New scrum laws can improve attacking game, says Stuart Barnes
By Stuart Barnes. Last Updated: 09/09/13 11:32am
Wayne Barnes: Gave a dominant performance at Bath's set pieces
At the end of the match between Gloucester and Sale, a disgruntled home supporter turned to me and said, "So much for the new scrum laws then?"
The match had indeed made something of a mockery of the set piece which is at the centre of the newest of new laws which, ironically, are a throwback to previous times.
The supporter had a point. Collapses were in abundance, free kicks here and there and wasted minutes. All very déjà vu but hold on a minute; last Tuesday I heard Wayne Barnes state that the referees, players and coaches had to be held accountable.
So let's point a few fingers of blame in certain directions. Andrew Small yellow carded Nick Wood for persistently cheating at the scrum. There is one obvious finger pointing. However, it is hard not to think that Small himself failed to get a grip on the revised, depowered and technically more interesting new version of the scrums. It looked badly managed. Before fans dismiss the August 1 to end of season trial a wider analysis is a must.
"It looked badly managed. Before fans dismiss the August 1 to end of season trial a wider analysis is a must."
In the Gloucester game the home team played with an absence of rugby intelligence or poise and deserved defeat against the smart and committed Sale who had a beauty of a first try. It was a first phase move from a scrum that was held stable and enabled Dwayne Peel to dart to the short side and open Gloucester up. Properly managed, the new laws are an incentive for attacking rugby.
One night earlier, Barnes took charge of Newcastle's wet reintroduction to the Premiership against Bath. It was a filthy night with a sodden surface. Last season would have seen every scrum slip as the game slid away to an eighty- minute reset. But Barnes gave a dominant display at the set piece with the result that the superior scrum of Bath was rewarded with eventual, match winning domination.
Ditto Saturday morning's match in Brisbane where South Africa brought a seven match losing record at the Sun Corp Stadium to an emphatic end. Australia were worn down in the scrum and utterly destabilised by the final quarter. Technical supremacy was well and truly rewarded.
Even earlier that morning we saw a sterling scrum contest between New Zealand and Argentina with the South Americans losing the game but maintaining their pride; on the balance of the four matches I watched before writing this column (early Sunday afternoon) the overall early evidence is positive. The key remains the referee and the attitude of the coach and his players. If they want to play, rather than seek out a series of endless penalties, the game has taken a step in the right direction by looking back to the way scrums once were.
Traditional craft will play a bigger role than pure power. And that must be for the long term benefit of the game. It simply cannot keep getting bigger, fitter and faster at the startling rate witnessed in this century. Laws that make a place for a big fat tight head capable of nothing but stabilising the attacking team's scrum is great news. It might just open the field to attack with a few starters not the awesome physical machine most players now are.
By making the scrum a contest with technique and not just the power of the fit and shove an elemental requirement, some players might remember that just getting bigger, fitter and faster does not necessarily equate with being better.
The world's Number One team, the All Blacks, have their fair share of giant athletes but it is rugby nous that glues them together. Richie McCaw is a great player but there are open sides with more speed and strength. There are none with greater rugby intelligence which explains his longevity at the summit of the game.
If a club team in Europe wanted to sign a back capable of changing the way they play, the first name on the book would be Conrad Smith. He's tall but gangly, elusive but hardly mesmerising on the run and a fine defender, yet not a brute of a hitter. But he has a brilliant rugby brain. A constant increase in size and an ever larger scrum is progress, but not all progress is of a beneficial nature.
Gloucester lost to Sale because they were rudderless. All the physical conditioning in the world cannot save a team that loses the ability to think for itself.
Next week the cerebral Kiwis wits needs be quicker than at any time this season as they clash with South Africa at Eden Park. With home advantage the All Blacks are favourites but the Springboks have size and a clearly thought out strategy that could cause a few problems for New Zealand. Even if New Zealand win, South Africa have scored enough bonus points to leave them in a good position to make the Rugby Championship decider in Johannesburg the game of the year for the rugby neutral.
In British eyes that game has to be the third Test in Sydney and rightly so. The Lions don't often win series, but the manner of the Springbok demolition of the Wallabies is perhaps a reminder that the people charged with appointing the manager for the New Zealand tour in 2017 should not rush things.
Australia are not a good team and brilliant a performance as we saw in the deciding Test, we could easily have lost 2-1 had Christian Leali'ifano not been injured within a minute of the first Test. Warren Gatland has Lions knowledge and a series win to his name. He deserves to be in poll position at the moment, but Australia's constant losing run is a reminder that perspective needs to be kept and some time taken before reaching a decision that could look very different even a year from now.
So much for the Lions, it is the other championship for me at the weekend - My first Greene King IPA match. And having enjoyed a few sunny days in the company of Andy Robinson and Ian Davies, as The Cornish Pirates and Bristol prepare for their first games, I am excited to see some ambitious attacking play.
But It is fair to say that I am looking forward to the All Blacks versus the Springboks even more.