The latest tweak to the scrum engagement sequence and the welcome decision to scrutinise the delivery of the scrum-half when feeding the scrum has already had a positive impact.
That, and the worrying fallout between the Anglo-French alliance and the Celtic-Italian brethren over the Heineken Cup, are the most intriguing developments in recent weeks. Tack on the lambasting of the IRFU’s approach to contract negotiations as articulated by Jonny Sexton in his new book and Brian O’Driscoll’s broadside at Warren Gatland over his Lions test omission, and you have plenty talking points.
The other big change in the officiating of the game comes in the form of increased powers for the Television Match Officials (TMOs) to work in tandem with referees to adjudicate on a wider range of issues.
Regular followers of the Pro12, the Rugby Championship and the Aviva Premiership will have noticed the increased regularity with which the referee now refers to the TMO while also having the facility to view all the footage being scrutinised by the video official in the production van, which are now replayed simultaneously on the big screen in the stadium.
Currently, Law 6 provides the opportunity for match officials to utilise the TMO to assist in adjudication of decisions when the team in possession has, or may have, touched the ball down in their opponents’ goal area and the officials are concerned about potential infringement in-goal.
The global trial in operation extends that jurisdiction. The TMO can now review potential acts of foul play and assist in the determination of sanctions for foul play.
He can also adjudicate on a knock on, a forward pass, foul play, a player in touch, offside, obstruction, tackling a player without the ball and a double movement in the act of scoring. The infringement must have occurred between the last restart of play (set piece, penalty/free-kick, kick-off or restart) and the touch down but not further back in play than two previous rucks and/or mauls.
By and large, the new system is working well but strangely it failed to influence the most talked-about incident in recent weeks — when Romain Poite incorrectly issued a yellow card to Springbok hooker Bismark du Plessis for an alleged no- arm tackle on New Zealand’s Dan Carter in their captivating Rugby Championship clash at Eden Park.
The fact that Carter was forced to leave the field immediately with a shoulder injury incurred the wrath of his teammates who quickly piled into the closest South Africans they could find.
Poite instructed the TMO to examine that footage for foul play, commenting that he had seen the tackle and had made a decision on that basis. Given du Plessis had used his hands in making a legitimate tackle, which was evident from the many replays on the big screen, it was incredible that Poite made the incorrect decision. Ironically, a further yellow card offence — this time correctly — by the same Springbok led to his sending off which impacted the game’s outcome. It offered a reminder that despite the welcome additional use of technology, human error can still play its part.
The other big change centres on the scrum, a phase that had deteriorated into a mess, despite countless attempts to clean up the engagement sequence in recent years. The development of sophisticated scrummage machines over the last 20 years had placed all the emphasis on hitting with maximum force on engagement with a decreasing level of technique coming into play.
The fact that scrum-halves worldwide could feed the ball into the second row with impunity meant that hookers no longer had to fulfil the role that defined their position. Consequently a key skill of the game was rendered redundant.
The prospect of securing a ball against the head was not only a rarity but not even seen as a viable option by the team contesting the put in.
Ironically, the only change in law introduced on a trial basis this season is a simple tweak in the engage sequence from “crouch, touch, set” to “crouch, bind, set”.
What is now happening is that the feed from the scrum-half is scrutinised with a forensic zeal by the referee who, in addition, also instructs him when to feed the ball by calling “yes 9”.
The logic behind this is that the referee will not allow a feed until he is happy the scrum is stable and therefore unlikely to collapse and require one of those endless sequences of resets that has become a blight on the game.
While we are only a couple of weeks into the new season and things are far from perfect, I am encouraged by the experiment and even amused by some of the protestations of some of the modern day front-rowers.
For recent Lions hooker Tom Youngs to declare that he now feels vulnerable having to lift his right leg to hook the ball is laughable. He is a hooker, after all.
Likewise the allegations in some quarters that the requirement to strike the ball creates a dangerous scenario as it leads to a contest where only seven forwards can push against eight is ridiculous. Firstly the action of striking for the ball takes less than a second if executed properly.
Secondly, how many scrums are now contested with seven forwards against eight due to the advent of yellow cards? In times past a lighter scrum with a better technique, timing and cohesion was always able to survive and prosper against bigger opponents.
Scrummage machines were introduced to aid the development of timing and uniformity, especially for representative teams who had nothing like the timeframe available in the professional era to train together and develop that key element of unity and understanding. Over time, scrummaging became all about the hit and how successful you were in shifting the scrummage machine in training. The fact that props now have to bind with their opposite number before the ball is fed, as it had been in times past, has reduced the force on impact by up to 30%.
This has increased the safety factor, which was a key element in the change, and hopefully over the course of their career, the wear and tear encountered by front row forwards.
The lost art of hooking is now a necessity for all No 2s and second rows who scrummage on the loose head side of the scrum are having to undergo a crash course in how to adjust their feet and bind in order to facilitate the delivery of quick channel one and a more controlled channel two ball. Who knows, even back row moves may now come back into fashion.