Edinburgh have made a good start to their European campaign, Glasgow a bad one. The reason is the same in both cases.
Edinburgh’s forward power has allowed them to dominate, the front row of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and Willem Nel maintaining their fine World Cup form. Glasgow were battered by Northampton up front, retreating in the set scrum and unable to check their opponents’ driving maul. In the first half Ryan Grant at loose head had a dreadful time, going to ground, being penalised and then yellow-carded.
Of course this comparison between the European fortunes of the two Scottish clubs is scarcely fair. Northampton, even without two or three English internationalists, are much stronger than Edinburgh’s victims, Agen and Grenoble. Glasgow would doubtless have seen them off, and Edinburgh would probably have lost to Northampton.
What is relevant is that all three matches demonstrate yet again the importance of a dominant scrum. This has always been the case, but, for disturbing reasons, it is all the more so now – especially in the northern hemisphere.
Referees apply the law. Teams play to get the benefit of the law. So if you have a dominant scrum, you will win penalties and, quite often, penalty tries. If your scrum is weaker than the opposition’s, there is almost nothing you can do lawfully to prevent this. You are penalised for not being as strong as your opponents.
In any particular match, supporters of the side with the dominant scrum will see nothing wrong with this. They are happy to see their team win a penalty. It’s regarded as a significant achievement, which is why you see three-quarters dashing in to congratulate their props and hooker.
Yet, viewed objectively, it’s unsatisfactory. The scrum is intended, like the line-out, to be a means of bringing the ball back into play after a minor offence like a knock-on or forward pass, or after the ball being deemed unplayable at the tackle point. Now, if you have the weaker scrum, a knock-on in your own half is likely to cost you three points. This is a bit harsh.
Some suggest that scrum offences should incur a free-kick rather than a penalty. Some already do of course. Putting the ball in squint is a free-kick offence – not that referees often bother about it. This seems sensible at first sight. After all a prop is usually penalised not because he has deliberately offended, but because his immediate opponent has made things so unpleasant for him that he can no longer scrummage lawfully. That seemed to be the case with Ryan Grant against Northampton.
Sadly, however, such a change would probably fall victim to another law – the Law of Unintended Consequences. Players will offend more readily if the punishment is only a free-kick – all the more readily because so few teams make much use of free-kicks.
So there is no easy answer. Forbid teams to hold the ball in the scrum as they advance forward (in the hope of winning a penalty) and you rule out the pushover try, which requires skill as well as power and has been a part of the game as long as I remember.
I have only two suggestions to offer. The first is that penalty kicks at goal should be taken by drop-kicks rather than place-kicks. This might make seeking to win a scrum penalty in order to kick for goal marginally less attractive. (Even if it didn’t, it would speed the game up. Some kickers take an inordinately long time to line up a kick at goal.)
The second suggestion is perhaps hopelessly idealistic: That coaches should embrace the idea that quick, clean scrum ball is the best attacking ball you can have. Get the ball out of the scrum and away before the opposition back-row have their heads up and there is more space on the field for your backs. Some hope? Well, maybe we need a stand-off like the great Barry John who would tell his forwards to give him the ball and leave the rest to him.