There was a time in recent televised history when channels had a timer at the bottom of the screen to illustrate how much time of the game was being dedicated to scrums.
This counted how much time was being wasted while backs were just standing around and waiting until the big men upfront channelled the ball out into the backline.
There have been changes over the years, and referees now speed up the process by communicating with the front rows clearly, or penalising a prop for incorrect binding or dangerous engagement.
This has sped up the game a lot, but sometimes penalties are not the props’ fault, as their binding may slip off the ultra-tight jerseys or they touch the ground for an instant to get some stability.
There have been many scrums when both front rows engage with such force that they slip or buckle due to the immense pressure generated, but the referee would select a prop he feels was at fault and blows the whistle for a penalty. Yes, this has sped up the process of scrums and has given some easy points to teams, but it still has not changed the importance of scrums in the game of rugby.
The scrum is essentially a show of strength and power. The eight biggest men form a solid unit and push against an opposing unit. The team that dominates the scrum is usually the team that can win a game. The scrum becomes many things: a psychological weapon, a platform to attack, and a defensive tactic.
As a psychological tactic, the scrum that dominates can mentally take eight men out of the match. Each time a strong scrum draws a penalty or forces the other to retreat, the tight five feel fantastic about their effort and receive a pat on the back from their fellow players.
When a prop forces a tighthead scrum or causes his opposite number to buckle, they sometimes fist-pump the air, knowing that they have their rival on the ropes and that a few more big engagements will produce front football, allowing their team to attack harder and with more confidence.
The psychological damage done to a losing scrum can be seen on dejected faces of the front row, and it’s a difficult slump to come out of once you know that you are beaten at the job you train hard for.
The attacking platforms produced from scrums can be exploited by the backline. The scrum is a set piece, so the backline has a chance to set things up as they would on the training field and execute a play to get over the try line. If you doubt this, just watch The Rugby Club‘s Plays of the Week for round nine (you can find the highlight video on a variety of social websites).
Each of their chosen three tries were off the back of a scrum. Of course the backline had the skills to execute the plays and get tries, but they had the time and field position from a scrum. These are very recent examples of such set plays, but you are able to find evidence of this type of attack dating back to the first scrums of rugby.
It is more difficult to form a scrum as a defensive tactic as the front row has to be highly skilled, strong and a bit lucky to pull off a tighthead. If throughout the game the scrum has been solid, the team has a chance to push the attacking team off the ball and relieve pressure.
The hooker has to be aware of when the ball is being tossed in by the scrumhalf and can challenge the strike. Technically the ball should be thrown into the scrum down the centre of the tunnel, but that isn’t always the case, so the hooker has to be alert to be able to challenge for the ball.
Physics suggests that the team feeding the ball into the scrum will be slightly weaker, because the hooker needs to lift a foot off the ground to strike the ball, while the opposing hooker can gain leverage by planting both feet into a stronger position. If the defensive hooker is skilled and is in tune with his props, he can challenge the strike by lifting a foot and sacrificing a solid base.
This is a high-risk, high-reward tactic and skilled players are able to pull it off. If successful, the defensive scrum now becomes a weapon, and the attacking scrum is now under pressure to stabilise and win their own ball.
For the general spectator, the scrum may seem a boring and drawn out process, but there is no other game that has such a regulation where the pure force of power is exhibited.
The rugby league scrums are mere huddles and an excuse to keep the big men occupied for the moment. In the NFL, the scrummage is not a show of sustained strength, rather explosive power, which if unsuccessful in the first hit, leaves little chance for a player to be involved in the rest of the play.
The rugby scrum is a show of sustained strength and tactics allowing for many aspects of the game to be brought into play.
The scrum was, is and will always be the centrepiece of rugby, as a chance for the big men to get on the field, and as a pure simple test of their ability.