Frontrows should engage with refs to sort out scrum


RUGBY ANALYST:As the props wrestle, the referee will be blamed for everything but players and public must stop shaking their heads and help him

LAST WEDNESDAY with the considerable help of Séamus Harty I compared the scrum to the Stradivarius. With the Six Nations referees in mind, I now compare the scrum to Olympic weightlifting, or more specifically the “snatch”.

The snatch is the fastest lift in the world because it takes under one second to get the bar from the platform to overhead. Check out Hossein Rezazadeh on YouTube. What is this supremely technical “tighthead”-looking lifter thinking, as he stands over the bar; crouch, touch, pause, engage? Hardly.

In immersing myself in the Harty world, this 13 stone, 5ft 8ins scrum professor from Nenagh brought me through the minutia of the set-up, the crucial importance of the bind, the hit and, of course, the oxygen-draining chase. Today I hope to look at scrums from the referee’s perspective.

The Lions Test series of 2001 will be remembered for the marauding Irish midfield of Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Henderson and O’Driscoll scoring one of the finest tries of his career. That was then and it bears little resemblance to the game we will witness this Six Nations. However, the scrum back then was as important as it is now.

The Lions were pummelling the Wallabies deep in their 22. Scrum after scrum propelled referee Paddy O’Brien into the forefront. A place referees don’t want to be. After many penalty opportunities for the Lions went abegging, he finally blew a loud, shrill blast and awarded the Wallabies a free-kick. Surely this was not a political decision to get himself out of the pressured situation? It did end the scrum fiasco and move the game on. However, in a tight game would Mike Ross be happy the referee resorts to escapism to avoid the dreaded scrum clock coming into play?

In 2003, fellow Lions Test referee Andre Watson was in the limelight, awarding a penalty against England, who failed to “engage” at the scrum. The fact Australian Elton Flatley converted the last-minute penalty was one thing but the referee’s decision pushing the World Cup final into extra-time was another. This was a very big call from Watson as he gave four penalties in the final against the English frontrow which had not been penalised previously in the tournament.

Back in December Alan Lewis, growing increasingly impatient with the scrums of Perpignan and Leicester, sent hookers Marius Tincu and George Chuter to the sin bin.

The Sky boys roared with indignation. But what was Lewis to do? Should he, like O’Brien above, have invented a free-kick to move the game on? If so I’m sure the Sky boys would have tut-tutted slightly but only slightly. But in doing so he is failing to allow a fair contest to exist. The referee is now in a terrible position. How does a referee manage 16 players who all want a different outcome when the world wants to witness an Olympic weightlifting contest?

Take the crouch, touch, pause and engage. Each Olympic weightlifter will walk onto the podium and decide within a certain limit when he makes his lift. He will approach the bar, focus and then lift. That focus could be one second or four seconds. The rugby referee is forced to dictate this tempo. Secondly, the weightlifter then, through perfect technique, will force huge weights into the air.

However, he’s just fighting gravity. The bar is not trying to kill him. Do you think Paul Wallace, way back in the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa, was thinking about crouch, touch, pause, engage when facing 20-stone farmer Os du Randt?

Unlikely, as survival was crucial, followed by an attempt to dominate. In order for him to dominate, as a smaller man, he employed technique. The modern scrum forces the referee to punish technique over purity.

Referees, unfortunately, are forced to change the behaviour of the players. Nick Popplewell in the Irish TimesSix Nations magazine, admits to an agreed pre-call of “sios, sios” when in trouble. A call somewhat confused by the Claw, “suicre, suicre”.

But what do the players call when the referee is in trouble? Clearly there is an ideal opportunity to expose the referee. For instance, players knowing what O’Brien called in that Lions Test will play for this outcome. A scrum drops tomorrow in Rome and referee Romain Poite comes in with his usual platitudes. Spotting the opportunity, a call is then made by the Irish and on taking the Italian hit, the Ireland pack will simply step back a yard. Poite blows for a free to Ireland, Martin Castrogiovanni shakes his considerable head and we all move 40 metres down the pitch. It happens and it is that simple.

Do the players togging out over the coming weekends truly understand the referee’s role? Do they understand what the referee is trying to accomplish or do they draw the lazy conclusion that referees are clueless? The culture of respect towards the referee within the game is something to be very proud of. But in times gone by player and referee were much more likely to chat and certainly post match, there was ample opportunity, in a quiet corner of the bar to “discuss”. With the loss of these opportunities the player loses out on two fronts. Firstly, he misses a golden opportunity to fill the referee’s head with his reality and secondly, he fails to get inside the referee’s head, to understand where he is coming from.

In other words, in times gone by as a referee’s career evolved along with the players’ both would continuously be learning from each other. Due to professionalism and political correctness this avenue may now be shut.

Finally a lesson learned from Gerry Ryan, a former team-mate of Harty in Nenagh.

“Having lost a cup match in Ennis I sat beside Séamie on the minibus as he described to me how, while he was disappointed we lost, he himself had a great day. I learned a lesson that day about rugby. Propping is man on man more than any other position on the field and if forward dominance has been the root of rugby success since its inception and continues to be, then the propping duel is the most basic element of achieving that dominance.”

The scrum for this Six Nations is not Olympic weightlifting but unfortunately, will be examined as such. As the props attempt dominance the referee will be blamed for everything but the players and public must stop shaking their heads, help him and take joint ownership.