The end of the scrum farce?
August 21, 2013
Will Genia prepares to feed the scrum at the weekend © Getty Images
Eureka! At last the International Rugby Board has climbed down, recognised the blindingly obvious and in so doing has instantly got rid of the scrum problems that were blighting the game.
'A touch premature, the jury is still out,' those of a cynical bent will be crying. Not in my book - there has been enough of a transformation in the games I have seen in the past week to endorse the new scrum sequence and rulings unequivocally - things will only get better as players and referees become used to a very different regime.
The best example was Australia v New Zealand, the first game in this season's Rugby Championship, refereed by Craig Joubert, probably rated No. 1 in the world right now. Remember, it was only last March when Joubert awarded a total of 28 penalties, many of them for scrum offences, which resulted in a record 18 kicks at goal during Scotland's match against Wales in the Six Nations.
That caused former England captain, Will Carling to tweet, in despair: 'Sometimes referee, let us see some rugby! Let them actually play! Bloody petty scrum decisions.' Then later, 'Fair play to the referee - he has certainly got us all guessing.'
This time there were still 18 penalties with 9 kicks at goal but only a couple were for technical scrummaging offences whilst two free kicks and two penalties were given for not putting the ball in straight - incredible!
Joubert was still criticised for not being tough enough on the crooked scrum feed but that underestimates the totally different mindset he has had to adopt and embrace since the end of the British & Irish Lions tour.
The players are also having to relearn old skills. There was one scrum where Stephen Moore just forgot to hook and Steven Luatua snaffled it on the blind-side. I am not sure it was even legal - there was a suspicion the ball actually came out of the tunnel but law 20.7(b) -'if the scrum-half throws in the ball and it comes out at either end of the tunnel, the ball must be thrown in again' - has obviously been redundant in recent years because it would have re-emerged somewhere in the second-row. The most exciting scrummaging moment of all was we almost saw a genuine strike against the head - younger readers can be forgiven for not knowing what that means!
For years I have argued the IRB could easily deal with the scrum problem if they really had a mind to do so by asking the front-rows to bind before the rest of the scrum packed down but under the old guard (those who came up with the dreaded, 'crouch - touch - pause - engage') there was a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the problem.
The new protocol has gone down a slightly different route - probably quicker and better - but it has achieved the desired result. Just by ensuring the bind is in place before engagement they have all but eliminated the hit and there is far less opportunity to bind illegally.
The aim was to 'reduce forces on engagement at the elite level by 25% .' On the evidence of the weekend they have achieved that and more. Why (oh why) did it take them so long to admit that 'touch-pause-engage' was an incitement to hit instead of a deterrent.
We saw one genuine penalty for going down - great scrum from Australia - and one for a binding offence but there were no props with hands on the ground and far less grappling with the opposing prop to try to gain some sort of advantage.
South Africa enjoyed scrum supremacy at the weekend © Getty Images
The teams who had really practised the new code made the transition look easy whilst Argentina, who had obviously paid only lip service, were beaten out of sight in an area where they might have hoped for parity and, as a consequence, put in their poorest international performance for a very long time.
Significantly, Andrew Hore, the hugely experienced All Blacks hooker, gave the new laws a resounding endorsement, saying he had really enjoyed playing the new system - joking that 'we just need to teach the half-backs to put it (the ball) down the middle.'
Most important of all was the feel of the New Zealand/Australia game. Unfortunately, statistics are not readily available on the amount of time taken up with scrums in the last few seasons but everybody will agree it has been far too much and that an absurd amount of time has been spent moaning about a phase of the game that in the laws, comes under the general heading of 'Restarts.'
New Zealand's supremacy obviously exaggerated everything but there was a pace and a flow to the game that has been worryingly missing in international rugby at the top level in recent seasons and I believe that was very largely due to the scrums taking up less time and resulting in fewer.
If it continues in this vein Brian Moore might have to find a new hobby horse because, hopefully, scrum penalties will no longer be deciding matches.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist