The world’s governing body has made a determined effort to establish a semblance of uniformity at the game’s signature set-piece but the more deliberate engagement favoured of late hasn’t eradicated the problems.
Resets, collapses, penalties and free kicks were endemic in the four internationals played in Britain and Ireland last weekend, confounding IRB stats which suggest the new approach has met with success in the southern hemisphere.
Ireland were heavily penalised by Kiwi referee Keith Brown’s interpretation of the scrum against Samoa but the All Blacks, too, coughed up cheap penalties in their head-to-head engagements in an otherwise routine win at Murrayfield.
“Just looking at all the games at the moment, everyone is suffering the same problem,” said All Black forwards coach Steve Hansen. “The people that are getting the benefit of the doubt are the people putting the ball in (the scrum). All you really want from a referee is consistency. As long as you get that you can live with it.”
The uncertainty surrounding the scrum apart, there are few areas of concern from the New Zealanders as they approach the end of what, with two games to play, is on course to be another clean sweep of European opposition. Whatever about the players and coaches, that record or Saturday’s opposition were not exactly occupying many minds among the visiting press corps yesterday morning when Hansen started his day off with a 15-minute chat.
Their thoughts are concentrated on further horizons. So are Graham Henry’s. Gone are the days when the head coach thinks little of making 15 changes from one match to the next at this time of year but the tour is still very much one being undertaken with next year’s World Cup in mind.
The All Blacks have maintained a core of seven regular starters for their three fixtures thus far while juggling their frightening resources in other areas. Most of the conversation yesterday alighted on the development of some of those up-and-comers. Henry will name his latest 15 early this morning and the difficulty in choosing, for example, two centres from the likes of Sonny Bill Williams, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu is emblematic of the enviable choices that must be made.
Hansen has been assistant coach to the national side since 2004 and realises tough decisions lie ahead concerning a number of players he has come to know well. “It is the same in life, I guess, because it is difficult but if it is the right thing for the team then you have to do it. Thirty-three or 35 don’t fit into 30 and when you are on tour 30 doesn’t fit into 22 so there will always be someone disappointed. You want them to be disappointed because if they aren’t then it doesn’t mean anything to them. It isn’t easy but it is just part and parcel of being a coach but there is no problem if you do it with honesty and integrity.”
Declan Kidney has made a similar attempt to expand Ireland’s base of players but the 2009 Grand Slam champions remain unavoidably vulnerable to the realities of a smaller pool of talent.
Paul O’Connell’s absence is the most obvious example of that.
“He’s a huge loss,” Hansen agreed. “He’s the go-to man at line-out time and definitely the leader in the forward pack. If you took Richie McCaw out of our side, you would lose something. In saying that, it’s a chance for someone else and they’ll want to step up and do the job.”