The East Terrace
IRB to introduce scrum lottery
James Stafford
January 10, 2012
Scrums are one of the most contentious issues in the modern game © Getty Images

The International Rugby Board believe they have finally solved the biggest blight of modern rugby football: the repeated resetting and collapsing of the scrum.

Recent seasons have seen ever increasing amounts of game time taken up with collapsed and reset scrummages; leading to complaints from players, officials, fans and broadcasters. Furthermore, coaches and players bemoan the apparent randomness of the decision to penalise teams at scrums.

Many observers feel referees tend to balance out decisions as the game goes on and award penalties back and forth to both sides as it is often unclear who is genuinely to blame for scrum infringements.

Taking inspiration from the commonly uttered phrase 'the scrum is a lottery' this season's Six Nations championship will see the introduction of computerised Lottery Scrum Machines™ to replace the current system of match officials holding a lottery in their own head.

If the system is deemed as a success it will be rolled out into all professional forms of rugby over the coming two seasons. The IRB claim it will take at least that long to produce enough machinery to cope with demand.

"In recent times," said IRB spokesperson Jim Manning, "The outcome of scrums has in most cases relied on the referee randomly blowing his whistle and pointing his arm in the direction of one team or the other. Whilst the referee may think he is being completely random, it's actually almost impossible for a human being to be truly random.

"There is always a pattern in decision making, even if one tries to actively avoid it. This led to some teams getting far too many penalties or free kicks in their favour. Our Lottery Scrum Machines™ end that unfair practice. Using advanced mathematics and computer programming the outcome of each scrum will be truly random and free kicks and penalties will be awarded in a completely neutral manner."

It is understood that, ultimately, increasing pressure from sponsors and broadcasters prompted the controversial and innovative move rather than complaints of players and coaches.

The 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand was the tipping point for sponsors with 50% of scrums in matches involving Tier 1 countries collapsing and 41% of scrums leading to some form of penalty or free kick. Interestingly, the figures for games between Tier 2 countries (such as Russia, Namibia, Georgia and Scotland) were just 19% and 17% accordingly.

The Lottery Scrum Machine™ will consist of a pitch side machine full of coloured balls and operated by a designated attractive female. When a scrum is awarded by the referee both teams will engage as per normal. However, the first key change is that the controversial touch, pause, engage call will no longer be used.

Both sides will engage in what is effectively a passive scrum. Once down the referee will signal the operator of the machine to press a big red button and withdraw a ball. The ball will then be held up to the crowd by the operator and will reveal whether the scrum should be a clean ball win for either side, a penalty to either side or a free kick to either side. Players and referee then act accordingly.

The IRB feel the new machines could add as much as ten minutes to ball in play time in the 2012 Six Nations. Unsurprisingly, rugby purists are up in arms about the move; particularly members of the Front Row Union.

"It's a disgrace," said one former international, who wished to remain anonymous. "For many people rugby IS the scrum. The idea it will effectively be removed is beyond the pale, it's making the game more like rugby league and less like rugby union. It'll make rugby less a game for people of all shapes and sizes and more a game for six foot plus robots.

"I was hoping the IRB would swing the other way and look to encourage more of a 'law of the jungle' approach. Basically, allowing players to punch, grab, poke, twist, snarl and whatever, as long as it allowed the ball to come back into play. You know, make it a man's game again."

Others are worried that the development is just the first of many to make the game more sanitised and less technical. The IRB have, however, furiously denied that if the experiment is a success it may be expanded to lineouts or even rucks and mauls.

Some unions such as the Australian and Irish, however, are more welcoming of the move. Australia in particular, who face tough domestic competition from rugby league - a form of rugby which effectively eschews scrums - are pushing for the inclusion of the machine in this year's Rugby Championship. The ARU also believe there are huge commercial opportunities around the new machines.

One official said it could lead to each scrum decision by sponsored. So as the balls are withdrawn from the machine a stadium and television announcer can say: "This random scrum decision is brought to you by Acme Credit Card..etc". This would bring in vital revenue for the game say ARU officials.

However, the IRB, when pressed, have refused to confirm if the machines will be totally random or will have built in bias in favour of teams like New Zealand or allow for the fact teams like Ireland are unable to produce scrummaging props and should be programmed accordingly.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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