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Nick Cain: Joubert shows refs can’t rule the scrum

Australia v New Zealand scrumBrett Gosper came up with some marketing waffle this week which illustrates how the International Rugby Board have earned a reputation for consistently stuffing-up the Laws of the game, with the scrum currently the biggest casualty. The IRB chief executive closed an air-brushed address on the state of the game with this message on the world governing body’s own TV magazine programme Total Rugby.

“As the sport is growing – and it is in leaps and bounds, whether Sevens or XVs – we need to engage more with the public. We have great products which reach out to the public, and the needle should be moving, from our point of view, from regulation to inspiration.”

A word of advice, Brett. Concentrate on the IRB getting the regulation aspect right and the inspiration will follow. Put the cart before the horse, as the IRB do consistently, and it won’t. The scrum is a case in point.

Last weekend we had referee Craig Joubert trying to get to grips with the new ‘crouch-bind-set’ scrum engagement, followed by the call ‘Yes nine’, as Australia and New Zealand locked horns in the opening match match of the Four Nations Championship.

The new engagement is, glory be, a belated attempt to turn the clock back to 2001 – i.e. before the IRB scrum tinkering began in earnest. By de-powering the ‘hit’, and forcing hookers to strike for the ball, we saw a huge improvement in the scrum contest and fewer collapses. There was also a tentative attempt by Joubert to enforce straight put-ins, and we even had an All Black try (Ben Smith’s second) from a strike against the head.

However, it is a half-way house, because the match also highlighted the continuing problems at the scrum caused by the governing body’s disastrous attempts at regulation over a decade.

By my count this is at least the fourth batch of engagement calls since the IRB’s flawed decision to put the referee in charge of setting the scrum. We have gone from the referee simply calling ‘engage’, as was the case on the 2001 Lions tour, to ‘crouch-hold-engage’, then in 2007 the absurd four stage ‘crouch-touch-pause-engage’, until last season we had ‘crouch-touch-set’.

Now we have the all-important ‘bind’ element, which has severely restricted the force of the hit and therefore made the scrum more of a pushing and hooking contest, and, for the moment, more stable.

joubert-printHowever, the malign legacy of the hit scrum is still there in two crucial areas. Judging by Joubert’s performance in Sydney, referees are still horribly inconsistent in enforcing a straight put-in, and the referee is still in control of the engagement.

Joubert, for instance, penalised Will Genia for a crooked feed at the first Wallaby scrum and then let the New Zealand scrum-half Aaron Smith get away with putting the ball into his second row immediately afterwards. Just before the half-hour Joubert gave both No.9s a stern lecture to put the ball in straight, but then failed to penalise either for squint feeds – and there were plenty– until he did them once each in the closing stages.

That is not good enough if the decade-long trend of not straight is to be eradicated, and it will take stronger leadership by Joel Jutge, the IRB referees’ manager, in dropping elite refs who will not enforce it than that shown by his Kiwi predecessor, Paddy O’Brien.

Before the 2007 World Cup I asked O’Brien to explain why the crooked feed was allowed consistently by referees when it contradicted the scrum laws. O’Brien’s response was to fudge the issue, saying it was difficult to police because, “one man’s straight is another man’s crooked”.

On another occasion he assured me that international panel referees had been instructed to penalise not straight, but actions did not match rhetoric and instead the problem became more intractable.

The solution is straightforward. Penalise anything that isn’t down the middle ruthlessly for two months and the adapt or die message will eventually get through to the generation of scrum-halves weened on squint put-ins. A yellow card for two crooked feeds, with no specialist replacement allowed on, should do the trick.

At the same time give the cadence of the scrum contest back to front row forwards and scrum-halves, and let referees like Joubert simply call ‘engage’ and then concentrate on infringements.

For the best part of a century before the IRB’s latest foul-up the conduct of the scrum was as follows. The ball was put in straight, the scrum-half and hooker of the pack with the put-in communicated either with a tap of the No.2’s hand, or a call, and the hooker invariably had to strike for the ball or lose it against-the-head. That left the referee to concentrate on technical illegalities such as not straight, pushing before the put-in, slipping of binds, collapsing, boring-in, or foot-up by the hooker.

Most hookers do not want a call of “Yes nine” from the referee telling the opposing pack when to time an eight-man shove. The whole point of having the put-in is that you know when you are going to signal your scrum-half and tap for the ball, synchronizing the put-in and the strike perfectly, and the opposition don’t – and they cannot afford to push early.

This season, following a £500,000 scrum survey over three years, Gosper and his IRB mates have come up with the ‘crouch-bind-set’ compromise. By insisting that props bind-up before they set, they have trumpeted that force on engagement will be reduced by 25 per cent, and that the scrum will therefore be safer and more stable.

As a statement of the bleeding obvious it takes some beating, and it is advice they have been getting for free from this quarter for more years than I care to count. Now all the IRB have to do is go the whole hog and return the scrum to the contest it was before they started their hair-brained experiment over a decade ago.

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