Time to engage the scrum debate

Any of us watching rugby over recent months will have noticed the scrum has become such a negative influence on the game.

I am not referring to the debacle that was the Irish scrum in Twickenham or the lack of Irish qualified props in the provinces but the length of time it takes up.

It was the biggest talking point following Munster’s last two games against Connacht and Leinster. But it was massively disruptive for the Six Nations too.

For every 100 scrums in the competition, there were 49 collapses, 33 resets and 39 penalties or free kicks. When Ireland played Scotland in Dublin there were 20 scrums producing eight collapses, seven resets and seven penalties or free kicks. It all took up more than 21 minutes of game time but I bet you hadn’t even noticed because it has become so common of late.

Throughout the Six Nations, 13 tries came from lineouts and 12 from turnover ball but only four off scrum possession.

Modern scrum coaching dictates that it’s all about the hit now. It’s commonly accepted that if you hit with 80% you only have to work 20% post-engagement and if you only hit 20% you must scrum at 80% to win the ball.

To win the hit, you need speed across the line when the ref calls engage. For speed you live on the fine line where you nearly fall over. Hookers are trained to restart the process if any player messes up which adds, on average, 56 seconds to set up two packs again.

What can we do to improve the current problem? We can learn from the southern hemisphere who are trying to address it in the Super Rugby competition.

Lyndon Bray SANZAR’s (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby) referees manager has taken the issue on.

He feels referees have to act reactively so he works with them and the 15 teams in the Super 15, all of whom want to be less penalised. He contacts the teams each week, sometimes with suggestions, identifying specific problems. Not only does he spend time with each coach but also, when it comes to scrummaging, with the three national scrum coaches — Patricio Noriega in Australia, Mike Cron in New Zealand and Balie Swart in South Africa.

The improvement in the competition’s scrum is remarkable. SANZAR set a target of 70% success in this regard — that on 70% of the times the ball would emerge to be played after the first feed. In 2011 the average was 45% but after three weeks he has improved it to 62.5%.

He wants the setting of the scrum to stay in the referee’s control but believes the pause should be eliminated because “it triggers the engage”.

Athletics and swimming have got rid of ‘get set’ and had fewer problems with false starts. The number of premature engagements has decreased in Super 15 but SANZAR believe it could be even better if the third command, engage, was reduced to a one syllable word like go or set.

The scrum is supposed to be a pushing contest not a hitting competition. I remember when ex-Springbok prop Ollie le Roux took some scrum sessions with Leinster and insisted part of our training was live scrums without the hit. We were sceptical at first but it made us realise how unfamiliar we had become with the techniques and skills required to scrummage effectively without a hit first.

A massive bugbear for everyone is the scrum-half’s putting the ball in crooked. If it was straight, it would force the hooker to take a striking position which would lesson the reliance on the hit resulting in less collapses.

A standard jersey for props would also make it easier to bind. The modern skin tight jersey is effective in stopping defenders tackle you but it is very frustrating seeing props trying to get a bind, fail and collapse in a heap.

Finally there’s the referees. They often favour the team going forward in the scrum regardless of the legality of their angles of push. Northampton have made it an art form standing up and pushing the opposition back, even though its illegal, and have won countless penalties through this tactic.

So there are areas to improve and keep the scrum part of the game, we just need to explore them.

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