Rules being undermined by interpretation
November 26, 2013
Hit and hold in Dublin? © Getty Images
On the evidence of the Rugby Championship and the autumn internationals the new protocols regarding scrummaging are in real danger of being undermined by a difference in interpretation between northern and southern hemisphere referees.
In general terms European referees appear to be trying to stick to the new regime whilst the Sanzar officials have become bored with it and are allowing a drift back to the old bad habits.
The aim of the new binding instructions was "reducing impact on engagement by at least 25%" and on the early evidence that was a huge success - most estimates put the figure at nearer 50% - but already, the emphasis has changed and it seems as if some referees are prepared to allow a limited 'hit' as long as the scrum remains stable.
In the Ireland v Australia match the New Zealand referee, Chris Pollock, berated the front-rows at one stage with the words, "hit and hold - I thought we had an agreement". 'Hit' is the one word a referee should never be using in a scrum context.
The only thing I can read into Pollock's words is that he had agreed in his pre-match briefing that he would allow a certain amount of 'hit' - the edge all coaches are reluctant to give-up - providing the scrum remained stable. For me that is the thin end of the wedge and sets a dangerous precedent.
The whole point of the 'bind' then 'set' instruction is to get the front-rows in close proximity so there cannot be a surge forward on engagement (the actual law says no pushing until the ball is put-in but we'll never achieve that). Front rows are already standing slightly further apart and are getting feet further back whilst still managing to bind but Pollock's variation is undermining the process further.
Southern hemisphere countries have always felt the north is too preoccupied with scrummaging and Pollock clearly comes from that school. In the same match you can see clearly he is not even watching the put-in so, unsurprisingly the feed became more and more crooked.
This now has big ramifications. Hooking had become a forgotten skill - it was obsolete when everybody was allowing a crooked feed - but now most northern hemisphere teams are teaching hookers to live-up to their name. That will soon disappear again if the emphasis on a straight feed is not policed properly.
In the Ireland v New Zealand game at the weekend it was great to see Nigel Owen give a penalty (against Ireland as it happened) for a crooked feed in the second-half showing he was still watching every scrum. I am sure Brian Moore was not satisfied but he was keeping both sides honest.
Owen is at the top of his game at the moment. His refereeing of the South Africa v New Zealand match was one of the reasons that match was such a wonderful finale to the Rugby Championship and he was on form again in Dublin.
Everything, from the way he took over the responsibility of making the final decision from the TMO when he had seen the replays of any controversial incidents on the big screen to his rapport with the players, showed a man confident in his own judgement and determined to make the final call. Just as important was the way he stuck to the spirit of the new scrummaging laws.
This is only a problem at the very top end of the game and when the new protocol was announced the IRB asked for "game-wide commitment from law makers, match officials, coaches and players to ensure a fair and positive attitude is applied to deal with scrum issues facing the elite level of the game".
Coaches will always be looking to gain advantage so they have to be forced to comply and the referees are the vehicle for doing that - there can be no private deals behind the scenes.
This is a great chance to sort out the scrum once and for all but the IRB has to show it is not prepared to compromise. If that means dropping top referees when they fail to show that all-important 'commitment' so be it.
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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
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