Analyzing Implications of New Rules of Engagement at Scrums
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Despite what some cynics may think, the introduction of the new scrum laws during the first round of the Rugby Championship was not to make life significantly easier for every prop that wears the gold and green of Australia.
No, the purpose of the revised engagement rules was for no other reason than to protect players, or so the IRB says.
Apparently player welfare has been at the absolute forefront of the IRB steering group's thinking when they were tasked with amending an aspect of the game that has become bogged down, quite literally on muddy days.
For the best part of the last decade, the art of scrummaging has been slowly eroded due to a combination of poor regulations and referees failing to enforce the rules correctly.
The engagement hit, when both front rows come together, has become an all-important and unwelcome aspect of the set-piece, while at the same time scrum-halves have been allowed to get away with increasingly crooked feeds.
We look at the implications for the game following last weekend's introduction of trial regulations.
The Scrum: Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Phil Walter/Getty Images
"Crouch, touch, set:" the words that created a behemoth.
These engagement instructions not only endangered players because of the force that scrums were creating when they came together, it also led to the endless series of resets that fans and players have been suffering for too long.
And when a scrum did manage to stay up, the refs were so relieved that they turned a collective blind eye to scrum-halves feeding the ball into the second rows.
It was all starting to resemble rugby league, and for some union officials who had to compete with this rival "entertainment," it may not have been such a bad thing.
Ever since England's "white orcs on steroids" comfortably held an All Blacks scrum on their own line with just six men packing down, there has been a suspicion that parts of the rugby-playing world felt underpowered in this department.
So, quoting statistics for "ball in play", there was a gradual depowering of the scrum.
Thankfully, the mess that resulted has aided those who wish for a return of the traditional arts, such as former hooker Brian Moore who has led a campaign for the rules to be not only changed but properly applied.
No one claims the complexities of the scrum are simple to understand, nor the reasons why it has become such a mess. But a mess it is, and to its credit, the IRB has acted.
Sixty-four caps for England and five for the British and Irish Lions allows Moore to make sense of it all far better than most, as reported in this piece by the BBC.
New Scrum Instructions: Crouch, Set, Bind
In a bid to reduce the force that front rows have to absorb when they engage, the IRB has changed the instructions to "crouch, set, bind."
Props now have to have their outside arms bound before the scrum is entitled to push, and no longer will the "hit" be allowed to decide the outcome of a scrum, or destabilize it to the same degree.
Here's what IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset had to say about it, as reported on RFU.com:
The scrum is a fundamental and dynamic part of our game. It is important that we continue to promote the best possible player welfare standards and this trial process is about putting players first and delivering a reduction of the forces on engagement, which could have significant positive effects on long-term player welfare.
According to the IRB, the new rules of engagement will reduce the force of two packs coming together by 25 percent, as explained in this piece by Simon Thomas for WalesOnline.
This video on RFU.com shows how it should be done.
Australia vs. New Zealand: Crooked First Impressions
Matt King/Getty Images
While the old engagement rules created the problem of collapsed scrums, problems with the feed appear to be an unwanted side-effect of the new regulations.
Scrum-halves who grew up getting away with crooked feeds are having to adapt to putting the ball in straight and knowing when to put the ball in, while hookers who have never had to hook now need to learn that old-fashioned art.
It certainly presented scrum-halves with a challenge, as Wallabies skipper Will Genia told the Sydney Morning Herald:
It was tough. [Joubert] said before the game started 'look we want it dead straight, we're under pressure to get selected for games, so we have to make sure we enforce it', so we went into it expecting to get penalised once or twice and I guess that eventuated.'
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was quick to highlight the problems, as reported by Reuters:
We have just created another issue, haven't we? So once we get that sorted out and halfbacks put the ball in straight we'll be fine.
Obviously at the moment the referees are being very vigilant on it, so you had two sets of halfbacks out there who, every time there was a scrum, were very reluctant to put the ball in because they didn't want to be yellow carded.
The Scrum: Looking to the Future
Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
Although he highlighted the downside of the new regulations during the All Blacks-Australia game, Hansen said he was behind the changes in principle. He was also quoted by Reuters as saying:
We said there would be teething problems but the great thing is we didn't have too many collapses. Once we iron out the whole thing and get used to it, I think it will be great for the game.
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie said after the game that he also supported the "rationale" behind the new regulations, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald:
In time we'll sort it all out but for a first-up effort it was hard work. We want the scrum to be a contest but you still have to be able to play from it. We got a little bit of ball out of there but neither team really profited out of [it]. There was turnovers and penalties. It really cuts out a lot of the back-line play, which is what you want to watch in the end.
Despite the "teething problems" most observers appear to agree on the need for the new scrum laws. And as well as improving player safety, experts such as Moore are convinced that they will protect the uniqueness of the sport, as per the BBC.
The working of these laws means the roles in the scrum of hooker, prop and so on are distinct, and require different physical attributes. This allows rugby's unique claims to flourish. It is a game for all shapes and sizes. The fat boys can be props, the tall ones second rows and the diminutive malevolent ones hookers.