Scrums are a blight on the game
April 21, 2010
Yet another Premiership scrum ends in a mess during Bath's clash with Sale last weekend © Getty Images
So, they've sorted out the breakdown - now for the scrum.
The RFU wish it to be known that they were not called to a 'summit' by Premiership Rugby as reported in the Daily Telegraph. They point out that the February meeting I referred to in my last column was always scheduled as part of their ongoing dialogue with the Guinness Premiership Clubs and that the refereeing of the breakdown was on their agenda too. What a relief! The thought of Mark McCafferty controlling the way the game is played was a genuine worry.
The most important thing is that it has made a real difference and we are immediately seeing more tries and much more running rugby. So all credit to the RFU - even Lawrence Dallaglio is patting them on the back - they have taken decisive action and the game is suddenly much more positive and vibrant which augurs well as all the major competitions come to a climax. And it was all so simple. It is now obvious that the referees are on the side of the tackled player rather than the tackler.
One of the immediate side effects is that we are seeing less aerial ping-pong. Everybody hates it but when you have slow ball and nowhere to go it is the safety net option. There will always be a certain amount of kicking for position but, contrary to what we were beginning to believe, modern players and coaches do, after all, prefer to attack with the ball in hand if possible.
So, the IRB (who have been painfully slow to act themselves) can drop that down the agenda when they hold their conference on 'Global Playing Trends' in Dublin next month.
Scrums are now the biggest blight on the game and it is quite clear that the 'crouch, touch, pause, engage' directive introduced by the IRB in 2007 is not working. It was brought in to improve safety by reducing the likelihood of the scrum collapsing but, like so many of the IRB's well meaning initiatives it was full of good intentions but found wanting in practice.
Nobody still actively coaching in this area has more experience than Phil Keith-Roach who was responsible for England's outstanding scrummaging at the 2003 World Cup and he believes the directive is actually 'putting lives at risk' because it makes the initial hit more important rather than de-powering the engagement process. He argues that virtually all teams ignore the spirit of the instructions partly because referees rush the sequence so that there is no gap between 'pause' and 'engage.' If a prop does pause he will be beaten to the 'hit' and there is no way he can recover.
Whatever the reason, the scrum is simply not serving the purpose intended. 'The purpose of the scrum is to restart play, safely, and fairly after a minor infringement or a stoppage,' according to the law book but that is just not happening. Figures from the Six Nations are not yet available but the statistics from week two of the autumn internationals, where there were six matches between most of the world's top rugby playing nations, are staggering.
There were a total of 98 scrums. Sixty four had to be reset (many because there was a collapse) seven ended in free kicks and seven in full penalties. As a result, 80% of scrums therefore failed in their role of restarting the game. That is nothing short of catastrophic.
And it is the same or even worse at lower levels. In my role as MD of London Welsh I have watched a lot of Championship rugby this season and there has not been one referee who has been able to sort out the scrum. It is a constant source of frustration to players and coaches alike and, too often, it decides games.
The easy option is to penalise somebody - it doesn't matter who, just anybody - and preferably do it with great authority as if you are absolutely certain you have no doubt that you have identified the culprit correctly so you end up with gratuitous penalties gifting a team three points.
Most problems revolve around the engagement, as Keith-Roach has identified, but referees have obviously been instructed to penalise rather than try to sort out the problems in the first few scrums so that the game can then continue without being blighted by continual collapsing.
They seem to forget that front-rows are not inanimate scrummaging machines. There is always going to be a bit of sideways and upwards or downwards movement because you are not pushing against a metal structure that will not bend. If they are really that worried about safety the obvious solution is to get the front-rows to bind first with absolutely no pressure from behind and only when the scrum is absolutely still and stable allow the forwards to push. But that would take away a huge part of the game. Front rows want to compete.
The present protocol is demonstrably not working so there has to be a change. We cannot go back to a situation where the front-rows 'sorted it out for themselves' - although that is what most would prefer - but we do need to get back to the basic tenet 'the purpose of the scrum is to restart play quickly, safely and fairly after a minor infringement or stoppage.' The emphasis should be on speed and safety; by the very nature of front-rows they will never be fair!
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to ESPNscrum.com