Allan Massie: World Rugby’s three-second rule will at least give us all a welcome laugh

It is as rare for a scrum-half to be timed out as it is to be penalised for a squint feed

Ali Price has the put in at a scrum during the Six Nations match between Scotland and France at BT Murrayfield in March. Picture: SNS/SRU
Ali Price has the put in at a scrum during the Six Nations match between Scotland and France at BT Murrayfield in March. Picture: SNS/SRU

World Rugby’s proposed law amendments which are intended to get rugby going safely again are, I assume, intended to be temporary, though I suppose that what is temporary may become permanent if it is seen to benefit the game. There may not be much chance of this happening: in New Zealand where play is about to resume soon, there is no intention of adopting these laws. Actually World Rugby has said they may be best applied in the amateur game. We’ll see.

Still they do offer at least one good laugh, which is welcome because we all need cheering up in these difficult times. The proposal that the time permitted at ruck or maul when the referee calls out “use it” should be reduced from five seconds to three is certainly amusing. How often have you seen referees enforce this five-seconds law? Most often the scrum-half, hearing the command, will look around surveying the landscape like one arriving in a foreign land before delicately putting the toe of his boot on the ball and nudging it to a safe haven before picking it up in leisurely fashion. Between the call of “use it” and the scrum-half’s reluctant obedience an athlete much slower than Usain Bolt could have run the full 100 metres. It is as rare for any scrum-half to be whistled up as it is for him to be penalised for a squint feed at the scrum, and that is so unusual that a cartoonist might portray Ali Price as “The last man to be punished for a squint feed in Cardiff”.

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Some will welcome the temporary dispensation on resetting a scrum that has collapsed, though it seems rather futile. If the intention is to reduce the risk of infection from the virus, I can’t see that having one or two fewer scrums in a match is likely to make much difference. Certainly – setting aside for the moment the Covid-19 troubles – the scrum is at present unsatisfactory. Yet it is also an essential part of the game. It seems to me that it is the time now required to set up a scrum that is the problem, this coupled with the lengthy tutorials referees so often embark on.

As I remarked last week after watching film of international matches in the amateur days, scrums used to be set up quickly and without fuss and the ball was also quickly released.

This impression was confirmed by an email I received the other day from a Scottish internationalist of the 1980s. He had watched the Scotland-Wales match of 1982 with his son-in-law who, familiar only (I assume) with the modern game, had been agreeably surprised by the speed with which the ball was moved away from the scrum. Some things were indeed done better in the amateur days.

What is wrong with the scrum today is quite simple. It is no longer used to get the ball quickly away from the 16 players engaged in the scrum, and into space. Yet a simple law amendment might correct this. It would read: no player engaged in the scrum may handle the ball until it has been handled by a player not engaged in the scrum.

World Rugby’s temporary law would replace a reset scrum with a free-kick as a means of restarting the game. Fair enough, but unfortunately very little use is made of free-kicks. It is common to see a player take a quick tap and then drive straight at an opponent in order to set up a ruck and allow his team to embark on a succession of dreary pick-and-go phases, the most boring sort of rugby imaginable. In 1984 Scotland scored a try from a free-kick against Wales with a planned move involving two changes of direction. A free-kick should be used to do the unexpected. It is easy to defend the predictable, more difficult to defend against the unpredictable. But most free-kicks are wasted, just as they are in football.

Still we are at least edging towards a return of rugby in perhaps a couple of months, though it is still doubtful whether we can look forward to a normal season. Equally doubtful is the long-term future, the question being whether, even after the virus has eased or an effective vaccine is available, rugby can resume in the same way in what seem likely to be dire economic conditions. Travel may become more difficult and more expensive. Will travel for thousands of fans be discouraged? Will professional clubs not owned by their national Union go bust? Will we here in Scotland still think national leagues in the amateur game make good sense, or may it be thought better to re-organise leagues on a local basis to cut down on travel and cost? It may well take four or five years before the game adjusts to the new reality of life after the virus.

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