Need for new scrum engagement sequence


FRENCH NOTES:It is time to revive scrum ‘fast ball’ so a new generation can sample the joy of attacking play from scrums, writes MATT WILLIAMS

SCRUM TIME across the globe is in a diabolical state. Last week I watched rugby from the Heineken Cup, the Bledisloe Cup, the New Zealand ITM Cup and the Currie Cup from Africa.

The scrums were appalling. Scrums that produced attacking ball were minimal and the vast majority of scrums resulted in a penalty.

In less than a decade the scrum has been eroded from the best attacking platform in the game to a time-wasting penalty lottery.

The scrum is an attacking opportunity because it ties up all the opposition forward defenders. The defending backs split to cover both sides of the scrum and on most occasions the fullback is behind the defensive line. This set-up empowers attackers to create overlaps.

The problem is the ball is simply not coming out of the scrum so quality backline attack and backrow moves are rare.

Years ago much of the attack from scrums came from ‘channel one ball’. This is created by the hooker heeling the ball out between the left locks feet so it arrives to the left of the number eight. It is ‘fast ball’ and allows backs to create glorious left-side attack. Sadly many of you have never seen this exciting play. The past is the only place it exists.

In the 1980s the free-kick was introduced for scrum infringements. There was agreement that matches should not be won or lost on a scrum technicality.

It also implied the referees of the time were not getting it right. Scrum infringements were penalised with free-kicks. You could not attempt a shot at goal. Over time this positive philosophy has been so eroded that currently scrum penalties are determining the result in many matches.

In French rugby, dominating scrums hold the ball at the number eight and drive forward until the referee awards a penalty. This is an abomination to the attacking philosophy that is at the game’s core. William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran. He did not take a shot at goal.

The scrum engagement sequence of “crouch, touch, pause, engage” is the problem. It had its genesis in the series of shocking injuries to frontrowers that occurred across the globe in the 1980s and ’90s.

Let me make this clear – player welfare and safety is paramount. Excellent measures were put in place and thankfully catastrophic scrum injuries have been drastically reduced.

However, like the free-kick, after years of evolution the original concept for engagement has morphed. Today both packs charge at engagement. Two sets of eight giant men acting as a bound mass, moving very fast across a short distance with the aim of physically dominating the other, and meeting with staggering force, is a recipe for neck injury. I hold special fear for young players who copy their heroes. I watch a lot of schoolboy rugby and I do not say this lightly, I urge lawmakers to listen and act.

The speed of the engagement process makes the props binding on skintight jerseys exceptionally difficult. A minor miscalculation by a frontrower results in either a time -wasting and dangerous collapse or a penalty. Either means no attacking ball.

The lawmakers had no intention of “crouch, touch, pause, engage” evolving to cause this situation. The emphasis of coaches on the speed of the packs engaging is to blame for the current situation.

The solution to the scrum’s problems is to remove the emphasis of “winning the race across the gap” between the two packs.

To achieve this the scrum assembly sequence needs to be radically changed. This can be achieved by firstly getting the two sets of frontrowers to bind together. This will eliminate the “charge” of engagement, stop illegal binding and all but eliminate collapsed scrums.

Next, both sets of secondrowers enter, followed by both backrows.

The 16 forwards are bound but no one is permitted to push in this process.

Then three commands are given. “Grip” – the players tighten their grip on their team-mate and opponent. “Ready” – players adopt a strong body position and brace for the weight to be applied by all 16 players. “Weight on” –, at which point all the players are free to push.

The ball is then fed into the scrum. This sequence eliminates potential penalties, injures on engagement and drastically reduces the time wasting of collapses.

Stocky, strong props are still required so all body shapes remain needed in the game.

I have supervised a group of under-18 players in this assembly. It takes less than 30 seconds to assemble and liberate the ball from the scrum. It was stable, safe and produced fast, usable ball.

It also produced an unexpected by-product. If the scrumhalf feeds the ball in the middle of the scrum it becomes a contest, as the defending hooker can strike for the ball.

There is the old saying that says “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However scrum time is “broke”. Our lawmakers need to act, to avoid serious injury and to revive “fast ball” so a new generation can sample the joy of attacking play from scrums.

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