Planet Rugby

Squint feed continues to frustrate

07th May 2014 09:40

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Will Genia Wallabies ABs scrum RC 2013

Infuriating: Squint feeds

Some nine months into the year-long IRB scrum trial, squint feeds at the set-piece remain an infuriating detractor of rugby.

The rugby world groans a collective sigh of exasperation whenever the sticky topic of how best to unravel the hopelessly tangled threads of the elite scrummage rolls around yet again.

For almost a decade, what should be one of the game's greatest assets, an old-fashioned, primitive, warts-and-all contest between two hulking sets of forwards has been labelled "not fit for purpose". No-one needs reminding of the unappealing and time-consuming blight on matches wrought by an endless spree of collapsed scrums, resets and dubious penalty awards.

But in recent months, it has become increasingly apparent that the IRB and its officials may benefit from having their own memories jogged in relation to their much-vaunted set-piece directive - one we'd all support were it properly and consistently enforced.

Some weeks ago, I watched a ridiculous exchange during a Super Rugby clash between two Australian franchises that perfectly illustrated the faltering standards.

As one scrum-half gleefully flung the ball in around the ankles of his second-row, the referee quite correctly blew up and awarded a free-kick to the opposition. The opposing skipper chose to scrum, whereupon his own number nine produced a carbon copy of his opposite number's wildly not-straight delivery. For all that the same referee was crouched down, eyes trained intently on the tunnel, the feed inexplicably went unpunished.

This is far from an isolated instance. If you don't believe me, watch a handful of games this weekend and tot up the number of wayward put-ins that are either missed or ignored in top-flight rugby.

Subconsciously, we often fall into the trap of believing that, because the IRB have said so, squint feeds are an endangered species, one being steadily hunted to extinction by referees who do work extremely hard on this particular nuance.

We can cast our minds back to the first Rugby Championship game under the directive, where Craig Joubert proved wonderfully stringent in his application of the squint feed crackdown, and two of the world's best scrum-halves - Aaron Smith and Will Genia - were shell-shocked, delivering the ball with all the conviction of a newborn lamb, so accustomed were they to lobbing it in however they pleased.

There should of course be some margin of leeway for half-backs, some advantage to the side with the put-in. After all, they are not the team to have made the error or committed the infringement to bring about a scrummage in the first place.

It's important too to appreciate just how much match officials have on their plate at scrum-time. There's an all-you-can-eat buffet of binding, driving angles, height, distance apart, feet position, engagement, stability and offside line referees must chow down before laying hands on dessert in the form of the put-in and its supervision.

Prior to the directive's global implementation in August last year, several on the Elite Panel remarked their "priorities were elsewhere". Without the more segmented calling sequence, they simply weren't able to police the feed effectively.

"If you got to look at one, then well done!" exclaimed one recently retired official.

Indeed, taking into account the controversy and minefield of opinions underpinning the scrummage, referees can be forgiven for simply wanting a slick, ball in-ball out transition. Certainly, that was the prevailing sentiment under previous regulations, where keeping the blasted thing up at all costs proved the crucial, overriding concern.

I do feel that, on the whole, things have improved in the set-piece since the directive was brought into effect - the scrum is a more cohesive beast than it was a year ago, the put-ins are not quite so apocalyptically crooked and the phased abolition of the "yes, nine" call at elite level is a positive step.

But the all-too-predictable slip from red-hot reffing to a lax stance on a maddening anomaly of the game that makes the tuneless mishmash of pipe music that blares over the Murrayfield speakers during breaks in play sound like Mozart is typical of many of its predecessors conceived by the governing body.

This directive was billed by many, myself included, as the "last chance to save the scrum". That is still the case, but the set-piece's rightful place in the pantheon of rugby will not be restored, nor its integrity safeguarded until the dreaded squint feed is properly addressed.

By Jamie Lyall

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