The scrum. Again. Another season, another attempt to sort out one of the biggest problems in the game.
The IRB have devised a new engagement sequence, which will be trialled in the upcoming Rugby Championship. The old 'crouch, touch, set' has been replaced by 'crouch, bind, set'.
To quote directly from the IRB website: 'Props will now be expected to crouch on the referee’s call, bind using their outside arm after the referee has called "bind". The front rows will maintain the bind until the referee calls “set”. At that point, the two packs will engage.'
The page goes on to say that 'The IRB will also instruct referees to ensure that the ball does not enter the tunnel unless the scrum is square and stationary and that a straight throw-in is strictly policed’.
The thinking behind this new engagement is based around player welfare. It is claimed that it de-powers the hit by around 25%, therefore reducing the injury risk.
I will get to my opinions on the sequence in a moment.
First, seeing that it will definitely be used in the Southern Hemisphere tournament later next month, I want to look at how it will affect the teams involved. My first instinct is that it will suit South Africa, Australia and Argentina much more than it will New Zealand.
Traditionally, Argentinian scrummages have relied much more on their collective work after the hit, than actually getting a big initial hit.
As far back as I can remember, they were famous (or perhaps notorious) for the 'bajada' scrum, loosely translated as 'concerted shove'. This involved the second rowers binding with their outside arms around the props backsides, as opposed to through their legs as is traditional everywhere else.
The result is that all the power of the scrum is channeled through the hooker. After the engagement, they would have a call to instigate an eight-man shove. When drilled, this was incredibly powerful and effective and was seen to devastating effect during the 1995 World Cup.
There, the Argentine scrum dismantled all-comers, including two pretty good packs from England and Italy (incidentally, I have no recollection of anyone moaning about bent put-ins and early shoves back then, although they were rife).
Although this style is not as popular as it once was, Argentinian scrummagers are still very effective after the hit.
As for Australia, they have arguably the weakest scrum in the Rugby Championship. By de-powering the hit, it may mean that they will be more able to gain parity with the other stronger, more powerful units of the other teams.
I suspect that South Africa may be the team to benefit the most from the changes. Their scrummaging is generally based on massive blokes pushing as hard as they can.
They can field the biggest pack of forwards in the competition and they seem to have no real preference as to the size of the engagement. If they get a big hit, the momentum is all theirs. And if they have a neutral engagement, the sheer weight of the players in behind can often bail out the front-rowers.
They can, however, come unstuck against a good, technical scrum if they can't over-power them, as sometimes the angles of their props can cause more problems than it solves. That is where the other teams will try to attack them.
In my opinion, New Zealand are the team that could struggle with this shift. They practically invented the 'hit-and-go' method of scrummaging in the early 90s. They used the great strength, power and technique of players like Sean Fitzpatrick, Steve Macdowell and Richard Low to simply hit and walk over the ball on their put-in.
When props Craig Dowd and Olo Brown joined Fitzpatrick, around 1994, they took this to another level. Aside from being perhaps the first 'really big' front row (Craig Dowd was a freakish 6ft 3 and 18 stones at a time when front-rowers were generally around and under 6ft), they were technically brilliant and worked as a unit.
The height they worked at was just too low for most other packs and enabled them to optimise their power. This lead to around 10 years as perhaps the most dominant scrum in the international game, until the famous night in Wellington when England’s six-man scrum beat back a series of All Black scrummages in the shadow of their own posts to secure a memorable victory.
That night heralded in a new generation of Kiwi scrummagers, and renowned scrum coach Mike Kron rebuilt the scrummage around Carl Hayman, Kevan Mealamu and Tony Alcock. The next 10 years saw New Zealand back at the top of international scrummaging and the main ingredients were a hugely powerful hit, followed by an immense surge to secure the ball.
For a time, it was unstoppable. Ironically, this dominance could well be their undoing with the new laws. In order to get a big hit, they have traditionally tried to get a wider gap between them and the opposition before the engagement. This gap will now be considerably shorter due to the requirement to pre-bind.
They have a whole generation of front-rowers who are used to flying into the scrum from 18 inches away from the opposition. Will they be able to adjust to engaging from a distance of about six inches? That will be very interesting to see.
My gut feeling is that the new laws will not massively affect the untidiness of scrums in the modern professional game. Whilst I accept that a reduction in the impact of the hit will benefit player welfare, I just don't see how a shorter gap between packs, and a straight put-in will make scrummaging any cleaner.
During the recent Lions series, the two packs were about as close to each other as packs will be under the new pre-bind law. Essentially, this means that, as front-rowers, when you crouch down your ear will be level with the ear of your opponent and the top of your head will almost be touching his shoulder.
In the first two Lions tests, the scrum was a complete mess. There was one reason for this - negative scrummaging (or cheating, to put it another way).
While the Lions were by no means innocent, I felt the majority of the issues came from Australia. In the first Test, I believe they were aware that, once they saw the pack that the Lions selected, they would come a distant second in a straight pushing contest.
So they attempted to just turn it into a mess and hope that the referee gave them the odd decision here and there, or just opt to reset. Either way, they were happy to avoid being shoved around and penalised constantly.
The second Test was slightly different in that the media spent the whole week talking about Mako Vunipola and his illegal scrummaging technique (whilst conveniently avoiding talking about their own, of course) when it became clear that Corbisiero was ruled out.
The players then used all their experience to make it appear that a rookie prop was doing exactly what the papers had been saying he does. The scrum was again a mess, with a number of early penalties going against the young Saracen.
Somewhat bizarrely, later in the game Vunipola earned a number of penalties whilst appearing (at least to me) to not be doing anything differently. The point being that the scrum was, again, a total mess.
Whilst the third Test saw the Lions dominating the scrum due to different refereeing interpretations, the fact remained that it was a mess again.
The point is, that all this came from a very close engagement. It demonstrates that, whether the gap is big or small, negative scrummaging can still prevail and turn scrummaging into a debacle.
I also have an issue regarding the safety of the new laws. The insistence on a straight put-in suggests that hooking may become necessary again.
As I said in a previous blog, this raises the problem of having a bloke standing on one leg in the middle of two 850 kg packs.
The fact that most young hookers don’t have to learn how to hook means that they will not be used to contorting their bodies into the required shapes in order to heel the ball back.
And even if they are able to strike for the ball, the forces exerted by eight modern forwards mean that there is serious potential for problems.
As soon as a hooker puts his foot up to strike the ball, the opposition will shove.
This means you get an eight-against-seven contest. To me, this raises serious questions about safety.
I think some of the theories behind these changes are sound. But, in practice, I see just as many new problems arising as we have already.
Or perhaps I'm just an old cynic!
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