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 rugbyheaven.co.nz 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.