The Scrum Problem

My apologies from deviating back to a personal favourite- I try too keep rugby out of these posts on the grounds that, in real life, it tends to make things kind of exclusive for people who aren’t into it, but I thought that I might be allowed one small deviation from this guideline. Today, I wish to talk about probably the single most contentious issue in the game today, one that divides, confuses and angers just about everyone involved in it: the scrum.

The scrum has always been a historic feature of the game of rugby- perhaps a historic callback to the old ‘scrums’ of viciously fighting players that formed the origins of the game of football, in the context of rugby it has proved contentious since the very first international ever played. England and Scotland were playing one another and, at the time, both played under different rules, so it was agreed that they would play under English rules for the first half and Scottish ones in the second. The game was around an hour old, tied at 0-0 (yeah it was a bit rubbish in those days), when the Scots won a scrum on the English five metre line. Rather than feed the ball into the scrum, the Scots instead began to push. The unsuspecting English forwards were caught off guard and forced back over their own line, whereupon the Scottish scrum-half grounded the ball. Whilst totally illegal under English rules, and thus generating a barrage of complaints, the Scots had one fair and square, starting off a bitter rivalry against ‘the Auld Enemy’ that continues to this day.

The scrum has developed a lot since those days (everyone now plays under the same rules for one thing), but perhaps the most important development for the modern game came in the 1990’s, specifically within the New Zealand team at the time. The All Blacks were a talented side, but their major disadvantage came up front, for whilst their front row players were skilled, Sean Fitzpatrick and company were not the biggest or heaviest front row around. Whilst not a disadvantage in open play, at scrum time it was feared that they would crumble under their opponent’s superior weight, so they had to find a way round that. In the end, they resorted to a bit of trickery. The structure adopted at scrum time by most sides of the age was to come together gently, get settled, then let the scrum half put the ball in and start to push, twist, and cheat in all the million ways discovered by front rowers over the years. However, what the Kiwis decided to do was hit the engagement hard, smashing their opponents back to get a good body position early. Then, the scrum half would feed the ball in almost immediately, allowing them to start pushing straight away and keep their opponents on the back foot, thus not allowing them time to get themselves settled and start to push back. It worked like a charm, aside from one small drawback. Everyone else started to copy them.

Even with trained wrestlers, there is only so much damage that sixteen men can do to one another when simply trying to push one another back. However, when not much below a tonne of meat slams as hard as it can into another tonne smashing back the other way, the forces involved in the impact is truly huge, and suddenly the human spine doesn’t seem all that strong. Not only that, but the slightest misalignment of the impact, and that amount of force means there is simply no way for it to all settle down nicely. Combine this fact with the immense muscle building and weight gain programs now demanded by the modern, professional game, and the attention to detail of modern coaches to get that extra edge in the impact, and we reach the inescapable and chaotic conclusion that is the modern scrum. In the last world cup in 2011, in matches between top-tier countries 50 scrums out of every 100 collapsed, and there were 31 resets and 41 free-kicks or penalties per 100. The stats were virtually the same during this year’s Six Nations, in which nearly half of all scrums resulted in the ball not coming back and creating one match (Ireland v Scotland) that spent over a quarter of its playing time spent scrummaging, resetting or collapsing.

This is despite the fact that the face of the game has changed very much against the set piece in the modern era. In the early 1970’s, analysis suggests that the average number of set-pieces (scrums and lineouts) in a match was nearly triple its current value (mid-thirties), whilst the number of rucks/mauls has gone up sixfold since then. Even since the game first turned pro in the mid-nineties, the number of set pieces has dropped by a third and the number of successful breakdowns tripled. The amount of time the ball spends in play has also risen hugely, and some are even arguing that the scrum as we know it is under threat. Indeed, in last year’s Six Nations the scrum was only the deciding factor in one game (England v Ireland), and as Paul Wallace astutely pointed out at the time that Ireland getting pushed about for the entire match was their reward for playing by the rules and not sending a front rower off ‘injured’.

Then there are the myriad of various intrigues and techniques that have lead to the scrum becoming the unstable affair it is today. Many argue that modern skintight shirts don’t allow players to grip properly, forcing them to either slip or grab hold of easier and possibly illegal positions that make the scrum decidedly wobbly. Others blame foot positioning, arguing that the modern way of setting up one’s feet, where the hooker demands the majority of space, forces the backs of his props to angle inwards and making the whole business more dangerous and less stable. Some blame poor refereeing for letting scrummagers get away with things that are now becoming dangerous, destabilising habits among front rowers, whilst others may counter this by considering the myriad of confusing signals a referee has to try and keep track off at scrum time- two offside lines, straightness of feed, hooker’s feet up early, incorrect back row binding, illegal front row binding, whether his line judge is signalling him and whether anyone’s just broken their neck. This is clearly a mighty confusing situation, and one I’d love to be able to start suggesting solutions for- but I think I’ll leave that until Saturday…

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