention of Andy Robinson as Scotland’s coach makes sense. If you – generously – discount Rome and the second half in Dublin, performances, if not results, have improved. In any case the appointment of Scott Johnson and Matt Taylor as assistant coaches promises a new approach, even with Robinson still in charge.

Of course, if results are not better by this time next year, it will be a different story...