Nick Cain: Not pausing for a second, the scrum is still a mess

Collapsed ScrumThe scrum is under sustained attack in the modern game with barely a match at elite level where the referee does not penalise half the engagements, awarding either free-kicks or full penalties. Worse, many of those refereeing decisions are random, arrived at through guesswork rather than expert knowledge of how the scrum works. This means that one of the great contests within the game is gradually but inexorably being reduced to a farce, and sometimes you wonder whether there isn’t a conspiracy deep within the IRB, among individuals with influence over its hopeless laws committee, to reduce the Rugby Union scrum to the shambling no-contest that exists in Rugby League.
Far-fetched? If you look at Australia’s lamentable scrummaging record since Bob Dwyer temporarily fixed the problem during the early 1990s, and the clearly stated desire Down Under to bring the codes together, there are very good reasons for believing there are those who want to see the Rugby Union scrum sidelined. This is not a specific finger-pointing exercise, but an important adjunct is that Australian influence on the IRB has never been greater, with Brett Gosper installed as their new chief executive and, his Australian Rugby Union conterpart, John O’Neill, pulling strings as the most accomplished political puppet-master in the game.
This season the scrum farce has been highlighted by the IRB’s attempts to reduce the number of collapsed scrums or infringements by changing the engagement mantra from referees. Now, instead of the convoluted four stage ‘Crouch-Touch-Pause-Engage’, we have the marginally less convoluted three stage ‘Crouch-Touch-Set’. The result? It is exactly the same mess as it was before.
This week Phil Keith-Roach, the renowned England 2003 scrum guru whose Red Rose scrum dismantled the Wallaby pack in the Sydney World Cup final, told me that by far the best solution would be for the scrum engagement to return to the way it is still written in the law book. The two stage scrum he is talking about is for the packs to engage first, but not shove, and for the pushing contest to commence only as the scrum-half puts the ball in.  This ruling applied until the mid-1990s, after which the IRB tinkermen got to work, starting with a scrum directive to referees that the ball must be put in immediately the two packs have engaged.
collapsed scrum cartoonThis led to the referee, rather than the scrum-half, taking control of the put-in -– and, because of the new emphasis on the scrum being less of a contest and more a means to re-start the game, crooked feeds were tolerated despite being totally contrary to the scrum laws.
Keith-Roach explains: “The reason we smash in at the scrum, in what we call a ‘rolling hit’, is because of that directive. If we went back to the two part process, where the forwards engage first, but the scrum battle only starts with the put-in, we will get back to a great scrum contest with far fewer collapses.”
He argues that the new three-stage engagement comes up short of being a solution on a number of counts, and that it puts the scrum in a perilous position. “This is another diversion, but it is missing the point yet again. By the time another three years has gone by, and they are forced to admit they have got it wrong, the scrum could be extinct.”
However, Keith-Roach is not giving up the fight. He is adamant that even with the flawed scrum rulings in place at the moment, referees are in a position to make a big difference. “One of the issues is that referees are not ensuring that the front rows are engaging at the same height, and they are also calling the ‘Touch-Set’ sequence too close together. This means that there’s no time for the props to withdraw their hands and get their balance right before they engage, and there are countless unbalanced scrums with early hits, collapses, free-kicks etc”.
Keith-Roach says that the remedy is for referees to ensure that on the ‘Crouch’ both front rows come down to a similar height, and to explain that after the ‘Touch’ call he will wait until all hands are withdrawn, and the packs properly balanced, before he calls ‘Set’. The scrum specialist adds, “That way you will get discipline and control into the hit, and if someone goes early it will be obvious.”

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