John Jeffrey on his seat at rugby’s top table

WHO is the most powerful Scot in world rugby? It’s an intriguing question and the answer lies not in Murrayfield but well to the west in Dublin, where the International Rugby Board (IRB) rules over the rugby fraternity (and sorority), saints and sinners alike.
As chairman of the IRB's rugby committee, John Jeffrey's first task was to announce the worldwide roll-out of new scrum protocols. Picture: SNSAs chairman of the IRB's rugby committee, John Jeffrey's first task was to announce the worldwide roll-out of new scrum protocols. Picture: SNS
As chairman of the IRB's rugby committee, John Jeffrey's first task was to announce the worldwide roll-out of new scrum protocols. Picture: SNS

It rather got lost in all the hullabaloo at Old Trafford but last Wednesday the IRB Council held one of their biannual meetings at which Kelso’s finest, former Scotland flanker John Jeffrey, was appointed chairman of the rugby committee. He had been doing the job on an interim basis ever since the former All Blacks skipper Graham Mourie stepped down in March. Jeffrey is already chairman of the match officials selection committee, which does what it says on the tin, deciding which referees get to blow which Test match.

After years spent shouting in outer space Scotland finally have a voice at the top table of the game because every decision concerning the actual playing/officiating of rugby gets scrutinised by Jeffrey and his colleagues.

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“That was the reason that I was sent to the IRB as one of Scotland’s representatives in the first place,” says Jeffrey from his Borders farm. “It’s a job done as far as I am concerned and hopefully Mark Dodson [SRU chief executive] will be pleased. We [Scotland] need to have a voice on these sort of committees.

“The rugby committee is stacked with former players like David Pickering, Bill Beaumont, Agustin Pichot and Fabien Pelous, who is the former players’ representative, so it’s great. If there was one committee I would have chosen to join it’s this one, so I am really chuffed.”

Jeffrey’s first task last week was to announce the worldwide roll-out of new scrum protocols which have been trialled at the Pacific Nations Cup over the last few months. The new protocol was the result of an IRB-funded study by the University of Bath into the forces that take place during the crucial engagement phase of the scrum. In all, something like 25 different scrums of all different shapes and sizes were tested under live conditions.

Under current laws the scrums are all won or lost on the hit. If a prop loses the hit he will lose the scrum so, playing the percentages, he might as well go to ground and hope that the referee offers him a chance to make amends in a reset. Although Super Rugby seems to cope reasonably well, the scrum has blighted the professional game in Europe, most notably when Scotland faced Wales in the Six Nations where, of the 12 scrums in the match, only three went the distance and delivered the ball. England were no happier with the set piece in Cardiff.

Even in a good match something like 60 per cent of all scrums will collapse and every reset takes about one minute. When Scotland drew 15-15 with England in 2010 the then England coach Martin Johnson mused: “What we had at Murrayfield was a scrum with a game of rugby trying to break out.” Something had to be done because rugby was fast alienating the wider public who have fuelled the recent growth in the sport.

The IRB trialled new engagement protocols and the eggheads at Bath University insist that they will reduce the impact on engagement by an average of 25 per cent. It sound good news and when scrum engagements in the international game peak at a force of 16,500 newtons (for comparison’s sake a 3,000-newton punch will leave you flat on the floor with your brains scrambled) it is clear that some disarmament was overdue.

Under the new protocols, props will “bind” on each other before the crucial engagement call, which means that the distance at which the front rows get to charge into the opposition like a couple of rutting stags is shorter, and therefore safer.

“It’s important to know that we have done this for player welfare primarily but if it has a positive impact on the completion of the set scrum then so much the better,” says Jeffrey.

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“The trials in the Pacific Union Cup were at second, rather than first-tier level so we have yet to see what happens when they are introduced at the top end of the game. As far as I can see there is no real problem with the scrum in what we call the community game, the problems occur at the elite level where we only get a 40 per cent completion rate.

“I don’t have the figures to hand but the new ‘bind’ protocol significantly improved the completion rate for scrums in our Pacific Nations trials. We are rolling out the new protocol from the beginning of next season. The irony behind the whole thing is that if you look at the law book the ‘hit’ is already illegal because you are not allowed to push before the ball comes in.”

It is not the only law that is regularly flouted and BBC commentator Brian Moore gets apoplectic every time a scrum-half feeds the ball into the scrum squint, which is every time a scrum-half feeds the ball into the scrum.

“As part of the new process and the new global protocols the referees will be asked to referee by the book so the scrum must be stationary before the ball goes in and if the feed is squint that will be penalised,” counters Jeffrey, and not before time some will say. A straight feed might even encourage the old hooker’s art of actually striking for the ball.

It is a little early to hang out the bunting because we have gnawed on this bone before. The “touch” call was introduced in 2007 to do exactly the same thing, narrow the gap between scrums, not that it worked, and once more the referees are being asked to revise their instructions at the scrum, which have already seen multiple variations tried, tested and discarded.

Various permutations of “crouch…touch…pause…hold…set…bind…engage” have all been used and usually more than once. From 1 August the new sequence will be: “crouch…bind…set” but no one is suggesting that this will be an end to it. The process is on-going and Jeffrey makes it clear that Dublin will continue to sponsor working parties and workshops looking into the set scrum as the authorities strive to make the game safer and a better spectacle at the same time. However he does highlight one other uncomfortable fact.

“We have to admit that there is a big divide in scrum outcomes between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere where they experience far fewer problems,” says Jeffrey. “In Europe we tend to use the scrum as a vehicle to milk penalties whereas in Super Rugby especially they look at the scrum simply as a mechanism to restart the game and they score a lot of tries from it as a result.

“We have already spoken to the Six Nations coaches and ultimately there has to be some sort of buy-in about this, a lack of cynicism. We need a buy-in from everyone involved, coaches, players and referees, for this new protocol to work.”

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If John Jeffrey can help wipe out the cynicism, cheating and conniving that blight the professional scrum he won’t just be the most important Scot in world rugby, he’ll be hailed as the man who saved the sport from scrummaging itself into oblivion.

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