This time of year rugby lovers (in the Southern Hemisphere) are forced to sit through the best Europe has to offer if they want their weekly rugby union fix and it has been interesting in some aspects to see what is happening up North.
One of the observation I made personally was the difference in how the ruck is policed by the Northern Hemisphere ref’s compared to the boys with the whistle down South. Now this is not an observation of who is right or who is wrong (I think both spheres get it wrong) but it does concern me that international referees who are appointed to officiate in tests have such a different approach to this area of the game.
Everyone would have heard commentators and players mention that the major difference between the game up North and how it’s played in the South is the pace at which it is played and how there is more of a focus on forward play by the mud-men. For me the difference between the two Hemispheres is down to one thing, the ruck.
If you have watched any of the games from Europe in recent weeks you might have picked up like I did how players are allowed to slow down the ball at the tackled area usually by the assisting tackler. There does not seem to be much focus on the actual turning over of the ball but rather just to slow down or prevent the tackled player from placing the ball immediately (the daylight rule as we know it). The result of this is a slow, predictable game played for 80% of the time between the big fellas in the first two channels (and of course loads of kicking).
The second thing I observed was the complete mess at scrum time. This however is not down to what is happening in Northern Hemisphere rugby alone but has been a major area of concern all over the world for the last couple of years.
I found it quite ironic when Leicester coach, Richard Cockerill slammed a referee recently for having no clue on how the scrum works only for his team to be awarded a contentious penalty try from a scrum in the 80th minute of their game over the weekend to gift them a win and of course, complete silence from the coach.
Last week I posted a column quoting Rugby 365’s Paul Dobson on things referees seemingly get wrong at scrum time which resulted in some interesting comments from our readers. Far be it from me to claim that I am an expert of front-row play but given the high standard of coverage we have these days on television and the different angles on replays there is one simple thing in my opinion that will eliminate 90% of the problems at the scrum – and that is the hit.
Commentators over the weekend made an interesting comment during one of the French Top 14 games where they mentioned that as much as referees need to get it right at scrums, a lot of responsibility must also shift towards the players. When front rows speak of scrumming you will often hear them refer to it as the ‘dark art’ suggesting that employing illegal tactics to deliberately manipulate referees in penalising opposition players is par for course. Some front row experts or players can also confirm this for me (or tell me I am speaking rubbish) but I would go as far as to say that 90% of these ‘tactics’ are used on the actual hit where the scrum according to most, is won or lost.
I have some sympathy for referees at scrum time. How is it possible to get decisions right for most of the time when you have around 350kg’s of prime beef from each side crash into each other from various angles sometimes using illegal tactics? In fact, why even have a phase of play (the hit) dictate the course of play through penalties or re-sets when the ball is not actually in play or being contested for?
The scrum in union is essentially a phase of the game where play is restarted but most importantly where teams can legally contest for possession using power and skill.
The laws of the game allow teams to ‘come together’ at scrum time and I cannot find one reason why this should not be the case instead of hit nonsense.
In fact, if we can have a stable, steady scrum before the ball is fed referees might be able to better judge angles of scrumming or any other illegal tactic used by the front row – not to mention feeding the bloody ball in straight to start with.