Back before the 1992 rule changes, there used to be a lot of scrums.
Rugby often used to move from set piece to a ruck or maul, followed by rucking, lots of rucking. Most of the time all the rucking in the world could not get the ball free and a scrum was required to restart play. This cycle was normally only broken by a kick for touch.
In those days the scrum as much seen as a ‘no fault’ restart, rather than a restart after a mistake like it currently is. The side going forward got to put the ball in, because one side had to, and they wanted to reward the dominant team.
The halfback called the engage – imagine that. These days a scrum is much more likely to be the result of the attacking side making an error e.g. a knock on, a forward pass, accidental offside, or just not setting up the ruck or maul properly. Sometimes it is just the referees fault for getting in the way.
These days as scrums mostly result from an error, referees are willing to turn a blind eye to the halfback putting the ball under the hooker’s feet. Most teams just want to get the ball out as quickly as possible so they can get back to phase play.
But some teams, those with especially strong scrums, use the scrum as a means to milk penalties and yellow cards. This is only interesting to supporters of side with the dominant scrum, or real purists. This is an obstacle rugby’s growth in new markets.
Setting one scrum stops the flow of the game enough. Don’t get me wrong I don’t want rugby to turn into rugby league but if the scrum was efficient as the lineout now is rugby would be a better visual spectacle.
Rugby is now much more of a pleasure to watch because rule changes have sought to make it more following, continuous and attacking orientated. The lineout is a good example. Up until the late 1990s lineouts were even more of a mess than scrums are today.
It was said that a referee could whistle a penalty at every lineout. The fix was to allow lifting. People moaned that it would ruin the lineout and make it impossible to challenge the throw in. Or result in many injuries and broken necks.
But the lineout now involves far more skill than it used to and does what it is intended to do – restart play. There are very few injuries from lineouts. With fastball coming of the top the lineout is now the best attacking platform in the game. The scrum should be seen in the same way – a restart to spark attacking play.
One method to stop teams scrumming for penalties is to reduce the time the ball can be held in the scrum once hooked; like the ‘use it’ rules in rucks, say five seconds. This would be an intermediate step between what is happening now and farcically de-powering the scrum like in rugby league.
The obvious exception would be scrums set on the five-metre line as the pushover try is a spectacle in of itself and should be maintained.
Having a strong scrum would still be a massive advantage as the opposition scrum can be moved back a significant distance in five seconds; and if it can’t hold itself together for that time a penalty can still be whistled. The benefit of pushing the opposition scrum back is that opposition backline is, literally, on the back foot as they attempt to stay onside.
The attacking team can make use of that giving the attacking backline an extra split second. This is how an attacking scrum should be used. Not as an attempt to milk penalties and yellow cards.
Some would decry the reduction in importance of one of the traditional skills of rugby. But rugby has become a better visual spectacle as a traditional slow, power forward, game has diminished.
One of the main benefits of Super Rugby was that it forced the South Africans to develop a balanced game; these days even England is developing one to.
This is to the game’s benefit. If long, drawn out, scrums was what the audience wanted to see there would be a sport that consisted of just scrums; Georgia would be top tier in that sport.
Scrum penalties result in going from set piece to set piece. This is not good for the spectacle. This is what previous law changes have sought to avoid.
One benefit of making the scrum more of a restart is that it would allow the weaker rugby nations to compete better as, generally, they have weaker scrums. Many times Pacific island teams would’ve beaten traditional powerhouses, if they had an adequate scrum.
Also if a team, with a weak scrum, gets in the back foot they often collapse the scrum, hoping to get a better hit in the reset scrum. If they keep scrumming while on the back foot they are going to get penalised anyway; the current laws incentivise them to take the risk, this increases the risk of injury.
In general when New Zealand or South African teams scrum there are not that many resets; but if a New Zealand or South African team scrums against an Australian team there are a lot more resets.
The obvious reason is that Australian teams generally have weaker scrums and are no doubt trying to avoid a scrum penalty. If someone had the statistics on scrum resets I’m sure it would make interesting reading.
Another method to make the scrum more of a restart would be to leave the rules as they are but make the maximum sanction for a scrum infringement a free kick.
This reduces the payoff of scrumming until the opposition scrum disintegrates. But that could result in teams deliberately collapsing, even more than they currently do now. It also sends the wrong message regarding safety.
As a related issue, but not directly related to scrum penalties, scrums are being used to provide a rest break as teams quickly collapse the scrum; resulting in a reset.
Often the referee decides they need to chime in, creating even more of a rest period. If you can milk a couple of resets, it’s even more of a rest period.
The clock should be stopped when the whistle is blown for a scrum and only restarted when the ball emerges from the scrum; it would be difficult for timekeepers to manage, but worth doing.
This would reduce the number of resets as resets would not be able to be used to run the clock down; less resets should result in fewer scrum injuries.
Don’t get me wrong I think scrums are awesome. There’s very little else like it in sport; eight participants working in unison. The power generated is immense.
There are few better feelings in rugby than being on the right side of a dominant scrum and few worse than being on wrong side of losing one; the further forward you are, in the scrum, the more that feeling is amplified. It is something that a back could never understand.
But scrumming for penalties has become just another way in which dominant teams manipulate the laws of the game to their advantage; and much like cynical offending, it harms the spectacle.
Scrumming for penalties gives teams, with weak scrums, an incentive to collapse with the hope that they will do better in the next one; wasting even more time and creating more risk.
If the scrum keeps harming the spectacle scrums may end up being de-powered, that would be a tragedy as props would become short loose forwards and locks would become tall loose forwards. Make the scrum what is, a restart.