Save Our Scrum
December 28, 2011
Saracens and Harlequins pack down for a scrum during their Premiership clash at Twickenham © Getty Images
If there is a collective New Year's Resolution for rugby fans, followers and players it should be 'Save our Scrum.'
After eight weeks in New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup sharing a commentary box, meals and even an apartment with Brian Moore I am persuaded that the cornerstone of the Rugby Union we know and love is in real danger. Only a couple of weeks ago Mark McCall, Saracens' director of rugby, confessed they do not even practise moves from the scrum anymore because it is such a lottery and suggested getting rid of them altogether.
Brian is passionate about the scrum - as befits a hooker - and sometimes it overflows into obsession but you cannot argue with him on this one because he is right. Why is a crooked feed (often embarrassingly so) allowed at just about every scrum so that hookers no longer have to learn to hook when a line-out throw that is so marginally off-line that it offers no advantage is penalised without fail? There is no rhyme or reason - except that one man, Paddy O'Brien, the International Rugby Board's referees' boss, has decreed that this is the way things will be done.
Some people - not Brian - see this as a minor annoyance that is not life threatening but even they cannot ignore the mess caused by the 'Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage' sequence that is the prelude to every scrum. Who is responsible for it? Right first time - Paddy O'Brien, a man who spent his not very distinguished rugby career as far away from the front row as possible, playing fullback for Southland 'B' at his best!
It was introduced for safety reasons. Over zealous officials were persuaded that it would help reduce the number of neck injuries in the game - all the statistics show three-quarters of them happen in tackle situations (presumably, we'll be playing touch rugby next) - by taking out the 'hit' as the front rows engage.
In fact it has done the opposite - every coach will tell you the hit is more important than ever because there is no question of being able to recover as referees whistle for binding under/over/going up/disengaging/ deliberate wheeling or not binding at all. They sound totally in control but just sit with any front rower and he will tear their reason to pieces.
As somebody who was forced into the front-row for the odd scrum (a couple of times in internationals) in the days when replacements were only allowed for injuries and play continued whilst the doctor made sure the injured player could not continue before sanctioning a substitute, I would add my weight to the cause - my experience is 100 times greater than Paddy's!
My worries about the extent to which a referee determines the result of the game these days extend further. I'll resist references back to the World Cup - that is now officially history - but just yesterday in the showcase match at Twickenham between Harlequins and Saracens the referee gifted Sarries six points early on and, arguably, decided the match.
I am actually a Wayne Barnes fan - I love his unofficious manner on the field and because of that he usually creates a good rapport with the players but he got it horribly wrong because he decided he needed to make a statement - for me that is weakness not strength.
The first penalty was against the tackler for not allowing the tackled player to play the ball - not releasing. 'I hadn't called "maul" it was still a tackle for me,' he explained as Quins protested. Wrong - the tackler had released, the tackled player was on his back, the other Quins players were on their feet - it was a classic turnover situation and definitely a maul. We want a contest at the breakdown so even if it was marginal, which it was not, they deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Then he made an even poorer decision. Matt Hopper was within touching distance as Peter Stringer kicked and chased. It was impossible for him to get out of the way but he was penalised - 'Number 13 left his shoulder in.' He could have been excused if he had (he was so close it was self protection) but, commendably, he turned away, the collision was unavoidable but it cost Quins dearly.
C'mon Wayne - you're better than that! If those penalties had happened at the end of the contest there would have been uproar but points scored in the first 10 minutes are sometimes even more important! Sadly, the old cliché - a good referee is one who is seen and not heard - is not possible in modern rugby but I am genuinely worried that the cult of the referee is taking the game over. They determine who wins in far too many games and are often the most influential person on the pitch - that has to be wrong.
This is the time when the laws are reviewed and then set in stone for another four years so if you do nothing else before celebrating a very Happy New Year join the Brian Moore/John Taylor campaign and email Paddy O'Brien at the IRB demanding that he acts to 'Save our Scrum!'
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John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh