There was a time when the scrum was the game. It was won by a goal but the road to the goal was the scrum. Then there was a time when it was regarded as essential to winning the game even if there were other ways of doing it. Now it is a troublesome nuisance, but still regarded as an important facet of the game even though reduced in incidence, so reduced that some believe rugby football would be well shot of it.
Getting rid of scrumming or de-powering it in the Rugby League way is anathema to Rugby Union traditionalists and idealists who believe that Rugby Union is a game for all shapes and sizes.
What would they do without scrums – the Franks brothers, Martín Castrogiovanni, Jannie du Plessis, Euan Murray and all the way down through Rugby Union’s many layers.
We can take this entertainment thing too far, believing that entertainment comprised solely of running about with the ball. Only a tiny minority of players are involved in Rugby Union’s entertainment business that rakes in millions and millions and more for rugby’s coffers.
In early days the main players were forwards and their main job was in the scrummage, as it was usually known though it was also called a hot. They had a few outsiders to guard their backs – a fullback, then two half backs, then three quarter-way backs and then four three-quarters. And those fairy folk behind the real men more and more wanted things to do.
The game, when it came to be played on fields as distinct from village to village or house to house, was about scrummages.
In the early days the ball would be put on the ground and the real men would gather around, standing upright ready to close with opponents in their attempts to hack the ball towards the opposition’s goal-line. They stood chest to chest, heads up. They would hack at the ball and at each other. Hacking was an art and special boots with reinforced toecaps were designed to inflict as much pain on opposing shins as possible. It died out and, like rucking, was lamented by some.
The first written laws about scrumming, in 1862 by Blackheath, stated: “Though it is lawful to hold a player in a scrummage, this does not include attempts to throttle or strangle, which are totally opposed to the principles of the game.”
No hacking, throttling or strangling – a game going soft.
The English laws of 1874 were much more specific: “A scrummage takes place when the holder of the ball, being in the field of play, puts it down on the ground in front of him and all who have closed round on their respective sides endeavour to push their opponents back and by kicking the ball to drive it in the direction of the opposite goal line. In a scrummage it is not lawful to touch the ball with the hand under any circumstances whatsoever.”
In 1888 it would be a free kick if a player intentional fell down in a scrum. In 1889 the law said that a scrummage ceased when the ball was in in-goal. Those bits of law still exist. This one from 1892 also exists and is promising to make a comeback, namely that there shall be a freekick by way of penalty if ‘any player wilfully puts the ball unfairly into a scrummage’. In 1893 there appeared one that seems consigned to a purely theoretic existence – that there would be a penalty if any player ‘being in a scrummage lifts a foot from the ground before the ball has been put into such scrummage’. The law also required players in the scrummage to have both feet on the ground.
There are aspects which still exist in practice – being on your side, not handling, not collapsing and ending in in-goal.
The changes came about largely because of the development of backs. When there were 15 players to a team and there were a fullback and two halfway backs, there were 12 forwards. When three players appeared in the quarters, there were nine forwards. When that man in Wales, Frank Hancock of Cardiff, developed a fourth three quarter, there were eight forwards, as there are now.
The forwards made changes of their own as they looked down for the ball and then bent down to see better. Then they got into a formation so that those in front could benefit from a shove from behind. This led to various scrum formations.
The 3-2-3 was the commonest for a while as giving a great shove through the locks and enabled teams to execute the wheel and dribble, break-and-take manoeuvre, better.
The New Zealanders used a 2-3-2 formation with a forward standing out as a rover. South Africa developed the 3-4-1 formation which is so generally accepted that it is now enshrined in law.
There was at one stage a squabble for the loose head. A team would slip an extra player onto the front row to secure the loosehead. A change in 1922 said: ‘It shall be illegal for more than three players from either side to form up or become part of the front row of the scrummage.’ That is still the case.
In 1931 players were forbidden to charge into the scrum, which is still law and was law all that time when there was the sacred ‘hit’. There was in 1931 the problem of reset scrums because it was hard to get the ball in as hookers used the inside foot to get as close to the tunnel as possible. The law then demanded that the ball touch ground after it had passed both feet of a player of each team, and when it had touched ground then the hooker could lift his foot to strike for the ball. (In those far-off days, hookers used their feet to hook the ball to their side.) And the foot had to be the hooker’s outside foot, i.e. the foot further from the tunnel. It also made it clear that flanks were not allowed to use a foot to hook the ball while it was in the tunnel – still, theoretically, law.
Gradually the laws at scrums grew, for it was such an important phase of the game. But basically two sets of eight got ready to go down and went down in their own time. The referee might have held them back for a while when the ball was faraway or medics were getting off the field. But they went down often on a ‘my ball, my call’ agreement. The scrumhalf then put the ball in – straight – and some competition for the ball and to go forward started.
That was it with some refinements about binding and not pulling down, that were made in 1967 and still exist. There were also clever people who used shortened scrums – three or four-men scrums with a quick wheel. The mini-scrum went from school up to Test level before lawmakers started to get rid of it. There was the opposite, scrums bolstered by backs to make more than eight till in 1996 it was laid down that there would be eight players in a scrum from start to finish.
In the 1980s a series of catastrophic injuries and court cases focussed on the question of player safety as coaching and ‘motivating’ brought increased aggression and refined techniques to scrumming. The particular change that had a vast effect on scrummaging was the invention and development of the bajada scrum by Francisco Ocampo, an engineer and rugby coach at San Isidro Club in Buenos Aires, who developed the idea from seeing the 1932 Junior Springboks in action. This form of scrumming relied on shoving power. Exit the hooker, enter three props ascowling.
Because there was concern about the effects of this empowered scrum, there were experiments with the engagement at scrums, especially for young players, such as a staggered engagement and limiting the distance of a shove. Added to this was the increased number of collapsed scrums, a technique perfected in Australia. There was the staggering statistic that 18 percent of Test matches was taken up with resetting scrums. There were matches in which collapses, resets, penalties and free kicks outnumbered the scrums awarded in the match. It was a mess.
Enter the 2-4-4-3-3-4 engagement process, and enter, too, the dubious hit. It started with a cadence of crouch and hold, engage. Then it became crouch, touch, hold, engage. Then hold became pause but then pause was dropped. Then engage became set, a stronger word of command though the laws insisted that set was not a command but an indication when front rows could consider getting together. The truth is that engage/set were seen as commands and the teams hit into each other. Hit was not in the law but there were referees who would sanction teams for ‘fading on the hit’, ‘not taking the hit’, as if the hit were sacrosanct.
Then came 2013 and an attempt to get back to the ‘fold in’ of old. The call now became crouch, bind, set. ‘Bind’ brought them head next to head and so set was a short forward movement. But the law-makers were concerned about the stability of the scrum. They then added a fourth ‘indication’. The referee would say to the scrumhalf ‘Yes, Nine’, and then he had to put the ball in. Then, as of old, there could be competition for the ball.
At the same time referees were told, as they had been before, to ensure that the ball was put in straight. On occasions the referees complied and then the result was a free kick for a crooked feed, the occasional tighthead and even – though still rarely – a free kick for foot-up.
There are now fewer resets but there are also fewer scrums. When the Wallabies played Wales, Wales had made it known that they intended to target the Wallaby scrum. But in the first half of that match in the Millennium Stadium, there was not a single scrum. In the second half there were six scrums, four collapses, two resets, a free kick and a penalty against Wales. Three of the six scrums were straightforward – ball in and ball out. When Ireland played New Zealand, there were 11 scrums – three collapses, a free kick and a penalty against New Zealand. The scrummest match in November was France versus South Africa. There were 19 scrums, with 12 collapses (11 when France put the ball in), seven resets, two free kicks and two penalties. There were 10 straightforward scrums.
It may well be that Northern Hemisphere fields with their poor surfaces are the cause of falling scrums. In a European Cup match at Welford Road in December, Leicester Tigers played Montpellier. There were 20 scrums with two collapses, one reset and one penalty. But then it was on a good playing surface. It may also have helped that every scrum that could be seen had the ball put in straight.
Clearly scrums are well short of the ideal – 100 percent straightforward. Perhaps things will get better if every scrum-feed is either straight or sanctioned. That there is no foot-up and when we get away with ‘Yes, Nine” which as warning to the side not putting in the ball that the ball is coming in and they should start their pressure on those who will have seven feet on the ground in the front row while they had eight pushing. Perhaps that may encourage teams to choose a hooker instead of a prop in the middle of the front row.
Perhaps it may always help if the referee usually stood behind the scrumhalf instead, as now seems usual, on the far side of the scrum.
But for all the problems it is better to have scrums. You become aware of that when uncontested scrums are called for. Rugby should resist all temptation to regulate props out of the game.
And we don’t have to go with Arthur Budd who played for England from 1878 to 1881. He once wrote on the problems of scrumming: “The other canker-worm is heeling out. Is it possible for a man to be kicking backwards and pushing forwards simultaneously? Of course not. Since football began it has been, and till football ends it will be, an enormous advantage to carry the scrummage.”
By Paul Dobson