Following my retirement from playing rugby in October 2011 I’ve now gone through my first full winter of being able to watch significantly more of the Autumn Internationals and 6 Nations matches live.  One constant theme that keeps re-entering my train of thought throughout is how different from the lower tiers of the game and in a lot of areas, dysfunctional scrummaging at elite level has become.

As I neared retirement I was finding that some of the worst aspects of scrummaging were starting to find their way into the grass roots level and I believe that there is a danger that what was once a game “for all shapes and sizes” may be lost forever due to the way that the IRB continues to subtly change the nature of forward play, particularly at the scrum and to a lesser degree at the breakdown.

To order these thoughts in my own mind I’ve broken them down into the stages of a scrum:

The Pre-Bind and Set Up

This should be very simple.  The referee makes a mark on the floor, each team keeps about half a metre back from it (so they can touch at arms length) and as they form up and bind the referee should have a little look at how they are binding and setting their bodies, follow their eyelines into the opposition to see if they intend to do something silly on the engage.

The other thing to do is make sure both team get themselves into a ready position together and in a timely manner.  Nobody should stay stood up for a minute or so while the other team is down ready to go.  That’s just gamesmanship it has no place here.  At elite level players should know this and accept when they are told to be ready to get their arses into gear.

The Engage Sequence

This was a frustration to me even while playing, I appreciate that referees have to go through the sequence and are looking to ensure safety by checking things at each stage but when you’re hooking and you’ve set into a crouched position with five hefty blokes behind you beginning to apply forward pressure awaiting the final call, what you need is some consistency.

What I’ve found through the 6 Nations is that there is not only inconsistency between referees, but in the same game from scrum to scrum some referees will vary their timing.

What forwards need, to a large degree is for referees to be predictable and for them only to change the timing where there is a need i.e. they spot something that needs an eye kept on, if this is the case then change it and keep it the same for the rest of the game and for Gods sake don’t take 30 seconds between each step. Long pauses are a killer and rather predictably cause early engagements.

The actual engagement itself should be a big hit and then after the hit pressure held and the platform kept stable until the ball is put in.  There should be no early push by either side and if one side does push early they are attempting to gain an unfair advantage before the put in and therefore a penalty.

What this stable platform then allows is for the ref to have a quick look over the binds, check the tunnel to make sure there is no monkey business and step aside to allow the scrum half to get the ball in.

The Binding

As a spectator this is obvious to me but seems to be one of the things referees at elite level never seem to get right (although at grass roots, refs seem to be brilliant at spotting bind issues, perhaps due to the high proportion of retiree front row players that ref at these levels).

The laws are quite clear; binds should be full arm from the shoulder and onto the shirt.  This includes props who may be inclined to grab an arm in order to pull his/her opponent lower or twist them and also flankers who may be tempted to slip a little further away from the scrum to get a flyer.  If the binds are right before the ball comes in there is less chance of a dysfunctional scrum because pressure would be applied evenly through the correct channels i.e. Locks and flankers pushing onto their props and props pushing onto their opponents.

On the subject of this refs need to be far more aware of the tricks that props (and in some cases hookers will try), boring is the obvious as the shoulders will not be straight, but twisting, dipping and lifting need to be watched for too.

If at any point before the ref steps away he is not happy with the binds or body angles he should order a reset, players want to play and if they don’t get this right they won’t be allowed to play.

If a player gets it wrong second or third time after being told (either intentionally or unintentionally) then it should be free-kick then penalties thereafter (we are talking elite players here who do this for a living and therefore should be capable of listening to a ref and doing as they are told).

I’ve found that even at a lower level referees who take this stance get what they want more often than not.

The Put In

This is the area that is key in scrummaging.  It’s a very simple thing and I cannot understand why the IRB are unable to get their heads round it.

The scrum is a competition for the ball.  If the ball is not put in straight then it ceases to be a competition for the ball and simply becomes an opportunity for players to push against each other and tire each other out.

The other key reason to put the ball in straight is that the scrummage was designed with the fact that the hooker has to hook the ball in mind.  The mechanics of the scrum mean that if the ball is put in straight (and I avoid the word fed) the hooker has to take one foot off the ground and strike.

Flankers and locks have to have their feet in certain positions to allow the ball to travel back to the number 8 but they are not, if the hooker is doing his job, moving their feet around to heel the ball back and they are more able to engage in their own job of pushing.  The force of the push, because the hooker is now largely hanging onto the props by his arms and one leg should go evenly through both props and there should be no push through the middle forcing locks apart.

In this scenario the hooker is trusting the rest of the pack with his weight while he hooks, this means that the push will not happen until the ball is in thus ending this stupid rigmarole of the early push and messing about.  The reason, any hooker worth his salt will bollock his pack if they start pissing about before the ball is in and ruin his steady hooking platform.

Opponent hookers should also relish a steady platform because it means they have a great opportunity to strike against the head.  This was something I took pride in during my career because it allowed me to turn over ball after ball in an area of the game where people had largely forgotten to try and turn ball over.

What the IRB is doing by allowing/encouraging a bent put in and an early push is preventing the opposition from competing for the ball.  Imagine the furor at a ruck if you were not allowed to win turnover ball?  There would be Hell on, players like McCaw would be up in arms that their primary weapon is being taken away.

After The Put In

After watching an international game I am never wholly sure why referees make certain calls when scrums go wrong after the put in.  It appears they are working to some kind of formula which with some refs goes like:

Collapsed Scrum = Team with put in could not cope with pressure so collapsed it  on purpose

The truth is, if you are allowed to feed the ball at the put in (current state) or if you’ve won it fairly by hooking (ideal state) why would you then collapse the scrum, even if you are under pressure or going backwards?

You would only really collapse the scrum when you have the ball if you were likely to concede something or you are getting totally blitzed.  If anything in the modern elite game there is more incentive for the team without the put in to collapse the scrum or make the team with the ball pop up purely on the basis that with most refs you have a 75% chance of getting a penalty (or with Steve Walsh somewhere in the region of 98%).

What the IRB needs to do is train refs in scrummaging.  Get a few old front rows like Jason Leonard, Brian Moore, Phil Vickery etc to actually pack them down and show them how front rows behave and teach them the murky tactics (not sure they would be entirely willing to give up the tricks of the trade, but for the good of the game chaps?)

What this will do is educate referees to look at the aftermath of a collapse or pop up and with a reasonable degree of accuracy (after all nobody knows who is dicking about with who and what little personal battles are going on in there) identify the perpetrator and deal with them.

Things they should be doing/thinking:

Look at how the bodies fall, were they twisted in or out?
Look at the state of the binds as the bodies fall
Look at leg positions and directions as the scrum goes down
Was the scrum moving?
Which way was it moving?
Who benefited from it going down?

I’m not entirely sure if there is a school of thought amongst referees that front rows will collapse to get their opposite number penalised.  Most guys I know won’t do that, it’s not great safetywise and it also is an admission that you are unable to deal with your opponent.

If there is that sort of thing going on and a player manages to con a ref well fair enough, he’s a good cheat but if a ref has done his pre-work before a game (remember these are elites) he will notice that this player has a habit of doing X against Y during a match and be aware of it.

If a scrum pops up, this in my own experience is the result of somebody applying upward pressure.  Again, refs need to look at what was happening prior to the pop up to gain context but who, normally would be driving upwards?

If a prop or hooker is taken off their feet upward then without a doubt they have been illegally lifted, any other option is simply against the laws of physics.

If they go up and are on their feet then just stop and think why?  Who was dominant? Who had the ball? Look at the body positions as they rise, was a player deliberately forcing another up or was a player simply taking a way out after being bested by his opponent?

In general refs also need to look at the trends within the game as a whole, if one team when it suits them goes to ground but in the parts of the field where they need a stable platform get it without fail then why?

In Summary

Scrummaging is a competition for the ball.  For it to be so, the platform needs to be stable and the ball needs to go in straight.

As a side effect of this scrummages will become more stable and from many perspectives become more exciting.  It will be like a race, the competition only starting when the gun goes off (the ball entering the scrum).

There’ll be lots of permutations, hooker striking against the head, some teams opting for an 8 man shove to disrupt the hooker etc.

Surely this is far better than the current farce where the teams come together, push like mad, with binds all over the place, then the ball goes in, straight through the props legs to the number 8’s feet where he has to struggle to combine picking up because a lock has his feet in the way and pushing.  At the end of the day in that scenario, 16 players will have expended a lot of energy for a situation whereby the best outcome for the side with the put in is getting the ball away cleanly and for the opposition it’s a penalty or a free kick, with actually winning the ball being a tertiary consideration.

If scrummaging is done right at the top level it means that as the good practice flows down to grass roots then there will be no need for forwards to be one dimensional pushing and ball carrying machines and it leaves the game open for a slightly larger shaped player who knows how to keep a scrum steady and look after his hooker.

Last time I looked in the Law Book everything I’ve discussed here is already within the laws of the game and a number of the interpretations around the scrum in elite level rugby currently are either not within the laws or are just not mentioned at all.

Come on IRB, it’s seemingly obvious to everyone but you!