Donal Lenihan: Rugby chiefs must solve problem of sluggish scrums

A simple adjustment, made without fuss, for the betterment of the game. The decision last week to ban the practice of scoring a try against the pads surrounding the goalposts makes absolute sense.
Donal Lenihan: Rugby chiefs must solve problem of sluggish scrums
Ireland’s John Cooney and Ireland forwards at scrum time. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Ireland’s John Cooney and Ireland forwards at scrum time. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

A simple adjustment, made without fuss, for the betterment of the game. The decision last week to ban the practice of scoring a try against the pads surrounding the goalposts makes absolute sense.

It immediately dispenses with the boring practice of teams orchestrating a set of pick and drives that manoeuvre their way towards the padding surrounding one of the uprights.

For one, it is practically impossible for the defending team to stop and secondly it exploits a development taken in good faith for player safety reasons.

Originally, thin padding was introduced to protect players in the event of a head collision with the posts. Believe me, they were required.

I remember an early-season training session with UCC when the captain of the seconds noticed this large new second-row who had joined the club over the summer.

While warming up with a few laps of the pitch, the newly appointed junior captain jogged up excitedly beside me to enquire if I knew who the new guy was and, if so, if he was any good. “Yes, I know him. He’s a good player but he can be a bit awkward at times”.

Next thing we know, he runs straight into the goalposts and knocks himself out. “I see what you mean” came the reply.

Our new arrival could have done with the modern-day padding that night.

As commercialism and sponsorship progressed in the professional era, the post padding was seen as an additional outlet for sponsors and advertisers to exploit. Hence they became much thicker.

Now, in one fell swoop, the authorities have eliminated the practice of pad hunting with the ball having to be clearly in contact with the try line for a five-pointer to be awarded. And rightly so.

If only the law-makers could be equally reactive when to comes to tweaking other practices that have developed over time that have served to stifle the flow and continuity of the game.

The most urgent of these surround the scrum, specifically the amount of time it takes to progress from the point it’s awarded by the referee to when it exits via the No 8 or scrum-half.

The game has evolved for the better on so many fronts since turning professional but, unfortunately, the evolution of the scrum hasn’t served the spectacle well.

For me, the scrum is an integral part of the game, an aspect that clearly differentiates our sport from others. Far from depowering it, I have always recognised its value for what it is.

When South Africa smelt a vulnerability to England’s scrum in the World Cup final after losing their excellent tight-head prop Kyle Sinckler to injury, the Springboks went for the jugular and made their superiority count.

Sport is all about sniffing out opposition weaknesses and exploiting them.

The advent of specialist coaches in rugby means that each individual coach has to create a degree of sophistication around his specialist subject.

A modern-day scrum coach is lucky to get more than 45 minutes of specific hands-on training time allotted to him in a match week schedule. Therefore you have to make your craft sound like rocket science.

The most frustrating aspect surrounding the scrum at present revolves around the set-up.

It is far too pedantic, mechanical and laboured. The long, drawn-out process that accompanied the formation of the scrum is at the heart of the problem.

A survey carried out after the World Cup in Japan caught the authorities by surprise when it concluded that the ball was in play for only 36 minutes and four seconds out of a possible 80 during the knockout stages.

I have no doubt that the time taken in setting the scrum was a major contributor here.

The scrum is now formed in a series of choreographed stages once the hooker establishes his starting point when given the mark by the referee.

The tighthead prop takes his bind off the hooker in a very deliberate manner, followed in turn by the loosehead prop who does the same on the other side of the No 2.

The two-second rows then step forward, bind together and crouch with their knees on the ground, something that wouldn’t be countenanced years ago.

The two flankers follow suit once the second rows have locked themselves into position behind their respective props.

The final act sees the No 8 grab the shorts of the two locks before positioning himself in a crouched position from which he forcibly propels the second rows into the hit with the opposition scrum with his arms before positioning his head between the two locks.

If any stage of the process hasn’t been carried out to the hooker's satisfaction, or if he feels the opposition have secured a better position post engagement, he will engineer for the scrum to go down, starting the whole sequence all over again.

At one stage a few years ago, when all the emphasis was placed on the hit, the process became too dangerous.

This came about at a time when the majority of scrum practice took place against a new breed of scrummage machines that were able to record all kinds of information including the power of the impact. Machines took over and the practice of live scrummaging in training became all but extinct.

During that phase, the two front rows had to absorb enormous forces when the respective packs came together on impact.

That force had to diluted. The current sequence of “crouch, bind, set” as called by the referee has helped enormously in reducing the forces on the hooker and his two props.

Once the individual scrums have been formed, the referee has to oversee the above sequence of clearly defined steps with the crouch, the bind and the engagement.

He then has to make sure there is no movement prior to the ball being fed by the scrum-half.

The ball must be fed clearly to a centre line - which far too often isn’t policed - and the hooker on the side feeding the scrum is now required to strike for the ball. If anything goes wrong at this stage, the process usually begins all over again.

Referees are so relieved when the ball eventually makes its way to the back of the scrum, they tend to ignore everything else that is going on and just want the ball out as quickly as possible.

At times this comes to the detriment of the superior scrum with the referee roaring at the scrum-half to use the ball, despite the fact that the No 8 may well be looking to call a second drive, which he is perfectly entitled to do.

Just about the only thing that was better in the amateur game was the speed with which scrums were formed. Once the mark was given the respective packs were immediately placed in a race to set quickly in order to win the step into the scrum as one solid unit.

Not only was the process better but so were the skillsets of the hooker, No 8 and scrum-half.

A dominant scrum opened up all kinds of opportunities from backrow moves - a productive working relationship between the No’s 8 and 9 opened up all kinds of opportunities in attack.

We rarely had collapsed scrums, despite the fact that there were over twice as many in a game than there are now.

Inevitably the stronger scrum always won out in the end as you didn't have the capacity to change an entire tiring front row with 30 minutes to go.

The modern game averages only 12 scrums a match yet they take more time than ever before.

Given that space is at such a premium in the modern game it amazes me that, on the only occasion when 16 bodies are tied up in a very confined space, coaches and players aren’t more innovative off the base of the scrum in exploiting this.

Rugby in Australia faces huge competition for bums on seats with so many other professional sports available.

Aussie fans like to be entertained and have become so turned off by the time taken up by scrums there is talk at present that when their Super Rugby franchises play against each other in a domestic competition from July 4th their coaches, including former Munster coach Rob Penney at the Waratahs, are in favour of trialing a series of initiatives, including a time clock whereby scrums must be completed within a 30 second period.

It will be interesting to see how that develops if the initiative is introduced.

The other solution is for referees to respond quicker on a scrum collapse and award a free-kick immediately.

You’d be amazed how quickly the offending team will get their act together.

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