This weekend, most of America’s fall-playing contingent will spend a fair amount of time rolling their eyes and complaining while playing their first game with the new scrum engagement laws. They’re the IRB’s latest attempt at saving the game from the scrum and, those in the Dublin office might argue, making the game safer. Here is a well-done video by our Alex Goff that walks you through the changes.
I’m not a medical expert, so I won’t pretend to pontificate about whether the new scrum laws will reduce injury at the set piece. But I will say that I’ve been playing the game for the better part of a decade, always in the front row, and I’ve never personally witnessed an injury that was a direct result of packing down. Buy and large, I think the scrum, the way it’s been, was pretty safe. There are always exceptions.
I do consider myself an authority when it comes to how the scrum has stunted the growth of rugby, taken pleasure out of watching the game and hurt the sport’s credibility.
What needed fixing
There’s no arguing that watching a scrum be reset over and over again is fun. I can’t picture a single fan sitting on the edge of his or her seat wringing hands between the third and fourth scrum reset. It takes an awful lot of time off the clock, takes the ball out of play and leaves the door open for cynical play. As we in the United States try to take the game to the masses, and as other countries are trying to do the same worldwide, justifying three minutes being lost to the resetting of one scrum is pretty difficult.
Here’s where you can call me a homer if you want, but cynical play has taken over the scrum. Watching Martin Castrogiovanni control the referee at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2012 was not fun. He stood up out of a scrum, a clear penalty, and blamed it on the United States. Penalty to Italy. New referee, new opponent, same stadium in 2013. Same crap. Ireland won the game by three, and six of their points were gifted directly through scrum penalties.
The vast majority of international referees weigh less than a heavy bowel movement, so they don’t have much front row experience themselves. And coming from a front rower, even when you’re in the scrum, you may not be able to pinpoint why a particular scrum went down. So referees are left guessing what the cause of collapse is (and feigning confidence in their conclusion), and what has been the overriding process for the last several years is this: if the scrum keeps collapsing, penalize the team that’s supposed to be weaker in the scrum.
The scrum collapse has become rugby's version of the soccer flop. It's embarrassing. The amount of shots at goal and penalty tries given away because of cynical play or ignorant referees is unjustifiable.
How to fix it
Do not award scrum penalties. The scrum has become increasingly important due to the way it’s been policed. Awarding penalties for collapses has made intentionally thwarting scrums, and then pandering to the referee, a worthy endeavor. If you can net your team three points by collapsing a scrum three times in a row against the United States, or another perceived weaker team, why not do it?
We have to devalue scrum penalties. Take away incentive for collapsing. The new laws try to fix what is deemed the reason for collapse – emphasis on the initial hit. Yes, when a scrum collapses honestly, it’s often because a player was overzealous on the initial engagement and missed his target or slipped his bind. But, I argue, most scrum collapses are of a cynical nature.
So if you really want to fix the problem at scrum time and get back to playing rugby faster, stop awarding penalties, and free points, at the scrum. If a call needs to be made, let’s make it a free kick. That way we’re getting back to ball in hand and away from a kick at goal or touch.
Result of new engagement
I want to offer a prediction: a lot fewer balls will be taken against the head. Now that both packs must engage and come to a complete halt before the ball is put in, driving over a team is going to largely be a thing of the past. Gaining an advantage from a stagnant position won't be easy, so the skill of hooking is once again of utmost importance, especially considering we should be seeing more calls for feeding. So when we see a strike against the head, it will usually be the result of exceptional hooking, not, necessarily, the result of exceptional scrummaging.