Rugby’s collapsing scrum problem

What a mess the scrum is in at International level in Rugby Union.

The scrum, at the highest level at least, is nothing short of a bad joke: currently, 60% of all scrums collapse in top-level internationals and 40% of scrums have to be reset. In addition, the average time to complete a scrum is just under a minute, which adds up to an awful lot of watching 16 huge men in a pile on the floor.

England coach Martin Johnson called last year’s Six Nations match between England and Scotland at Murrayfield “a game of rugby trying to break out between scrums”. And when BBC pundit Brian Moore, a former hooker who won 64 international caps, is so often moved to admit he hasn’t got a clue what’s going on at scrum-time, you know you’ve got a problem.

I met the Saracens hooker Ethienne Reynecke recently, and he confirmed that the hit is crucial these days, the whole scrum is far more intense than even 5-10 years ago, and that neither hooker gets to strike at the ball – such is the pressure that there’s simply no chance to lift one foot off the ground.

I recommend the 5 min video discussion in the blog posting below. In it Kingsley Jones (former Wales flanker, current head coach at Sale) has some sensible suggestions about how to change the law to produce what everyone wants to see. There’s a scripted excerpt below, but it makes a lot more sense in the vid.

Tackling the scrum
Ben Dirs Blog
30 January 2011

KJ: The solution is simple. The laws are contradictory at the moment – Law 20.1 states that the scrum must be square and stationary in line with the touchline and over the mark before the ball can be introduced. Law 20.5 then states the ball must be introduced immediately on the front rows’ engagement or when the referee instructs the scrum-half to do so.

So just put a line through the first part of Law 20.5 – the part where it says the ball must be introduced immediately on the front rows’ engagement – because it’s causing confusion for everyone.

Do that and we will have, like we used to have, a pushing contest and a striking contest once the scrum is stable over the mark. The referee can now manage to look at who’s square, who’s binding, who’s on-side or off-side and whether the ball is introduced correctly.

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  • Enrique Rodriguez  On February 2, 2011 at 2:18 am

    First of all, my full appreciation and respect for all comments and authors looking at solving this “Universal” dilemma of rugby at all levels. This problem/disease is more complex than it appears because it has been let fester for long time (+ or – 15 years)

    Therefore, a good analysis of the (shall I call it: degradation of the scrum) is absolutely necessary, an audit is in order because every country does things differently and some provinces/clubs have different techniques for it. No person or sector in particular is at fault, nevertheless the solution must be holistic, involving administrators, referees, coaches and players (job lot, which is likely to provide a long term solution).

    A group of rugby enthusiasts and myself for some time have been working in a “Scrum Paper” with the objective of addressing all these problems (big and small). The rules wont change in a hurry, not at least before the RWC, otherwise it might be unfair on some teams, players and coaches. Time for adaptation to new rules is vital!

    We are on our way formulating “proposed changes” but unfortunately am unable to be specific or to publish my proposed solutions just yet. However, must say I’m extremely happy with the soul searching is taking place at the moment because it is forcing all of us that love rugby and the scrum to look in depth into every nook and cranny inside it, wanting to find “the magic solution”

    Nevertheless, there is no magic (silver bullet) here but a combination of clynical measures to redress everything in it and around it! Just in case for the younger readers: I’ve played rugby for 22 years (42 test matches) and packed down more than 1.000.000 scrums in my life, I can also say: I know the beast and am still here!

    Until next time,

    Kind regards,
    tOPO (from Sydney)

    • JP  On February 2, 2011 at 10:19 am

      Hey, great to have a comment from an international player 🙂

      So with your experience, when you watch all these modern scrums collapse on TV, do *you* know what’s going on, which side is responsible for bringing it down? I struggle to tell (but I never played in the scrum), and the referees don’t seem to have much of a clue either.

  • Wembley71  On February 2, 2011 at 10:36 am

    The problem of the scrum is that it is pointless. It allows average sides to slow and kill a game. It is not interesting to watch. It is not safe to play, and is responsible for the majority of serious injuries in rugby at all levels. It is also impossible to police, given that in any scrum at any time there are never less than 10 offences being comitted.

    It also means that the local game is often nothing like the professional game, because English club sides cannot play with contested scrums unless there is a reserve trained front row on the bench. First team level touchlines are awash with props playing 15 minutes while the second team scrums go untested.

    Union’s obsession is its competition for possession, but in practice so few scrums are won against the head and feed that there IS no competition.

    So. To recap. It’s boring to watch. It allows poor teams to kill a game. It is dangerous. It is impossible to referee accurately or consistently. It makes the elite game different to the community game. And it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, i.e. provide a competition for possession.

    The answer is simple, of course. Play rugby league, where success is determined by your ability to play rugby (catch, pass, tackle, run good lines), not by your ability to lumber slowly from setpiece to setpiece and stick your finger in the loose-head’s eye in such a way that the official doesn’t notice.

  • Enrique Rodriguez  On February 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Hello All,

    Happy to continue the philosophical clarifications on like-dislikes. Sports are like a wife/husband they come as a package (of course with time some parts may deteriorate, others may be modified bit by bit). Rugby, a game of more than 200 years, comes with scrums, rucks, lineouts mauls, conversions, kick offs, etc. Has anyone mislead you on this? Don’t think so!

    On passing quality judgement about a particular scrum from watching on TV or even the grand stand is very difficult, I have good eyes, yet I need to be 2 or 3 metres from the scrum to do a proper and microscopic evaluation. The scrum is a multi-layered structure where every position has its own intricacies, you got to look at it like a building, when walking pass you don’t know if the foundations are inadequate, you only do when it collapses unfortunately. The best analogy/example I use for the scrum: is an orchestra where every instrument plays differently albeit to one script following one conductor.

    Talk soon, tOPO

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