Tackling the scrum
Last Tuesday, the International Rugby Board (IRB) summoned the coaches of all the Six Nations sides to a forum to discuss the state of the scrum, that once proud edifice that too often nowadays resembles a steaming heap of rubble.
The scrum, at the highest level at least, is nothing short of a bad joke: currently, 60% of all scrums collapse in top-level internationals and 40% of scrums have to be reset. In addition, the average time to complete a scrum is just under a minute, which adds up to an awful lot of watching 16 huge men in a pile on the floor.
England coach Martin Johnson called last year's Six Nations match between England and Scotland at Murrayfield "a game of rugby trying to break out between scrums". And when BBC pundit Brian Moore, a former hooker who won 64 international caps, is so often moved to admit he hasn't got a clue what's going on at scrum-time, you know you've got a problem.
IRB referee manager Paddy O'Brien declared Tuesday's meeting to have been "extremely constructive and highly productive", and to expect a crackdown on illegal front-row binding and incorrect body positions in the upcoming Six Nations.
I thought about asking Moore for his opinions, but reckoned he might get too angry. However, BBC Sport has listened to plenty of big men that matter, and their concerns and conclusions are laid out below.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT THE SCRUM BE FIXED?
Keith Wood (BBC pundit, former Ireland and Lions hooker): The scrum is not killing the game but it is a pain in the neck - and it would kill the game if nothing was done about it. The scrum is magic, one of the cornerstones of rugby union.
BBC pundit Brian Moore is frustrated by last season's Calcutta Cup scrum chaos (UK users only)
If you got rid of scrummaging, you could then have generic rugby players, a bit like rugby league. But by having big, tall forwards and nuggety front rows like we have in rugby union, who can do all that hard work that needs to be done but maybe aren't as agile around the field, you create mis-matches, because it isn't like against like all the time.
Ed Morrison (the Rugby Football Union's head of elite referee development): If we ever lose the scrum we'll lose the game. It's an opportunity to push your opponents back legally and it's an opportunity to gain possession of the ball legally and we need to get back to that mindset.
The best recent example of positive scrummaging was the Leicester-Northampton Premiership game, when the scrums were magnificent, they made the game. It was a classic example of how good the scrum can be when it's played, coached and refereed positively.
The international game has a massive responsibility to ensure that when people sit down and watch they're seeing a contest in the scrum and not a mess. It's a problem, it has to be rectified and it has to start at the highest level.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY COLLAPSES AND RESETS?
Kingsley Jones (former Wales flanker, current head coach at Sale): The scrum is now won and lost on the engagement. Coaches are coaching front-rows to win the race across the gap on the call to 'engage' and introduce the ball immediately. We've got big players who, if they lose the 'hit', look to the safety of the ground. We're not coaching that, but props want to look after themselves.
The familiar sight of a scrum collapsing during Australia v England last June
When someone loses the race, they go down and the scrum is reset. The next scrum, they don't want to lose the race, so they go early, which results in a free-kick because they jumped the call. Or if I'm an attacking scrum-half, my team hit and lose the engagement, I might say, "I can't put it in ref", because if I put the ball in and my team are going backwards, my coach will tell me what's what after the game.
Phil Vickery (former England and Lions prop): It varies so much, but basically if you've got two gangs of people pushing each other there are two ways it can go - it can either go up, where you're forcing each other up in the air, or it can go down, because as a front-row forward you don't want to go back - that's personal pride. So invariably it goes down.
KW: The main problem is the 'pause' phase [of the 'crouch-touch-pause-engage' sequence] because it's counter-intuitive, it goes against what you're about to do - it isn't about pausing, it's about going at 100mph, exploding into the 'hit'.
Graham Rowntree (former England and Lions prop, current England scrum coach): I know why the 'pause' stage was brought in, it settles everything. Before you had 'crouch-touch-engage', sometimes very quickly, and you had teams rolling into each other and there were too many forces and too much weight involved and you were getting injuries.
But there are timing issues. The whole sequence - 'crouch-touch-pause-engage' - can be delivered by different referees at different speeds, especially if both front rows have not followed through the sequence in time.
And while that's happening you've got some front rows who are bent and over-balanced and you can physically see them shaking because they're holding up all that weight. And when they meet each other and somebody is off-balance, or the ground conditions aren't very good, that scrum will go down.
DOES IT COME DOWN TO CHEATING?
KW: There absolutely is deliberate collapsing at the moment, there is plenty, because if you don't get into a good position at the start - if you're waiting and holding up the guys behind you and you don't get a good step on - you might as well collapse it, and that's especially the case with the bigger tight-head props.
But I can tell you that every forward pack wants to be as good as it can be, and if an individual doesn't get it right, he won't get picked. If your eight guys can scrum well you provide a great opportunity for your back-line - if it's messy, you don't. That's why your scrum is sacrosanct, it's a great launching pad.
Kingsley Jones and Jonathan Davies put the scrum to rights on Scrum V (UK users only)
GR: We have a job as players to be as good as we can, to stay in a good position, to push, and I'm not convinced all players do that. I get nothing out of collapsed scrums. These comments suggesting us coaches are underhand and want to keep it in-house are wide of the mark. I'm very open, my philosophy of scrummaging is quite simple - I want a pushing contest, there's no earth-shattering detail to it.
I sit in a room with Johnno [Martin Johnson] and he looks at me, furrowed brow, and says: "Graham, what's going on?" I hate seeing collapsed scrums, it embarrasses me. So we're not all trying to cheat, because by us trying to cheat we're only slowing the game down.
ARE REFEREES TO BLAME?
EM: There's no question that when we were asked to slow down the cadence [of the engagement sequence] and add the 'pause' it took time for referees to adjust to that process. But the real difficulty for the referee is when the scrum engages and it collapses immediately, the referee has to decide in a split second who's responsible.
What really pleased me about the IRB statement was the term "collective responsibility" in terms of reducing the number of collapsed and reset scrums. The responsibility absolutely should be shared by referees, coaches and players - all too often in the past total responsibility when things went wrong was shouldered by referees.
Ben Kay (former England and Lions lock): The referees need to be better at giving straight penalties, because as soon as penalties start being given in kickable range, as long as the coaches know what the referees are going on about, it will get rid of a lot of the problems and settle things down.
GR: I feel sorry for refs, and I don't say that very often. They've got a lot to look at, the intricacies of the scrum, and make decisions in a split second. As coaches we've got to give players the tools to take the referee out of the equation.
KW: I do feel sorry for referees and I never did when I played. Life is pretty hard for them, they're hamstrung when it comes to scrummaging because it's very technical.
But there are an awful lot of errors happening and different referees have their own way of refereeing, and I know the IRB are striving for more consistency. All the guys are looking for is consistency - if a referee refs a scrum in a particular fashion, he's always going to ref it in that fashion, that is comforting to a player.
ARE REFEREES WELL-ENOUGH EDUCATED?
EM: There's more education in the refereeing of front rows than there's ever been. As an elite group of referees we use Graham Rowntree, who has been magnificent over the last couple of years - that's the kind of education we need.
GR: Refs can't be educated too much, because unless you've played there, you don't really have an understanding of what's going on. I sit down with the RFU's elite referees as much as possible, and often they're very open and admit they don't know what's going on.
So it's about telling them what's going on, to reward the best possible position and shape in the scrum. And I'm urging our guys to be proactive, so when the referee sees a collapsed scrum, he sees we're trying to push and the opposition aren't. I don't envy the ref's job, and we've got to make it easy for them.
BK: I would make every referee after each game go and sit down with someone like Phil Vickery or Graham Rowntree and go through the video of every scrum - they could tell the referee what the props are trying to do.
PV: I was capped by England in 1998 and finished in 2010 and I have never been asked my opinion on scrum rules, engagement set-ups or how I think referees or new laws could help the scrum.
I'm not saying I know it all, I certainly don't, but do you think it would help to ask guys who are on the front line and could really give a good insight into what happens in the scrum? I find that sad.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO FIX IT?
KJ: The solution is simple. The laws are contradictory at the moment - Law 20.1 states that the scrum must be square and stationary in line with the touchline and over the mark before the ball can be introduced. Law 20.5 then states the ball must be introduced immediately on the front rows' engagement or when the referee instructs the scrum-half to do so.
So just put a line through the first part of Law 20.5 - the part where it says the ball must be introduced immediately on the front rows' engagement - because it's causing confusion for everyone.
Do that and we will have, like we used to have, a pushing contest and a striking contest once the scrum is stable over the mark. The referee can now manage to look at who's square, who's binding, who's on-side or off-side and whether the ball is introduced correctly.
KW: The 'hit' has been an important part of the game for the last 20-30 years, and if you get rid of it you get rid of one element of pure confrontation.
But the pressure in the front row of an international scrum is one-and-a-half to two tons, and you're telling these guys to 'pause' before the contact. Unless that pause is exactly the same every time you're just making it harder to get it right, because you're holding back all that weight. If you took the pause stage out of it, it would be fine.
GR: There are always ways as a player you can fight to keep the scrum up - our guys are fighting to keep their chests up and keep a really good shape, because we want the ball in and out to the backs, or maybe we want the ball at the back of the scrum because we want to push the opposition pack around.
It's about those massive packs, all eight of them, starting in a good position and staying in a good position for as long as possible, it's as simple as that. If they're all doing a good job, they're all trying to be proactive, then the calling sequence shouldn't matter.
EM: Good coaches coach good technique. If you get well-organised, well-coached teams who play the game in the manner it was designed to be played, the scrum can be a wonderful spectacle.
That's where we want to get to, to where everyone wants to scrum in that positive manner. As a referee, we can't determine that, only the players can.
It will be interesting to see, in light of this Six Nations coaches meeting, how the first weekend of the Six Nations pans out. Will everybody go out to scrummage positively? Or will the weaker teams try all the tricks of the trade to ensure the opposing scrum isn't dominating? We shall see.
IRB scrum statistics for Six Nations 2009 and 2010:
Average scrums per match - 16; average collapsed per match - 9; average resets per match - 6; average penalties/free-kicks per match - 5.2
The 2009 Six Nations had the highest reset rate with 47 per 100 scrums, the 2010 Six Nations had the highest collapse rate with 67 per 100 scrums. November 2009 had the lowest number of resets with 29 per 100 scrums and June 2009 had the lowest number of collapses with 47 per 100 scrums.