After several of you have raised the question to me via discussion comments, and even more via Twitter, I’ve spent the weekend looking closely at a blight on the great game that in a former life I may have actively participated in.
I’m talking about the endemic crooked feeding of scrums.
Embarrassingly, I’ve had to admit to those raising the issue that it’s just not been something I’ve noticed. And no, that’s not the former non-tackling scrumhalf in me looking after the brotherhood.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly fed my share of second rows.
At one point in the olden days, a coach even asked me why I would disadvantage our underpowered scrum even further by giving the opposing pack a fair crack at the ball. Maths teachers, they had answers for everything.
Anyway, given the number of comments coming my way on the matter, it was clearly something worth looking into. And look into it I have.
So that we’re all clear, Law 20.6, ‘How the scrum half throws in the ball’, is the specific law in play here. Parts a, b, c, and e, respectively, address the where, how, speed, and single movement requirements for feeding the scrum.
Law 20.6 (d), specifically, states:
The scrum half must throw in the ball straight along the middle line, so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer prop’s shoulders.
Sanction: Free Kick
The IRB ‘Laws of the Game’ webpage even includes a helpful video to illustrate Law 20.6 (d), in which Chiefs scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow is pinged in his Junior All Blacks days for a crooked feed in a game against the Young Wallabies.
Armed with all this information, I watched the weekend games with an eagle eye and a notepad.
To say I was alarmed would be a massive understatement.
I can’t say that I’m disappointed in my modern, professional contemporaries for peddling a sin of my past, but I can and will express amazement that a Law of the Game is so flagrantly and obviously being ignored by officialdom.
Of all the Waratahs-Rebels scrums where I had a clear view of the feed, not one of them was straight, even by my conservative measure.
While I would have allowed feeds going into the tunnel even if favouring the hooker, Nick Phipps and Brendan McKibbon couldn’t manage even that.
It was only marginally better in the Reds-Hurricanes game, where even though I did consider two feeds from TJ Perenara, and one from Nick Frisby to be ‘straight’, eight others were not.
It might just be the young blokes? I had veteran All Black number nines Piri Weepu and Andy Ellis feeding reasonably straight all night, while Weepu’s replacement Bryn Hall threw his first one straight and his second one to his prop.
Kerr-Barlow is a reformed man, evidently, with his couple of feeds that I could judge clearly in the Chiefs-Cheetahs game being allowable.
But former Waratahs marquee man Sarel Pretorius threw several – and he wasn’t alone in this regard – that were way worse than what Kerr-Barlow was pinged for in the IRB example clip.
The South African games showed more of the same – when the link was up – with the best offered again being those scrums where the ball was at least fed to the hooker. But there were just as many fed straight to props, too.
The Six Nations aren’t immune either, with some weekend review showing plenty being fed favouring their own scrum.
I will say that on viewing, I don’t think it’s as bad in the northern hemisphere as it is in Super Rugby, and French no.9 Morgan Parra might just be the fairest scrum-feeder on the planet.
My old maths teacher would hate him.
In truth, by the letter of the Law, there wasn’t a single scrum in Super Rugby over the weekend that was honestly fed ‘along the middle line’, as 20.6 (d) requires.
The best you see is when the ball is fed into the tunnel toward the hooker, whereas the worst and most blatant – and Phipps, McKibbon, Ben Lucas, and Alby Mathewson were the worst offenders – came when the scrumhalf would stand straight, but then turn on delivery and feed to or through his loosehead’s legs.
In the leadup to this article, I inquired of SANZAR whether they had introduced any new interpretations, or if they were allowing certain liberties to be taken with regards to the scrum feed, and particularly IRB Law 20.6 (d), or whether it still applied to the letter.
The response was simultaneously surprising and worrying.
“SANZAR’s primary focus is enhancing the structure and flow of Super Rugby. While a proportion of scrum feeds may not be executed to the exact letter of the law, it’s not currently an area of critical importance,” said SANZAR CEO Greg Peters in a supplied comment.
“As long as the game continues evolving to create more space, generate continuity, and improve scrum engagement, players, coaches, referees and most importantly fans are satisfied.”
Let me declare that I do understand SANZAR’s position regarding the desire to enhance the flow of Super Rugby games, and as I outlined last week, I think the new breakdown interpretations are going a long way toward doing just that.
But the admission that the scrum feed is “not currently an area of critical importance” is rather staggering.
On one hand, the scrum engagement is important enough to overhaul the referee’s calling sequence, and again, I think the new crouch-touch-set call is working a lot better than the previous four-step call did.
Yet on the other hand, something so easily policed as the scrum feed isn’t important at all.
As an aside, Sky Sports New Zealand commentator, Scotty Stevenson, told me over the weekend via Twitter that there are moves afoot for yet another scrum engagement overhaul, whereby opposing props would have to hold their bind on the ‘touch’ call, essentially de-powering the hit.
There’s another column, probably.
Moves from the IRB to add another specialist prop to the bench shows that the desire is obviously there to ensure that the scrum is maintained as a contest for the entirety of the match.
So then why not actually ensure that contest during the match?
In fact, when you consider that crooked lineout throws are still penalised, it makes even less sense.
On Friday night, the Rebels were penalised for not throwing straight around the 63rd minute, yet Waratahs half Brendan McKibbon fed the scrum through his prop’s legs not a minute later.
So what’s with such an obvious double standard? Why is one set piece worthy of a fair contest throughout, but not the other?
Why have referees and administrators allowed this, and why have we fans not spoken up sooner?
And why do SANZAR and the IRB even bother trying to improve the scrum engagement, if the ball being fed toward two o’clock nullifies that engagement?
The worry here is what precedent SANZAR and the IRB are creating for themselves. If the contest within the scrum is removed via the feed, then the whole engagement sequence and carry-on becomes pointless.
And if scrums aren’t going to be fed straight and that doesn’t matter, then what’s the point of penalising errant delivery at the lineout?
I can’t help but think of old Roarer Jock M, who as long as I’ve been involved with The Roar has been popping up late on discussion threads bemoaning that with every law change, every new interpretation, rugby is pushed closer toward its 13-a-side cousin.
We might dismiss old Jock for being stuck in the past sometimes, but on the topic of scrum-feeding, he may just have a point.
On another point of investigation…
Roarer Justin2 enquired last week about whether it is the team doctor conducting the Pitch Side Concussion Assessment, or whether it is the match day doctor that allows or prevents players returning to play after a head knock, and I asked this question of SANZAR at the same time as my scrum-feeding enquiries.
Within a detailed response I received about the PSCA (including that the referee, match day doctor, or team doctor – but not the opposing team doctor – can request the assessment), the answer to your question, Justin2, was this, from the Super Rugby Tournament Manual:
“The Team Doctor will complete a PSCA on a player with ‘suspected’ concussion UNLESS the Team Doctor assigns this responsibility to the Match Day Doctor (MDD) prior to the commencement of the Game.
“The Team Doctor in cases of emergency can assign PSCA responsibility to the MDD during a Game.”
There was no specific mention of the MDD overruling the team doctor (or vice versa), though.
Reading the information provided, it would seem that if the PSCA is followed properly (and the MDD will “observe” if not conducting the test), the result – and the implications for the player resuming – cannot be overruled.