The scrum. The ultimate embodiment of our sport? Or a dangerous eyesore threatening to ruin our sport?
Everybody, it seems, has an opinion on the scrum these days. Traditionally, only those brave or stupid enough to actually play in it had an opinion on it. And, invariably, those men were too inarticulate, too busy eating or too secretive to air it.
Nowadays, every TV commentator, journalist and internet blogger cannot talk about the game without giving their two penn’orth on the scrum.
So here's mine and, firstly, let's get one thing straight - the scrum has always been a mess. Front rowers have been collapsing, standing up, boring in and walking round for ever and a day.
I don't believe for a second that modern players are more cynical and more likely to cheat than any generation before. You only have to attend a club dinner with an old front-rower as the guest speaker, to hear the stories of the skullduggery that went on before TV cameras were in attendance.
What has changed is the size, strength and power of the players, the amount of laws that govern the scrum and the way it is now refereed as decreed by the powers that be.
The modern scrum is now just a pushing contest with huge emphasis placed on the hit. This has led to the development of hugely powerful, strong props and hookers (present company excepted) who can explode across the gap at the engagement, and simply walk over the ball. Win the hit and you win the scrum.
In the past, the hit was important, but mainly to enable you to get into your favoured scrummaging position before your opposite number could get into his. And even if you lost the hit, the forces were sufficiently low to allow you to wrestle and wriggle yourself into a better position. This essentially was the technique of scrummaging.
The modern scrum contains hugely superior forces due to the size of the players, which means there is much less room for manoeuvre should you find yourself in a bad position following the hit. This leads to players going up, down and sideways to avoid injury, or to disrupt the opposition by redirecting their power and putting them off balance.
I hear all the time that, if the ball was put into the scrum straight and the hooker actually hooked the ball, this would de-power the hit and make the scrum more stable.
But I disagree with this on two counts. Firstly, this would alienate whole generations of young hookers who have never needed to learn the art of striking for the ball. I feel it would be a little harsh to tell the young kid, who has worked his butt off in the academy or lower levels to get to the verge of first team rugby, that he needs to go back to square one, change his body shape and learn the position all over again!
And secondly, even if the modern hooker was able to strike a straight-fed ball, you still have 15 other huge men generating massive forces around him. I’m not sure how many of you out there would like to stand on one foot in the middle of that. I’ve done it and it is both unpleasant and pretty unsafe.
I would say that de-powering the hit would be the first item on the agenda if the scrum is to be sorted out. Ensuring it is still a pushing/wrestling/technical battle is essential, as the scrum has to remain a vital part of our game. But taking the emphasis away from the hit would solve a lot of issues.
A possible solution is currently being trialled in South Africa at schoolboy level. The two packs fold in and engage without a hit, the ball is fed straight and the scrum begins once it is in. I feel this is the best solution offered so far, and I'm interested to see how it works out.
Which leads to my next point - the constant tinkering with the scrummage laws. In the Dark Ages, before professionalism (officially) reared it's ugly head, as long as the ball eventually emerged and there was nothing too blatant going on, the game carried on.
Scrums often ended up on the floor with hookers hooking the ball with their heads (or noses, if they were suitably endowed) and props with their heads between their knees. The referee encouraged the tight-head prop to stay straight, watched for 'foot up' or 'feeding', and that was about it.
The players initiated the hit without any calls from the referee. It was common to be already down and engaged with the opposition front-row whilst your own second-row was pulling his short shorts out of somewhere uncomfortable.
If your front-five was strong enough, one or two of the back row would not even bother binding up. Instead, they would line up in the back line or on the blindside to give you more numbers.
To disrupt the opposition, you could strike against the head, shove them off the ball, or spin the scrum around through 180 degrees to put their number 8 under pressure. Life was grand.
Then the lawmakers stepped in. Firstly, they insisted on eight men being bound into the scrum in order to reduce the log-jam in the midfield and encourage more running rugby. It could be argued that this was when the forces exerted in the scrum began to creep up.
If the flankers had to be on the scrum, they may as well push and make themselves useful. Hence an increase in weight and force.
Next came the ruling that, if a scrum turned through 90 degrees, the side in possession would turn over the ball and the opposition would have the put-in to a scrum themselves. This lead to more scrums in games, which in turn lead to more scrum offences.
It also provided weaker scrums with a method of competing with superior packs. It was no longer just about who was technically superior. It was about who could use the laws to their advantage better.
And finally, the referee was asked to call the scrum engagement. It started with a simple 'crouch and hold.......engage', which morphed into the frankly ridiculous 'crouch.....touch......pause......engage' (where the word 'pause' was preceded and followed by an actual pause). It is now 'crouch....touch....set'.
The thinking behind these calls revolves around the safety of the players. It was felt the referee was required to control the engagement to reduce the risk of injury.
In actuality, the long procedure has made it potentially more dangerous, and certainly more messy.
Front-rows being held in a squatting position and trying to maintain their balance whilst holding back all the weight behind and getting ready to fly across the gap into the opposition, combined with factors such as tight shirts preventing good binding, and the natural gamesmanship of players lead to the scrum being in the state it is in today.
There is no definitive answer to solve the scrummage issue. By its very nature, with all the forces, angles and intricacies, it is an unstable and complex animal.
But it also happens to be one of the most important facets of the game. It, along with the line-out, make rugby union the only game for all sizes and shapes. Without them, we are playing a different sport.
It clearly needs some attention, and it remains to see where the people in charge will take it.
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