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…


Fist Pumping

Anyone see the Wimbledon final yesterday? If not, you missed out- great game of tennis, really competitive for the first two sets, and Roger Federer showing just why he is the greatest player of all time towards the end. Tough for Andy Murray after a long, hard tournament, but he did himself proud and as they say: form is temporary, class is permanent. And Federer has some class.

However, the reason I bring this up is not to extol the virtues of a tennis match again (I think my post following Murray’s loss at the Australian Open was enough for that), but because of a feature that, whilst not tennis-specific, appears to be something like home turf for it- the fist pump.

It’s a universally-recognised (from my experience anyway) expression of victory- the clenched fist, raised a little with the bent elbow, used to celebrate each point won, each small victory. It’s an almost laughably recognisable pattern in a tennis match, for whilst the loser of a point will invariably let their hand go limp by their side, or alternatively vent his or her frustration, the winner will almost always change their grip on the racket, and raise one clenched fist in a quiet, individual expression of triumph- or go ape-shit mental in the case of set or match wins.

So then, where does this symbol come from? Why, across the world, is the raised, clenched fist used in arenas ranging from sport to propaganda to warfare as a symbol of victory, be they small or world-changing? What is it that lies behind the fist pump?

Let us first consider the act of a clenched fist itself. Try it now. Go on- clench your fist, hard, maintaining a strong grip. See the knuckles stand out, sense the muscles bulge, feel the forearm stiffen. Now, try to maintain that position. Keep up that strong grip for 30 seconds, a minute, maybe two. After a while, you should feel your grip begin to loosen, almost subconsciously. Try to keep it tight if you can, but soon your forearm will start to ache, grip fading and loosening. It’s OK, you can let go now, but you see the point- maintaining a strong grip is hard old work. Thus, showing a strong grip is symbolic of still having energy, strength to continue, a sign that you are not beaten yet and can still keep on going. This is further accompanied by having the fist in a raised, rather than slack, position, requiring that little bit more effort. Demonstrating this symbol to an opponent after any small victory is almost a way of rubbing their noses in it, a way of saying that whilst they have been humbled, the victor can still keep on going, and is not finished yet.

Then there is the symbolism of the fist as a weapon. Just about every weapon in human history, bar those in Wild Wild West and bad martial arts films, requires the hands to operate it, and our most basic ones (club, sword, mace, axe etc.) all require a strong grip around a handle to use effectively. The fist itself is also, of course, a weapon of sorts in its own right. Although martial artists have taken the concept a stage further, the very origins of human fighting and warfare comes from basic swinging at one another with fists- and it is always the closed fists, using knuckles as the driving weapon, that are symbolic of true hand-to-hand fighting, despite the fact that the most famous martial arts move, the ‘karate chop’ (or knife-hand strike to give it its true name) requires an open hand. Either way, the symbolism and connection between the fist and weaponry/fighting means that the raised fist is representative not only of defiance, of fighting back,  standing tall and being strong against all the other could throw against them (the form in which it was used in large amounts in old Soviet propaganda), but also of dominance, representing the victor’s power and control over their defeated foe, further adding to the whole ‘rubbing their noses in it’ symbolism.

And then there is the position of the fist. Whilst the fist can be and is held in a variety of positions ranging from the full overhead to the low down clench on an extended arm, it is invariably raised slightly when clenched in victory. The movement may only be of a few centimetres, but its significance should not be underestimated- at the very least it brings the arm into a bent position. A bent arm position is the starting point for all punches and strikes, as it is very hard to get any sort of power from a bent arm, so the bending of the arm on the fist clench is once again a connection to the idea of the fist as a weapon. This is reinforced by the upwards motion being towards the face and upper body, as this is the principle target, and certainly the principle direction of movement (groin strikes excepted) in traditional fist fighting. Finally, we have the full lift, fists clenched and raised above the head in the moment of triumph. Here the symbolism is purely positional- the fists raised, especially when compared to the bent neck and hunched shoulders of the defeated compatriot, makes the victor seem bigger and more imposing, looming over his opponent and becoming overbearing and ‘above’ them.

The actual ‘pumping’ action of the fist pump, rarer than the unaccompanied clench,  adds its own effect, although in this case it is less symbolism and more naked emotion on show- not only passion for the moment, but also raw aggression to let one’s opponent know that not only are you up for this, but you are well ready and prepared to front up and challenge them on every level. But this symbolism could be considered to be perhaps for the uncivilised and overemotional, whereas the subtlest, calmest men may content themselves with the tiniest grin and a quick clench, conjuring up centuries of basic symbolism in one tiny, almost insignificant, act of victory.

Part 4… and I think there’s going to be another one…

Part 4 of my series on gym-less workouts should be the last one on that subjects specifically- however, since a related idea has been knocking around my head for a while (since I started this series), I’m going to continue with my running theme of sport n stuffs for at least one more post. Whether I go on for even longer than that is entirely up to whether I can think of enough material for it, and whether I think it’s got boring.

But first, my final two exercises:

Where:  Er… on your forearms. As in the bit between hand and elbow. Something that not a lot of people know about the forearms is that their main function is not in fact to move the wrist (although they do do that), but to control the hand and fingers (which contain no muscles of their own due to lack of space, but connect to small muscles in the forearm). As such, they are responsible for the strength of your grip.
Exercise: Grip strength is a very important part of a lot of everyday and workout exercises- one of the most common beneficiaries is pull-ups, so doing those will build your forearms a little. However, to work them more specifically (and make pull-ups of all kinds an easier process), you basically need to find a way of gripping something against resistance. If you really want, you can buy these things consisting of two handles with a spring in between them that you clench and unclench, but I’m sticking to non-equipment exercises here. You can just find something to grab hold of and repeatedly clench and unclench against it, but for more satisfying results just take any heavy object with a handle- if you happen to have a shopping bag that does not lacerate your fingers, that’s perfect, but a handle at the top of a rucksack will work too. Hang the handle from outstretched fingers, and simply repeatedly clench and relax your hand. Best of all, this is the kind of thing you can do casually on the way home from the shops, meaning you don’t have to set aside time to work it out. Forearms are perhaps not the most crucial muscle group, but they are useful nonetheless and, given that they are really easy to work, you’d be pretty dumb not to.

Where: …come on, really? I mean really?
Exercise: Many serious gym-goers don’t really believe in full-body workouts other than as a fitness technique, and next to none would be able to name on for working all of the body’s muscles. This is unsurprising- most people would associate a ‘full-body workout’ either as a descriptive term for a gym session, rather than exercise, or something like swimming, which will work just about every muscle gently, and will mostly only build endurance (although, offset against that, the most physically impressive guy I have ever met set it all off as a swimmer, so if you know what you’re doing…). The thing is, resistance training (using weight as a load) fundamentally doesn’t work more than one or two muscle groups well without technique and effectiveness suffering, and so is not designed for full-body exercises. There is, however, an alternative that is- tension training.
I came across tension training in martial arts, where it is used to train the body to stiffen up when it is hit and thus absorb blows better. It basically consists of performing a range of motions, without any weight, very slowly and controlledly, but working against your own body to provide the load to work against. To explain- muscles work in antagonistic pairs, meaning one contracts to move a joint one way, and its partner contracts to move it in the opposite direction. The principle of tension training is that by tensing both muscles at once, if the joint is to move then the muscle contracting must overcome the force of the other muscle pulling against it, and thus both muscles get worked. Tension training done properly involves performing very slow, simple motions whilst endeavouring to keep every muscle in your body tensed up as you perform the motion.
A key feature of tension training is breathing- you should do long, controlled breaths in time with the motion, breathing out as you contract and perform the stretch (your breath should sound very strained, like a sound effect from some deathly minion in a fantasy film, as it forces its way through your tense neck) and breathing in as you relax and return to position. To use an example, if your chosen motion were a bicep curl, then you would tense up all your muscles (bicep, tricep, chest, back, neck, legs, abdominals, everything) and breathe out in one long, slow, 10 second breath as you contracted the biceps and brought them up to your chest, and then relax and breathe out as you return to your starting position. This strict breathing pattern deprives your body of oxygen, forcing it to learn to use it more efficiently and greatly benefiting your muscular endurance, whilst the exercise itself works muscles for strength (all muscles get a bit of work, but the ones worked hardest are those moving, so the biceps and triceps in the example above). Tension exercises can be incredibly tiring, especially if done at the end of a session (which is probably where they belong to prevent you becoming too tired to do anything else), but are worth the effort for the benefits they can reap- they should take about 3-5 minutes overall, over a variety of motions and exercises (some martial arts incorporate them into a ‘dance’ of strikes and blocks for variety and training), and should provide an interesting line of exercises for everyone from the lowliest newbie trying to fulfil a New Year’s resolution, to the most musclebound hunk who’s in the gym 4 times a week, every week, for the last 5 years. I thoroughly recommend them.