For the love of scrums, World Rugby stop changing the laws!

Jared Wright
South Africa's Faf de Klerk puts the ball into a scrum during the 2023 Rugby World Cup Semi-finals match between England and South Africa

South Africa's Faf de Klerk puts the ball into a scrum during the 2023 Rugby World Cup Semi-finals match between England and South Africa.

In an attempt to create a better spectacle and attract new fans, World Rugby have put scrums on death row with the announcement of the ‘fan-focused’ law changes.

Soon, the days of laying down a statement of intent by ordering the opposition to pack down for a mighty 8-on-8 battle of strength, power, and skill will be gone, as rugby union edges ever closer to becoming a 15v15 rugby league copy.

Removing the scrum option

The scrum is misunderstood, underappreciated and undervalued in rugby union, thanks mainly to the lazy commentary of ‘just get on with it’ or ‘this is killing the game’ or whatever other hogwash or boring quip comes to mind. Fans were left on the edge of their seats when England’s six had to front up against the All Blacks’ eight back in 2003, holding out the Kiwis just long enough to force a reset with centre Mike Tindall even joining the pack. Lest we forget Georgia’s demolition job of Wales in their famous victory over the Welsh in 2022. Two moments burned into the memories of those fans.

And the latest move from World Rugby to ban the option of a scrum from a free-kick shows that the game’s governing body agrees with the lazy punditry as the game takes another step toward making the set-piece irrelevant in the modern era and robbing the viewers of those moments in a move that may well lead to a far more one-dimensional spectacle from a sport hailed for being anything but.

The idea of the removal of the scrum option is to stop resets and ‘set-piece dead time’ whilst it is also primed to address the ‘lack of space’ on the pitch. That last bit is rather puzzling as the change is actively counterproductive. It takes a mighty effort to give your all on the engagement and reset – whether you are a front-rower or a member of the back-five. So instead, players won’t have to reset a scrum and will be able to fan out quicker and set a defensive line less fatigued than if another scrum had to have taken place, and that’s without considering the fact that 16 of the 30 players are tied into a pushing battle at the set-piece.

Put simply, more scrums equals more fatigued players equals more defensive gaps. No wonder the Springboks opted to load their bench with seven forwards to stop the mighty All Blacks’ attacking prowess – even when they had 14 men on the park. It wasn’t just a ploy to ‘abuse the bench’ or to go ‘against the spirit of the game’ as one pundit might suggest, but if the bigger boys are getting tired, then there will be more space to exploit.

World Rugby confirm much debated ‘fan-focused’ law changes that depower scrums

Further impact on the game

The scrum was there initially to restart the game – much like a lineout – but what makes both set-pieces unique and even more special in rugby is that they are both contestable. In rugby league, the former cannot even be considered a contest, whilst the latter doesn’t even exist in the code. Even in football, throw-ins are seldom contested unless it is in the dire embers of the game.

Whilst the scrum’s initial function was to simply restart the game, it was always a battle for dominance and has become even more so since the game went professional. The scrum has morphed into a modern-age gladiatorial battle of strength, skill and bloody-mindedness between 16 players for a single oddly-shaped ball. It’s also a battle within a battle to gain a mental edge over the opposition in a facet of the game that so many take enormous pride in, but instead of celebrating it for something that makes rugby special, it is being treated like the ugly stepchild.

This may seem like an overreaction to a simple law tweak, but it is bound to have a far greater impact on the game than just creating more space.

It is blatantly obvious that teams will attempt to concede a free kick if they are struggling in the scrums and the quick reply will be ‘yes, but the referees can then give a penalty instead’, but again, it’s another unnecessary pressure that is flung onto the shoulders of the officials – a judgement call that is bound to receive backlash.

‘They have killed the game’ – World Rugby slammed for ‘unhealthy obsession’ after depowering scrums

There are no less than nine actions at a scrum that can result in a free-kick for the opposition team, providing nine different avenues for a pack that is being overwhelmed to escape the scrum.

Then there are the laws being trialled and bound to be pushed through to the top of the game if they are deemed successful by whatever metric World Rugby want it to be.

This includes the introduction of the 30-second shot clock for scrum and lineout setting and the protection of the nine at the base of the scrum, ruck and at the maul.

This will inevitably lead to selectors and coaches favouring more athletic front-rowers, with slightly fatter flankers eventually being tasked with getting the basics of scrummaging done as the big front-row forwards get pushed closer to extinction.

Make no mistake, these changes are quickly marginalising the scrum – creating the need for fitter and more mobile front-rowers which sounds fantastic in theory but there will be a downside on attack and defence.

The images of the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, James Lowe, Will Jordan, and so on skipping past forwards will become increasingly less frequent as the new breed of forwards will be able to get into position quicker and perhaps even chase down the speedsters. The defensive lines will be set quicker and make for more ball in play, but the quality will certainly decrease. What happens when you can’t break the defence? You kick – precisely the opposite of what World Rugby are trying to achieve.

Death of real props?

Rugby is and wants to continue to be the game for all shapes and sizes but what will happen to those blokes who comfortably tip the scales over 120kgs if the scrum draws close to its execution date?

Cake-loving Ox Nche lives by the motto ‘Salads don’t win scrums’ but there is certainly a future where salads will win scrums if the set-piece continues to be depowered. Nche won’t be valued as much or even needed in that future, and he will have to enjoy rugby as a coach potato – that’s if he still enjoys it then.

Roast dinner-loving enthusiast Tadhg Furlong’s future – in the game where scrums matter little – also looks incredibly bleak so does the farm-mad Frans Malherbe and the list just goes on and on.

Rugby is in a far better place now than it is given credit for, particularly in the international game, and while these innovations are supposed to aide those competitions that are still struggling to be profitable, they don’t fill this writer with any confidence that it will and they are better off throwing a chunk of cash at finally making a quality rugby video game that has a far better chance at enticing the youth.

Lest we forget that they have announced these changes in the same week that one of rugby’s most prominent content creators, Squidge Rugby, released a video educating the public on the wonderful intricacies of the scrum with an international coach.

The best companies realise what their unique selling points (USP) are and put a massive emphasis on maximising it.

But somehow World Rugby have been convinced to take one of, if not, its greatest USPs and, instead of making it the creme de la creme, have relegated it to the vegetables served next to the glorious T-Bone steak.

For the love of the scrum, World Rugby please grant the set-piece clemency.

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