Matt Williams: Here’s how rugby league can save shambles at scrum time in union

Tsunami of scrum penalties creates a situation that discriminates against backline play

The introduction of the 50/22 kicking law has been an overwhelmingly positive addition to rugby.

This innovation is an adaption from Rugby League, which encourages players to punt from behind their own side of halfway and bounce the ball into touch inside the opponent’s 22. Rugby now rewards this skilful action with a lineout throw to the attacking team who kicked the ball.

Under the law of unintended consequences, the 50/22 law has breathed new life into the beautiful and almost extinct art of the torpedo punt. Compared to a drop punt, a spiralling “torpedo” has powerful aerodynamic effectiveness that eats up the metres as the rotation of the ball slices through the air and then accelerates as it bounces off the grass in a straight line.

Today’s players are joyfully rediscovering that it is the kick that keeps on giving and is perfect for the 50/22 law.


There is nothing wrong with duplicating excellence and rugby’s legislators are to be praised for introducing the new law. The positive outcomes of the 50/22 law should encourage those same lawmakers to consider adapting other laws and practices from Rugby League that over time have been proven to be effective.

For example, in rugby league, their version of the TMO acts far more decisively than the arduously slow system we are forced to endure in union. In league, the referee simply refers the play to be reviewed to the TMO, who watches the play, makes the decision, and then communicates the outcome to the referee, players and the TV audience.

The league TMOs are empowered to make the decisions. This is a far more efficient process so the right decisions are made and the game rapidly moves on.

Until the pandemic hit, rugby league in Australia used two on-field referees, one controlling the tackle area, the other policing the defensive offside line. This is something that I have been vainly advocating for union to adopt for many years. Across last weekend’s round of 16, in every match I watched, every defending team was offside at the ruck multiple times.

Even the occasional union watcher accepts that offside defending is now the standard operating procedure in every rugby match across the globe. Offside defensive play – in other words, cheating – has been normalised in rugby. That statement, which we all know is true, should make all involved in officiating administrating ashamed.

The offside laws are not being enforced because they are not being policed. Under the current system, the single on-field referee has the impossible task of having to adjudicate on far too many infringements at one time. Without changing any laws, two on-field referees would create far more attacking space for players and spectators to enjoy because the offside laws would be enforced.

Rugby league also has what they call a “shot clock” at scrum time. League sets a 30-second time limit for both packs to assemble and be ready for engagement. While league scrums are not the physical contest they are in union, scrums in league were once exploited by coaches and players as a loophole to rest and waste match time. The 30-second shot clock stopped that time wasting.

Across the globe, in all rugby matches, outrageous amounts of time are lost to long periods of nothing as all 30 players stand about, waiting for the packs to begin to bind for scrums.

Rugby desperately needs to adopt the 30-second shot clock for the assembly of packs prior to engagement to stop the ocean of deliberate time wasting that has infected modern scrummaging.

Scrums only exist as a contest to restart play. They are not an end in themselves. Scrums place 16 players in a confined area, which opens up space for the attack to exploit. This was once the best attacking platform in the game but sadly not anymore.

The tsunami of penalties lawmakers have wrongly attached to scrums has created a scenario that now actively discriminates against backline players from participating in the game. Scrums take far too long to set, and then a significant majority of scrums result in a penalty. These are either kicked for goal or to touch from which a lineout and generally a maul follows. All of which exclude backs.

This is a huge imbalance in our game.

A great example was last Saturday when Harlequins had an unbroken series of 10 five-metre attacking scrums. In the more than nine minutes it took to pack the scrums, the ball reached the backline on only one brief occasion before being recalled for another scrum.

In rugby’s amateur days there was a running joke that asked the question, “Why was beer invented?” The answer was, “To stop frontrowers from taking over the world.”

The irony is that in professional rugby, where players rarely consume alcohol, the frontrowers have staged a bloodless “coup d’etat”. Aided by poorly considered law changes that now reward destructive and negative scrummaging tactics with a penalty, scrums have invaded huge tracks of game time that they have no right to claim.

The laws have encouraged this generation of frontrowers and scrum coaches to ignore the high art of scrummaging that used to provide quality possession for the beautiful attacking game that once came from scrums. As a consequence of both time wasting and scrum penalties, the participation of backline players in the game has outrageously been significantly reduced.

All of which is desperately wrong for rugby.

Sadly, history has proven that when it comes to law reform; the Vatican and rugby union have a lot in common. Change is something you drop into the donation box or use to buy raffle tickets. Change is rarely used on laws.

However, there is hope. The resurrection of the torpedo punt proves that with well considered legislation, the good that was once lost can again be found and without doubt, scrums are profoundly lost.

Whether scrums can rediscover their higher purpose in the soul of the game is up to rugby’s legislators.

A good place to start for those legislators might be to introduce a second referee to police the offside lines, then empower our TMOs to make independent decisions and introduce a 30-second shot clock on scrums. None of those innovations alter any on-field laws while the ball is in play.

What they will do is reclaim large tracks of match time that are currently being wasted. They will also create more space and opportunities to empower backline players to participate more fully in matches.

All of which, like the resurrection of the torpedo punt, are good for the game.