In our exclusive column, the Premiership Insider gets down and dirty to tackle the thorny issue that is scrum time.
By Premiership Insider. Last Updated: 26/04/13 2:58pm
"When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled." African Proverb
Crouch...Touch... Set your alarms as we will be witnessing yet another soporific 'Scrumathon'.
The scrummage has a reputation as the scourge of the current game. The endless resetting, the often baffling and bizarre interpretation of the laws and the inability of anyone to come up with a meaningful solution, myself included, have left people scrummed out.
Some would say simply "get rid". The scrum, like Andy Goode's hair, is an outdated institution. The game would flow more freely; the ball would be in play for longer periods and we would no longer put these rotund, fine men in the way of danger.
Let us not forget that the chubby brave souls who take on this challenge put themselves at risk of serious injury at every scrum play. Not I've sprained my ankle, tweaked my shoulder, got a sore head type of injury, but national hunt jockey, wake up in hospital a day later type of injury. So whatever rule changes the powers that be do bless us with, player welfare must be top of the agenda.
However banning the scrum is not a viable option. It is part of the DNA of rugby union. If we remove the importance of the scrum we may as well get rid of the flankers, wear tight shorts and play rugby league. It is one of our major differentials. It's what separates us from the animals.
It is also one of the few facets of the game that the northern hemisphere still fancy they have the advantage.
Referee Nigel Owens talks to players at scrum time
At it's best it is as irresistible to watch as two disenchanted bison during breeding season. At it's dullest it frustrates, bores and worse, alienates the crowd/viewers at a time when we are trying to bring new spectators into the game.
A too regular conversation between players is: "What was that penalty for?" "I have no idea."
The last law change came with the removal of "pause" from the referees calling sequence and the replacement of "engage" with "set".
Having chatted to my team-mates involved in the scrum it seems the removal of pause was a good thing. It was causing confusion, early engagement and was only of any interest whatsoever when a French 'ref' pronounced it differently. (This would lead to forwards coaches carrying out scrum practise with a euro lilt to their voice so that the players could prepare accurately.)
The exchange of "engage" to "set" was apparently brought in, as a single syllable starter word was needed. It also was inferred that they wanted to choose something passive and non aggressive to begin the action. This sounds too much like GCSE psychology to be true. To think that the actual word used bore any relevance to the mind set of the players is naive in the extreme and frankly worrying.
I just wonder who the men making these game-changing decisions discussed it with. Surely they must have spoken to every experienced and trusted front row forward in the professional game. Or did men with important job titles and degrees devise it behind closed doors. It seems that athletics has patented the 'Ready, Steady, Go' sequence.
"Some would say simply "get rid". The scrum, like Andy Goode's hair, is an outdated institution."
During the week's preparation for a game, the referee is analysed. Mainly about what his favourite penalties are to award. Does he have a penchant for the tackler rolling away or does he have an infatuation with whether the mythical "gate" is being approached and used in the right manner?
The other section of the review is the in depth research of his cadence. This word "Cadence" is now as much part of rugby as a Barbour jacket is part of a Bath supporter's outfit.
Seven of the eight starting forwards admitted to not knowing what it meant. One player had heard it once before and swore it was the name of a particularly buoyant table dancer in California.
To have such an integral element of the game reliant on the speech and rhythm of a referee seems bizarre.
In fairness to the referees they have an almost impossible task in adjudicating this restarting of the game. There are so many things for one man to look for that it comes as no surprise that his rulings on them are often sporadic and varied. Early engagement, no bind, binding on the arm, walking round, standing up, hand on the floor, flanker not bound, crooked feed, angle of tighthead, head-on-head, no gap, too big a gap, scrum-half off side etc etc.
Couple that with the fact that by looking at the lads on the Premiership circuit currently doing the rounds I wager not many have had to pack down in the tight five.
Saracens prop Matt Stevens pops out of a scrum against Ulster
It seems to me from my armchair view that after 60 minutes the referee loses the will to bother, along with the crowd, and allows pretty much anything to happen at scrum time. Both front-row are resting on their foreheads chewing the cud, but as long as the ball is at the base, then players are told to play away. Which more often than not is fine. However with the game in the balance, there are occasions when one team or other would really rather have the penalty.
Something does need to be done about the situation. Getting rid is not an option and I don't believe that depowering the scrum and making it a pure pushing contest is the answer. The hit and engagement is a huge part of it and surprisingly enough is one of the elements enjoyed by the piggies of the front row. The issue being is that if you lose that initial contact then the reaction is usually to try and avert crisis, by foul means or fair. Better a reset scrum than to be marched back and offer all sorts of attacking opportunities to the opposition.
I have very few real or genuine solutions. The only thing I could think of was to employ at each game a scrummage referee. A man with a disfigured face and loads of experience of trench warfare, a man that could see the Nick Wood for the trees, a man that could shine a glimmer of light on the murky goings on. A poacher turned gamekeeper, a man to help Tim Wigglesworth through the bad times.
It may also generate another revenue stream in this professional era, just as Specsavers-sponsored the referee shirt so another firm could sponsor the "Scrum Referee."
Potential sponsors could be WeightWatchers, Mr Kipling or any bitter/cider company that had a vested interest.
He could trot on in white boots, manage the whole debacle and would know via his "sixth scrum sense" how to remedy a faltering process. He could then exit at the earliest possible moment until his prowess was next needed.
Realistically, though, there appears to be no quick fix. What I would suggest is a convention. Make sure you have a huge budget for the buffet and invite all the front row players you can from the modern game (and coaches.) Talk with them and try to ascertain where the issues are stemming from and what can be done to rectify the problems.
Bearing in mind that you cannot get rid of the scrum all together, you cannot change it drastically without changing the whole game, that the referee is already struggling with a smorgasbord of rules and regulations and that you must make sure the players are as safe as possible. Good luck!
It is worth pointing out as a postscript that the common stereotype of the front row forward being stupid is false. This is a misconception spread by back three players who are concerned at their own level of intelligence and education.
Speed is a key element to playing on the wing. Because of this most wingers are young, carefree and have been thrown into professional rugby at a tender age. Forgoing all education.
The front rowers are the other end of the spectrum. They need experience and time on the shop floor. They will not mature until they are at least 27. This means a lot of the front rows have been to University before heading into the professional set up. Have walked into a library. Have looked beyond the game. Which means they are all the more suitable to offer advice and direction for the route the game is going.