The IRB’s new scrum laws were used for the first time at international level in the first Bledisloe Cup test and to say they created more problems than they solved would be an understatement.
For those not up with the changes, the old referee’s call of “crouch, touch, engage” has been replaced with a new call of “crouch, bind, set” and a new scrimmaging motion that sees props bind with their outside arm in advance of the scrum being set. In addition it is now upto to the referee to direct the scrum half when to feed the scrum and to penalize the attacking team if the feed is not straight.
The laws have been brought in ostensibly to reduce the collision that arises upon the set of the scrum with a view to reducing the number of scrum collapses. The move to police the feed of the scrum has been introduced to allow for more of a contest between the hookers for the strike of the ball.
I know the rules are new but the evidence of the first two internationals under the rules suggests that more tinkering is needed rather than less. The fact is that there was no material change in the number of penalties, both short arm and full arm, at scrum time nor did it reduce the number of scrum collapses.
Indeed if anything the new approach led to a scrappier series of scrums, there were two reasons that I could see for this:
- The fact that the hit as the scrum sets is more restrained seems to have led to a process where the hit occurs and then a secondary push comes on which is just as destablising as the old original hit of the scrum. Scrums are about domination at the hit or the drive through effort so no change to the law is going to stop one side getting over the top of the other at or immediately after contact. Rather this change to the law seems to have made the scrums flat footed at the contact which means the first team to press with a secondary effort still dominates and in fact ends up dominating faster which pushes the scrums down.
- The focus on the feed of the scrum by the scrum half and, particularly, whether the feed is straight is admirable but rather than leading to more contests at scrum time seems to simply be leading to short arm and , eventually, long arm penalties for the scurrilous act of not feeding the ball straight. Proponents of the law will say that there was a tight head scrum win in the Bledisloe test match but that was a scrum in which the feed went through the tunnel and out under the blindside flanker’s legs One could hardly say that was a tighthead win arising from the new laws.
Scrums are an integral part of the game and there are going to be collapses. Tinkering with the laws in this way, on the early evidence, seems to have done nothing to restrain the referee from the need to give penalties nor did not stop the need for scrums to be reset.
As a rugby fan and, particularly, a fan of the forward aspects of the game I want to see contest at scrum time. I do not believe that the changes to the rules recently introduced lead to an increase in that contest nor do I see how that could happen with a softening of the hit upon the setting of the scrum.
I am prepared to give the laws the benefit of the doubt at the moment but if we see a further series of test matches that have the same issues at scrum time, I have no doubt we will again be seeing changes in the scrummaging rules. One can only hope the IRB will simplify the rules: scrummaging is a science but the rules around scrummaging do not need to so complicated so as to make the scrums less of a contest whilst not reducing the number of stoppages arising from scrums.