Four ways to fix the scrum


“In New Zealand, from a young age you are taught how to destabilise a scrum.” – Edward Pye, a Roar pro on The Roar.

You have to give credit to commentator Phil Kearns for trying to make the scrum contest between the Rebels and Crusaders on the weekend at least seem watchable.

Kearns brought up some stats that showed that scrum resets have been on the decrease since the introduction of the new crouch/bind/set call. But if that game was an example of an improvement, then the last few years must have been an absolute disaster.

The scrummaging in that game was frustrating to say the least. From the armchair view, it looked as though both sides were trying their best to be cynical and destabilise opposition ball, which led to a lot of collapses and a lot of time wasted.

There were three New Zealand-bred props in that game and a long-time operator in Laurie Weeks. All of them seemed to use tactics designed to ruin the spectacle.

In New Zealand, from a young age you are taught how to destabilise a scrum.

I played in the front row for 15 years and I remember having a scrummaging session with former Judo champion and All Black prop, Steve McDowell. He showed us how to destabilise your opponent by repositioning your bind or changing your body angle.

Locks, too, can destabilise the scrum by pushing downward from the hips rather than straight. Loose forwards can swing around and bore into the opposition props.

From a physics point of view, it’s an extremely complex process which relies on everyone actually trying to keep the scrum up, though that’s not what happens when you make it competitive.

Some people throw the blame on the refs but that’s a bit of a beat up. Refs are just doing their best in a situation that is very difficult to manage to everyone’s satisfaction.

It is impossible to get a perfect scrum ruling, but it seems the refs are just looking for a ruling to justify giving a penalty either way rather than actually having any idea of what is going on.

James Leckie’s scrum calls in the Rebels game were a complete lottery.

Yes, he called penalties and most were technically correct, but the real issue was that there were multiple other infringements happening at the same time that he could have called also.

Leckie just ended up picking the one that was most obvious to the people who critique him. It’s a completely subjective process that can be influenced by so many different factors, not least the reputation of the prop coming into the game.

If you ever watch props after they are penalised at scrum time, they rarely complain. They just head back the 10 metres with a zoned-out look on their face.

It’s not because they are thinking about dinner, it’s because they know that the ref is just guessing and the penalty is not really against them as an individual – it’s against the crazy notion that 16 angry tangled men will be able to stay upright.

The current guess work is not the solution to constant resets. It is akin to moving your toe around to plug up different holes as they pop up in your life raft.

So as someone who has played in the front row and now refs, I would like to throw out some ideas on how to stabilise the scrums more and take the guess work away from the refs.

1. Make “hand on the ground” legal
When the pressure is on at scrum time, you often see props dropping their bind and putting a hand on the ground to keep themselves stable, an infringement that is easy for refs to see and instantly penalisable.

With scrum resets becoming the norm, this penalty completely negates that reason for putting the hand down – to add stability to your position.

The two props on either side of the scrum form an arch with the pressure point in the middle. This is often where the scrum collapses because the arch cannot withstand the pressure.

If both props were able to support the arch with their arms, then, by rights, the scrum should become more stable.

2. Put handles on jerseys
If you were not a fan of option No. 11 then this might take your fancy more. In the same way that handles on the thighs of lineout jumpers have become in-vogue, law-makers could move to put handles on the side of props’ jerseys.

In the Rebels-Crusaders game, Wyatt Crockett in particular was a shocker. His bind was all over the place. It moved from the shorts, to the bottom of the jersey, to the shoulder.

The idea with keeping your bind up is that the position of your arm dictates which direction you are pushing. If your bind is up, then your back should be straight and you should be stable. But the binding is rarely consistent.

If you were to sew on heavy duty handles in the correct position and players were made to hold onto these, it should keep the scrum more stable and give the ref a much better idea of when the players were dropping a bind.

3. Have two refs – one either side of the scrum
One of the problems with scrums is that if a ref is monitoring one side of a scrum, the players know they are being watched and they have to behave. However, the ref can’t see the other side, leaving the props on that side free to misbehave.

If, as has been suggested by Graham Henry, you were to bring on a touch judge or another ref all together, both sides would be monitored and props would have less leeway to be cynical.

4. Reduce the penalty kick to two points
This idea was suggested by Mark Reason on last week and besides being interesting from a try-scoring point of view, it is also relevant at the scrum.

As Reason suggested, the refs are really just guessing at what is happening at the scrums and it’s not really fair for them to be able to give away a three-point penalty for something that is completely subjective.

He suggested making a penalty worth two points which would take away some of the impact of subjective scrum penalties.

While it’s an interesting idea, it may encourage props to be more cynical with their tactics and lead to even more scrum collapses.

Certainly, the new bind call has led to a safer scrum, but I will be interested to see if Phil Kearns’ statistic remains true throughout the season.

If not, one of these options could be the answer.

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  1. Perhaps a little politics will liven things up.

    Who else think Putin’s annexation of Crimea is eerily similar to Hitler’s move on the Sudetenland?

    Even the trajectory between Russia now and Germany then. Lost conflict, to failed democracy, to economic chaos, to strongman leader restoring order, then wealth, then empire.

    Dangerous times ahead.

  2. This was Watson’s take after the first round on the new laws tested in the Varsity Cup:

    The strict application of law in four key areas has seen a decline in the number of reset scrums and kicks in general play, as well as an increase in tries – according to Andre Watson, SA Rugby’s Manager of Referees.

    The strict application of law in four key areas has seen a decline in the number of reset scrums and kicks in general play, as well as an increase in tries – according to André Watson, SA Rugby’s Manager of Referees.

    A review of the first round of 2010 FNB Varsity Cup presented by Steinhoff International matches and of pre-season Vodacom Super 14 warm-up games has provided encouraging signs for a new refereeing focus.

    “There is no way we have enough evidence to reach any definitive conclusions, but the early signs are interesting,” said Watson.

    “Referees are focusing on strictly applying the laws in four areas to free up the ball and if what we have seen so far is continued through the season, we will have achieved our desired aims.

    “I want to make it clear that no laws have changed; they have just been more correctly applied, played and coached.”

    Watson said the impact had been significant when comparing the first round of the Varsity Cup in 2010 with the first round of 2009:
    * Reset scrums declined from seven per game to 2.8 per game – a reduction of 60%.
    * Kicks in general play declined from 48.5 kicks per game to 32.3 per game – a reduction of 33%.
    * Total tries for the round rose from 12 to 30 – a 250% increase.

    “It is way too early to use this evidence to say that the changes have had the desired results but at least they appear to be pointing in the right direction,” he said.

    Watson reiterated that the four key areas where the Laws were being more strictly applied were:
    * Tackle – tackler to release IMMEDIATELY and roll away or get back on his feet.
    * Scrums – correct engagement, correct binding and straight body positions.
    * Off-side in general play – players to stand still until put onside as per law.
    * Observe for obstruction at kick-offs and line outs prior to a maul forming.

  3. Some observation after week 2 of Varsity Cup posted on Varsity Cup Website:

    While the new two ref system seemed to work a charm, and is without doubt the way forward as rugby tries to eradicate the subjective interpretation that comes with such a complex set of laws, it did seem to leave the scrum over policed.

    Completed scrums were rare in week 2 as referees, now needing to only look at one side of the scrum, tended to find fault with something every time.

    Sometimes a scrum goes up or down because of simple physics, or a slipping boot. Two 900kg units coming together will never be a simple collision. This column cannot wait for the scrum when both refs blow the whistle and award a penalty to differing sides! What happens then?

    But like most new rules, this will probably just take a little time to settle. And if the end result is less reset scrums, then we are all for it! Let’s just not take away all the toys from the big guys.

  4. Less resets would be good. Maybe a 10-15 yard march back for scrum penalties vs goal or position kick?

    Would like to see breakdown slean up but think I’ll be saying that forever.

    As far as the political stuff….I’d like to see Putin take over the Fun-N-Gun Cheetahs after this tour of horror & get the good guys into fighting shape.

  5. Timeo, I thought of the same thing this morning, seems a lot like Hitler’s work back then, but then Im also not sure if it will turn out that way.

    The people of Crimea has voted and want to form part of Russia, risky ground we tread on, but Im of the opinion that maybe we should allow the will of the people.

    Not sure if it will turn out good or bad. Hopefully it will be good. As for Putin taking over at the Cheetahs, I dont think he will fit in Khaki’s or understand a word around a braai Americano.

  6. Oom Dawie is gonna love the fact that Sanzar referee boss says the ‘controversial’ Lions try shouldnt have been awarded.

  7. @Aldo:

    There’s an intriguing clash of empires at play.

    The bunch in Kiev wants to join the American Empire, which pissed off the Russians because Ukraine has been part of their empire for centuries.
    But the USA really has no interest in Ukraine itself. They’re only involved because Poland is next door and Poland is already inside the American Empire.
    Ukraine wants in to feel safe from Russia. The Poles want them in because that will make them safer, but they got in to make the Germans safer, who only got in to safeguard the French and the Brattains.

    And 100 years ago, when the USA’s only real interest in Europe was with Britain. So the Empire grew because the center is trusted, but it brings unintended, but inevitable conflicts with other empires.

  8. There is an analogy in ancient times, between Rome and Carthage over Seguntum, which lied well within the agreed sphere of Carthage but tried to ally itself with Rome.

    The Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome was ignited by the dispute over the hegemony of Saguntum, a Hellenized Iberian coastal city with diplomatic contacts with Rome.[5] After great tension within the city government, culminating in the assassination of the supporters of Carthage, Hannibal laid siege to the city of Saguntum in 219 BC. The city called for Roman aid, but the pleas fell on deaf ears. Following a prolonged siege and a bloody struggle, in which Hannibal himself was wounded and the army practically destroyed, the Carthaginians finally took control of the city. Many of the Saguntians chose to commit suicide rather than face subjugation by the Carthaginians.
    Before the war, Rome and Hasdrubal the Fair had made a treaty. Livy reports that it was agreed that the Iber should be the boundary between the two empires and that the liberty of the Saguntines should be preserved.[6]

  9. @Boertjie:

    Surprised that he doesn’t mention the two similar incidents involving New Zealand sides where exactly the same thing happened… and the player who had the ball ripped had no knock on ruled and try awarded… the stupidity of the refereeing boggles… then again Lyndon Bray has never been a pro South African referee…

    SANZAR’s SA bit should whisper in his ears that he better start remembering loud and clear who ppays his salary…

  10. @Timeo:

    Did the war itself not start because Roman diplomatic corps in the city became so desperate to help the Saguntians that they took up arms against the Carthaginians and the Carthaginians then declared war?

    Carthago Delenda est

  11. @DavidS:

    Could well be, I’m no expert on the details.

    What intrigue me is the general similarities with the present. Seguntum wanted to get out of the Carthage’s empire and into Rome’s, just like Kiev is trying to get of of the Russian and into the American empire.

    According to Thomas F Madden, the Roman and American Empires are unique in history as Empires people seek to join rather than leave.