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Sort the scrum out, it's getting boring!

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John Beattie | 15:21 UK time, Sunday, 27 December 2009

During every rugby game, in any part of the world, this happens: A man called the referee, who is as confused as the rest of us when it comes to deciphering what he is about to watch, shouts: "Crouch, touch, pause..."

And before he has the chance to say the next word, which for all props out there is actually the word "engage", there is an almighty THUMP as 16 men try to get a little closer to each other. Then the scrum collapses.

I'd like to change scrum laws. We should allow the front rows to bind down, the second rows to join in, and then the back row. Scrums, as they are now, are a mess. Most of us are bored with scrummages collapsing.

Edinburgh and Cardiff Blues contest a scumWhat happens now is allegedly called 'trying to win the hit', or going on the 'e' of engage, as the theory of modern scrummaging is that to dominate a scrum your pack has to win that first engagement. In practice it means going in early.

This means your props have to be in the ascendancy, in a comfortable scrummaging position, and going forward. And if they aren't? Strict instructions to collapse the scrum and start again. That's why you see so many scrum collapses; players are under instructions to end the scrum before it has begun if they haven't won the hit.

And modern packs practice the 'hit' on scrummage machines so that they are almost perfect at it.

Forwards have codes for 'soft' hits to make it look as if the opposition are charging, offset scrummaging to irritate the opposition, deliberate collapsing, and a host of other tactics designed principally to dupe the referee.

Referees, in my experience, know all the laws about binding but have little idea who it is collapsing the scrum. Well, if the players don't know and the coaches don't know, then how can a referee?

So, there I was watching ESPN Classic a while ago with some old game on view and hardly a scrum went down. The packs bound down in stages, that's why. Think more of tug of war in reverse than scrummaging. The aggression only started when the scrum was safe, rather than before it had even been set.

The violence of the big hit generated by eight highly trained men from one side colliding into the opposite eight gives lots of players an excuse to collapse the whole affair, which is what they are doing.

We have to keep a proper and competitive scrum - but it can't be allowed to ruin a game with a mess. The packs should bind down in stages, with no moving off the mark until the ball is in.

It wouldn't do away with props who would still be highly valuable, but - shock and horror - I don't think scrums would collapse as much.

Everyone together now: "Crouch, touch, pause..."


  • Comment number 1.

    Spot on, baby. The race to the middle has led to a race out of the ground for a lot of spectators. The safety benefits of eliminating the hit also seem significant.

    Just the breakdown/ping-pong to sort out now. I think the IRB have ruled out any law changes prior to the RWC, but it would be nice if they re-clarified certain key interpretations so that I don't end up watching the whole tournament at Sky+ 30x speed.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hmmm, interesting indeed. Though wouldn't this just lead to the scrum collapsing after the rigmarole of sequential binding? Getting props to behave like human beings isn't going to be possible. Mainly because they aren't really human are they?

    Can I make a point about shirts again (not that I'm obsessed mind)? The reason so many binds are lost is because shirts are no longer meant to be bound on. Ever since the David Sole trimmed his sleeves (cheaty cheaty) to avoid being grabbed by the equally cheaty Probyn the tendency to avoid the bind has increased. Shirts made to avoid being grabbed are great for pretty boy backs but next to useless in the scrum.

  • Comment number 3.

    An absolute spot on blog here John. I feel that not just from the front row, but players of every position are concentrating too much in the Gym, making themselves bigger as it is an "advantage" for their game. But to me, the technique of scrummaging is what is the key to this. This comes down to both players and coaches, they are the ones that are spoiling the scrum in Rugby Union. I beg coaches at any level to coach the correct techniques of scrummaging and make that paramount over "gymming it" otherwise, it will be a hard habit to get out of players and most of all, it may well get the IRB to reconsider scrums and if i wanted to see a game with no scrums, i'd watch a game of touch rugby at a local club or watch Rugby League on the telly! Please sort it out coaches!!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Oh yes, how profound, let's get back to some basics, progressively packing down will help. It's been a long time since I played front row (prop and hooker)- 60's and 70's no less in both Glasgow and Australia, and to my memory it was never as bad, unless the pitches were sodden! Consider also that wonderful Scottish cry of 'Feet, feet' and the controlled dribble - a feat I pride myself on - Bring it back!!!

  • Comment number 5.

    Mr T - yes, the fact that jerseys have become so much tighter does mean it is harder to bind and keep a grip in the front row. You do take me back to the days of cut sleeves. I don't think that progressive binding down would mean collapses as it's the hit which masks everything and provides an excuse for that release of energy downwards.

    GavinEvens - I am pretty sure that at the top level props are coached to do everything they can to hoodwink the referee which includes deliberately collapsing a scrum if they have lost a hit and then pleading with the touch judge that it "wasnae me". Scrums have to stay, and remain competitive but if we did away with the hit we'd make it harder to cheat.

    David, feet Scotland feet - I remember being told about that but was it the pack charging up the pitch dribbling the ball from a wheeled scrum?

    Isn't holiday time great?


  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with your thoughts on scrum collapses but think that rather than changing the laws the ones we have should be enforced. It is still the law that the scrum must be stationary until the ball leaves the scrum half's hands and that a team may not shove the scrum from the mark until the ball is put in. (For those who doubt check out law 20.1 (k) )

    If the referee ensured that the scrum was stationary and over the mark before the ball was put in most of the advantage of the “big hit” is taken away. Indeed it could easily be construed as pushing before the ball was put in and a free kick awarded.

    This is not just a problem at the top end of the game, it extends way down through the leagues and at lower levels can prove dangerous. This can put people off playing the game as well as putting spectators off at the professional level, neither of which is good for the game.

    So how about the IRB instructing referees to follow the laws we have?

  • Comment number 7.

    Good point Mike, the larger point is that referees are scared to enforce every law and are lead by "materiality" and they must come to the point in scrums where they just don't know. All they know is that if they penalise someone they are guessing which isn't right.

  • Comment number 8.

    Spot on John. The problems with colapsing scrums are ruining the game as a spectacle. What you've suggested sounds like a ggod way to try to tackle it, but I also think that power has become an obsession which contributes to the concentration on the hit. A way to tackle the excess of power (which also causes the increase in injuries) is to limit substitutions. If front rows had to be fit and mobile enough to play a full eighty minutes, they would have to sacrifice some of the power in order to be able to do that. One front row sub only, and the guy who comes off has to come back on if someone else gets injured. Maximum of two back and two forward subs, maybe less.

  • Comment number 9.

    You are right that something needs to be done. As a former prop forward I am fed up with the continual collapsing and resetting of scrums. I don't think that your idea of progressive binding will work, as one side will try to push, wheel or collapse the scrum before everyone is bound. I do think that a major part of the problem comes from the referee's instructions. I know these are intended to make a scrum safer, but all they actually do is give the two packs a countdown on which to time the 'hit'. Before this was introduced the two front rows would control the scrum and the scrum half knew that he had to get the ball in, especially if his side was under pressure. True scrummaging props like Jeff Probyn then had the chance to exert genuine pressure on their opposite number and if you decided to collapse the scrum because the pressure was too much, you knew what to expect next time.

    While you are on the subject of the scrum, could you also ensure that scrum halves put the ball in reasonably straight and not under the second rows feet!

  • Comment number 10.

    The collapsed scrums are a pain in the behind and all above comments are probably suitable methods of keeping the scrum up. The thing that annoys me the most is the amount of time spent setting and resetting the scrum due to the collapses,for three reasons. Firstly, it gives the players a good minute or two to regain their breaths so there fitness is tested slightly less. Secondly, it is very dull to watch! Lastly, it wastes loads of time and in some matches an extra minute or two is priceless. I think that, the clock should be off until the ball is taken out of the back of the scrum instead of the ref starting and stopping and so forth.

  • Comment number 11.

    For the best part I'll go along with Geoff. I played, at a low level, loose head and loved my rugby. A lack of good coaching and arbitration has left me with a piece of hip-bone in my neck. Now I referee at all ages, again low level. At scrummaging time I have the players in mind. Force them to come forward, minimise the hit. Preventive or negative binding plus any movement before the 'engage' gets penalised. Allow the subsequent quick penalty or free-kick. After one or two scrums the bad boys soon get the idea. I can imagine how difficult it is to referee the scrum at top level, but I am sure that this is an area in which the referee's can and should direct.

  • Comment number 12.

    Having sat in the company of a professional prop watching a re-run of his own game recently it gives an insight into the mindset when he was complaining about how close the ref was making them get before the 'hit'...given the level of analysis that goes into the game if the teams have worked out that winning that collision gives them the advantage and therefore they have quicker, cleaner ball then of course they're going to want to ensure they get that by any means necessary, and after all it's the winning at the end of the day that counts to the players and coaches. That's the nature of professional sport.

    I do agree though that it is a spoiler for the fans to watch the constant resetting of scrums because of this, but the only way of ridding the game of this problem without making the scrum irrelevant is to coach the refs on the techinicalities of binding etc so they can make better decisions, rather than at the moment they seem to be 50/50 calls.

  • Comment number 13.

    "Crouch, touch, pause, tickle, engage"

    Return to 70's era "amateur" scrums. Bind in the front row, then second, then backrow. There would be no hit.

  • Comment number 14.

    I agree, Scrums at the highest level are boring and irritating. Do the players and coaches want unopposed scrums? because they are trying their best to make competitive scrums a farce.

    I play for a small grassroots club and the scrummaging at the lowest level is still very strong and very competitive, with props (many of whom are over 40) taking pride in holding up their side of the scrum and getting the squeeze on the opposition, it a shame their professional counter-parts cannot be as professional......

  • Comment number 15.

    Maybe I used the wrong word saying scrums are boring, it's probably more correct to say they need sorted. There is so much cheating going on that props get away with and it needs curing.

    We do not want to go to unopposed scrums, and if anyone else has a means of preserving competitive scrums and yet doing away with all these collapses please say.

    Hogmanay is nearly here, looking forward to it - a terrible cold is just lifting. Went to the doctors today with a spectacular wheeze only for him to say: "Chest is clear, it's a cold..."



  • Comment number 16.

    John, you did well to constrain your complaints to just the collapsing. Compared to the 30 years of live rugby I watched up until about 1995 the scummaging these days is a joke (I guess in the amateur era the guys just wanted to get on and play rugby).
    Apart from collapsing we have [1] feeds to the 2nd row [2] refs that have no idea what 90 degrees means [3] refs that have no idea what is going on in the front row (ask Brian Moore !).
    My solutions are:-
    1. Force refs to apply the law on bent feeds - might as well have 3 props in the front rows these days. I think the last time I saw a scrum go against the head was when Neil Back knocked the ball into the scrum from Springer's hands in the European Cup Final !
    2. Let the scrum rotate any number of degrees - lets just get on the with the game for goodness sake.
    3. Gradual binding (as you suggest)
    4. If you are in a retreating scrum and it collapses its a free kick to the opposition that can be taken immediately (regardless of whether the front rows have disengaged). Usual rules about penalty tries still apply.
    5. If the scrum collapses and neither side has acheived a territorial advantage then just let the scrum continue rather than reset it. Oddly some refs already do this and others don't.
    In essence I want competative scrums within a flowing game.

  • Comment number 17.

    Something definitely needs to be done to sort it out, because anything which slows the game down is harmful to any spectator sport.

    One suggestion I would make would be for referees to receive more training on how scrummages work, because it seems to me that they've got it all wrong right now. There is an obsession with correct binding, which in my opinion is almost incidental in determining who is at fault in a collapse. If there were a top ten list of technical reasons for scrums to go down, the first 9 would be body position, and then binding might sneak in at number 10 (purely in the case of somebody using a bind to push/drag his opponent down). I accept that it is a very difficult thing to judge who is at fault in a collapse unless you were one of the front row in question and you could feel the various twists, slips and pushes for yourself, but it seems to me that referees, in their desire to have a way of apportioning blame, have settled on something which is not correct simply because it's the easiest thing to police. I do have sympathy because I believe it is certainly the most difficult area of the game to police, but right now the job is not being done anywhere near well enough, as testified to by the long-standing problem we're all here complaining about.

    In terms of lawmaking as opposed to interpretation, people not hitting on the up are the culprits more often than not, in my experience. A penalty awarded against any prop not making initial contact with his shoulders clearly above his hips would, I expect, stamp out a good number of collapses. Higher contact would also make it easier for the referee to spot anybody deliberately driving an opponent down after the initial hit.

  • Comment number 18.

    Several times in the last year I have advocated ,in the column I write for "The Scotsman", that scrums should go down row by row. Now that a more authoritative writer - John Beattie - is making the same suggestion, the law-makers may at least consider it. I have also proposed that it should be made a free kick offence for the hooker not to strike. This would mean that props would have to regard supporting their hooker as their first duty (as used to be the case) rather than being free to concentrate on disrupting their opposite number. And of course referees should insist that the ball be put in straight. This however is unlikely to happen as long as they stand upright watching the props' binding rather than crouching , as again they used to, opposite the tunnel.

  • Comment number 19.

    Completely agree with JB, his idea would lead to fewer collapses and much less danger of spinal concussion-type injuries from the absurd 'crouch, pause, touch, collapse, oh ****' stuff.

    Have never been able to understand how the present law could ever have been devised by any remotely intelligent lifeform, the fact that it was supposedly introduced as a safety measure beggars belief. Then they kept it while fiddling around with every other blinking law...

  • Comment number 20.

    It cannot be beyond the wit of shirt manufacturers to create an extra piece of material (a handle?) on the props' shirts in order that they can bind properly. Then we can have 'crouch, bind, pause, engage'. There are two sides to the scrum, and two touch judges who can check that everyone is binding properly. The referee can then concentrate on making sure that the half puts the ball in straight and that everyone else stays onside. It's got to be worth trying becuase at the moment we are only getting 60 minutes of gametime. The obvious solution would be to give a free-kick against the side conceding the scrum, just to cut out the phaffing around. And we don't want to do that, because then we would virtually have rugby league.

  • Comment number 21.

    Thirladean - thanks for that, I don't think I have nicked your idea and I don't think I am any more authoritative an author than you but it does seem logical and I like your idea of the free kick. Just back from the Glasgow Edinburgh game, a great event, where there were still too many collapses.

    Bores, you and me agree.

    Stavrosian - the referee at today's game has had lots of training but I think that he was forced to merely guess as no right minded mortal could claim to know who was to blame for the collapses.

    Paul Chambers good idea, but I think that at least part of the problem is the "engage" from a distance and the hit which arises. Also, I am pretty sure it is possible to bind correctly and yet still cheat like crazy.

    LahdarBheinn - great ideas, but does it not just show how difficult the ref's job is. I like the enforcement of bent feeds, and wheeling scrums are messy too.

    A glass of shiraz and a lump of brie call


  • Comment number 22.

    Yes John it was a controlled dribble and one of the skills was not getting offside! But then props and front rowers were not renowned for speed!

  • Comment number 23.


    why not: approach-touch-bind-ball-push

    Worse though is at the breakdown; as soon as a third player joins the tackled and the tackler, its a RUCK - so no hands from ANYone. Or ONLY the third player can handle - tackled and tackler have to let go, and then once a fourth joins, again the ref can call a ruck and all hands off. At the moment everything seems to favour the defense and so creates ponderously slow ball and penalties galore, killing off attacking play.

  • Comment number 24.

    I didn't know this was such an old argument as I have just returned from watching a DVD of the Jim Taylor benefit match in 1980 at Balgray in Glasgow. Jim was a rugby player who broke his neck when a scrum collapsed, and JPR Williams talked afterwards about how he hoped scrum collapses would become a thing of the past as scrum collapses were dangerous.

    And that, my friends, was thirty years ago.

    And I have just watched bits of the Wasps v Newcastle game live on TV tonight and reckon the ref got a few of the scrummage decisions wrong. Scrum is a lottery as it stands in rugby union.

    ZXDaveM I like your calls, and I agree, it is only the third man who is allowed to go for the ball at breakdown.


  • Comment number 25.

    Refereeing a collapsing scrum is suprisingly easy.

    It's always the prop in the most comfortable position on the floor that pulled it down. No prop I know would ever let themselves go face first into the mud if they knew in advance that it was going down.

    Sequential binding is not the answer I think. Instead shorten the distance the two packs start away from each other so that the two front rows are almost nose to nose. It's pretty hard to generate a huge hit then.

    Finally enforce proper binding. Time and time again the scrum goes down because one prop has bound onto the others arm, so the other can't then get a bind.

    Scrums ain't rocket science by definition.

  • Comment number 26.

    I never played at your level, John, but I did play nearly 20 years of school and grass roots club rugby, starting in around 1972, all of it (well practically all) in the front row, either at hooker or prop!
    The way I remember it working was that the front five bound and went down hard against their opposite number with the back row coming in at some stage in the process! Through the years, more emphasis was placed on getting the whole pack solid and squeezed before connecting with the opposition, and charging was done but frowned upon (especially with a hooker or prop's head slightly to one side to connect with and intimidate the opposition), and probably illegal.
    What ensued then was a ball which HAD to put in straight by the attacking scrum-half, and a battle in the front row, supported by the rest of the scrum, but especially the locks, to hook the ball back. The "snap shove", timed to coincide with the ball hitting the ground between the opposing front rows' feet (and it HAD to), was a technique much rehearsed, and every so often would lead to the hooker "getting one against the head", of which the whole front row would be inordinately proud. The props were also taught to hook with their outside leg, to support the hookers's strike - even more kudos for nicking one!
    The emphasis was staying on one's feet in the front row, to enable the hooker to work his arcane magic, especially against the head, and an important quality for a prop was to have a straight and strong back to transmit the drive from the locks and flankers to drive the oppo off the ball. Moreover, if they were going backwards fast, the theory went, their hooker couldn't hook and the ball might, if you were sufficiently superior as a pack, come back to you with little effort from the hooker, as it should have started in the middle of the tunnel before you moved. In some scrums, if the superiority were obvious, the hooker would simply push, to send the oppo backwards as fast as possible.
    As far as dropping the scrum goes, looseheads were traditionally taller than tightheads, as one of the functions of the tighthead when the ball came in from his side (usually their ball) was to drop the loosehead as low as he could WITHOUT hitting the ground, to reduce the view of the opposing hooker, as well as disrupt the loosehead's ability to transmit the drive of his scrum when the ball came in past his head. The ultimate achievement was if you could pop your opposite number up through the roof of the scrum - good for intimidation, again probably illegal, but also probably impractical as your drive tended then not to get transmitted to the opposition scrum, so it was difficult to get them or keep them trundling nicely backwards...
    That was quite nostalgic, remembering all that in print, but did anyone pick up the consistent precondition of the ball coming in straight?
    Nowadays the ball is practically fed into the second row, and there is no incentive for the front row to contest the ball, but every incentive for them to collapse the scrum, without getting penalised if they can, to consolidate the possession they have, these days it seems by right. The Law still says the ball must be thrown in down the middle line between the front rows, but it never is.
    From my own experience, I'd say the problem is not the way in which the players bind, or the scrum is set - that hasn't really materially changed - what has changed is the way the ball is thrown into the scrum, consistently done illegally without being penalised by any referee.
    The line-out and the scrum are intended to be two areas where the team putting/throwing in has an advantage, but not an absolute right to possession, hence their contested nature. The way the game is played today, the line-out continues to fulfil its proper function, the scrum does not!
    IMHO not a rule-change needed, just proper refereeing!
    Chris J

  • Comment number 27.

    LOL Oh, and in the interests of the Forwards vs The Girlies, I won't create division in the ranks by talking about No 8s and front row play... ;-)


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