Let’s hope IRB are set to engage on scrum chaos

Don’t hold your breath or count your chickens prematurely, but at last there seems to be a possibility that the IRB will address the problems of the set scrum, problems which, admittedly, are far more in evidence at the top level of the game than at lower ones.

There has been a groundswell of demand for reform. The former England and Lions hooker, Brian Moore, now a TV pundit and newspaper columnist, has consistently articulated the dissatisfaction felt by so many of us who follow and love the game. The decision of England’s forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, to offer an open criticism of the way that Steve Walsh refereed the scrum in the Wales-England match may be seen as the complaints of a bad loser; nevertheless, it’s no bad thing that the issue has been publicly aired in this way. Indeed, England have now lodged an official complaint. Some have suggested that Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan should have been equally open in addressing Craig Joubert’s refereeing of the scrum in the Scotland-Wales match.

Now one could say much about inconsistent refereeing, and about the unwillingness of top-flight referees to apply the law which still requires that the ball be put into the scrum straight. No doubt some referees manage the scrum better than others, and no doubt all manage it better in some matches than in other ones.

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No doubt, also, that front-row forwards play the referee and hope to get away with transgressions. That’s aye been the case, and it would be foolish to pretend that the hard men in the front row were all law-abiding and good as gold in the past. They certainly were not and some of them were more thuggish and vicious than their counterparts today.

No matter; the scrum today is profoundly unsatisfactory. It is intended to be the means of restarting play after minor infringements, such as a forward pass, knock-on, accidental offside or the failure of either side to recycle the ball after a tackle. The idea is simple. The scrum-half inserts the ball. One side hooks it, and the ball emerges from the back of the scrum, allowing play to resume.

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That’s the idea or intention. It’s not what happens today. There were 237 scrums in the Six Nations tournament, 73 resulted in a penalty and, in more than 30, a free kick was awarded even before the ball was put in. Clean heels were rare. The pressure of the scrum is now such that it is unusual for the scrum-half to get the ball and pass it to his fly-half. More often, the No 8 picks up and charges into a tackle, setting up a ruck.

Moore, if I understand him rightly, says all that is needed is to apply the laws as they stand, the most important of which is that the ball should be put in straight. He’s surely right on this point. It’s bizarre that referees will blow the whistle when the ball isn’t thrown straight at the line-out, but ignore squint put-ins at the scrum.

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Yet I’m doubtful if the application of the laws as they stand would solve the problem, though it would surely be a step towards doing so. There would still be the problem of the engagement. Keeping the scrums apart, with the crouch-touch-set routine, means that each scrum tries to win what has come to be called “the hit” – though this is a term that finds no place in the Law. Consequently, we get free kicks given against one side for “early engagement”, and it is possible for the other side to provoke this “early engagement” by holding back for a few seconds.

“The hit”, coupled with the squint put-in, has more or less taken hooking out of the game, as each side tries to shove the other backwards. Instead of striking, for the ball the hooker has become a shover, and his props, no longer required to support him as he strikes, seek to disrupt the opposition. The first requirement is, I think, to get rid of “the hit”, and the only way I can see of achieving this is to have the two front rows go down in position against each other before the other forwards are permitted to pack down. Then, as soon as the scrum is stationary, have the scrum-half put the ball in straight. Incidentally, the decision some years ago to downgrade the punishment for a squint put-in from a penalty to a free kick should be reversed. A squint put-in is not a technical infringement; it is an attempt to gain an unfair advantage – in other words, cheating.

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Scrum-halves today doubtless don’t think they are cheating – why should they when the referee evidently doesn’t care how they feed the scrum? Nevertheless, it is.

What is certain is that the IRB will be failing in their duty if they don’t address the problem of the scrum. As things are now, it is distorting and damaging the game. It means that too many matches are too greatly influenced by the referee’s interpretation of the present laws – an interpretation that is inconsistent and often seems wilful. This threatens the game’s integrity.

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Moreover, the scrum has become a terrible bore. How many spectators groan when they see a scrum forming?