Planet Rugby

Players must buy into scrum change

10th November 2013 11:08

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Samoa Ireland collapsed scrum

Who's to blame? No one wants to see collapsed scrums

This was not in the script. With the changes implemented to the scrum engagement process this year was supposed to come safety, stability and the restoration of something approaching a fair contest and a spectacle to the set-piece.

The reaction to the International Rugby Board's directive has been largely positive from players, coaches and referees alike. And with several months' practice, players should be used to working under the new calling sequence, and indeed co-operating with it.

So why, then, did Saturday's showcase November Test at the Millenium Stadium between Wales and South Africa see the double yellow-carding of two world-class props?

As the second-half wore on, the set-piece stuttered and stalled with collapse after frustrating collapse. The man in charge of proceedings, Irish referee Alain Rolland, was no closer to establishing the guilty party, and warned Gethin Jenkins and Frans Malherbe that both would swiftly be heading for the sin-bin should another scrum hit the turf on their watch.

When Coenie Oosthuizen replaced Malherbe, he was given the same caution. It was clearly not one that either prop heeded, though, for when the pair brought matters crashing to ground again; they both saw the flash of a yellow card. Wales were left with no front-row to bring on, and so the scrums became uncontested for a ten minute period.

That situation, quite frankly, was the scrum saga in microcosm.

As expected, it took the briefest of scrolls down a Twitter feed to confirm that the referee was indeed lambasted by some for his handling of that issue. There was an anticipated undercurrent of vitriol that still seemed to linger among sections of the viewers - even veteran BBC commentator Eddie Butler slipped up once or twice with some misguided criticism of Rolland's calls.

But what, pray, was the referee supposed to do? It was not his fault the players couldn't maintain a steady, square and safe scrummage. Nor was it his fault that, once again, the Millenium Stadium turf cut up virtually every time the two packs came together. Nor, indeed was it his fault that, with both sides trying to gain the edge in what was remains a dark recess of rugby, he was none the wiser when it came to identifying the offender.

In fact, when an expert like Brian Moore admits, after the benefit of video replay, and live on national television that he had no idea which of the props was to blame - how can we expect a referee to make that call after one split-second viewing?

The new crouch-bind-set sequence (note - not new laws, as only the engagement sequence is new) was brought in at the centre of the IRB's directive with the goals of improving player welfare, reducing the number of collapses and resets, and improving the contest for possession at the scrum.

It has been heralded by some as the remedy for rugby's most recurrent, niggling and seemingly ineradicable disease. And so it should prove to be. That is, if it is embraced by those for whom it is designed to provide the greatest benefit - the players.

If those players aren't interested in contesting for the ball, in keeping the scrum up, in playing the set-piece out fairly and fully, then they must be sanctioned. The onus and burden of responsibility rests firmly on their sizeable shoulders.

In recent years, it has been a feature of the scrummage that teams could, for want of a better phrase, "mess about" on engagement as both front-rows prepared to come together like 100m sprinters awaiting the starter's pistol.

They could "bail out", as Graham Rowntree (England and British and Irish Lions forwards coach) puts it, if they feared a set-piece besting. And they could do so in such a way that the referee was clueless as to whom, if anyone, to penalise.

That resulted in an endless spree of collapses, resets, dubious penalty decisions, and several minutes at a time wasted while the officials gave out limp and generic instructions directed to them from on high.

These issues should, in theory, be things of the past. The directive is credited with making life easier for the men in the middle, in that infringements are more obvious with a closer, more controlled engagement.

But that too depends upon the attitude of the players. Such are the nuances of professional sport, players and coaches will forever seek loopholes to exploit, particularly in an area where the smallest of advantages can give a side the upper hand.

It's a case of where there's a will, there's a way.

Props can still near-instantaneously bring things to ground if they so choose. A correct decision for the referee remains very hard under these circumstances, and Rolland was spot-on when he went to his pocket on 57 minutes.

The bottom line is, the IRB and their scientists can tinker all they want with scrum configurations, loadings, and engagement processes, but it will all be for nought should players and coaches (alongside everyone in rugby) fail to buy into those changes.

This directive has the potential to provide the solution to a problem that has blighted rugby as both a contest and a spectacle for much of the past five years. With IRB CEO Brett Gosper referring to this November Test window as the period when "the directive will be under its greatest test," now is the time to get it right.

If they don't, then they'd better get used to seeing far more than ten minutes of mundane, rugby league-style uncontested scrums - for that is exactly where we will end up.

By Jamie Lyall
@JLyall93

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