Loose Pass: Scrum law change is not a ‘death knell’, Gloucester aberration and player flogging 

Lawrence Nolan
Springboks scrum, Gloucester prop Harry Elrington and La Rochelle forward Gregory Alldritt.

Springboks scrum, Gloucester prop Harry Elrington and La Rochelle forward Gregory Alldritt.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with law changes, Gloucester’s bad day out and Greg Alldritt’s fatigue…

The laws change with the game

‘Another death knell for the scrum’ was one reaction to the law changes announced by World Rugby last week, backed up by the predictable ‘it’ll be league soon’ and ‘why are we protecting the weak scrummagers’ complaints. Another one was the peculiar ‘why are we so determined to get rid of the scrum?’

The scrum is one of rugby’s unique offerings. In no other sport we can think of offhand is there such an iconic set piece of play involving such a unique brand of people. It has been in the game since time immemorial.

Yet it is also so different to not all that many years ago. Scrums against the head were rare then, now they are close to impossible, outside of winning a penalty for a collapse, or duff bind, or hinge, or whatever. It used to be just a bunch of blokes pushing together as hard as possible. It took seconds to set up. Now, it can take over a minute. Assume one minute (from when the whistle is blown and the scrum awarded) and assume a game with 15 scrums. That’s 15 minutes watching teams bind up – and that’s before a reset time allowance. You’re a reset away from 20 per cent of the game time. That’s not good food for spectators aside from the purest purists.

These days, however – and this is the crucial point – they also take an aeon. Resets, movements, hanging around waiting for locks to bind, free kicks for early engages, which are then re-used for scrums… it takes up too much time. In how many games are teams separated by less than a score with three or four minutes to go, but instead of the hoped-for breathless finale, we are faced with an interminable scrum which a referee can’t make sense of and which chews up two of the minutes?

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

Teams have rightly identified the scrum as a source of advantage, coaches also have rightly identified numerous moments of competition, numerous boundaries of both physical and legal aspects to push and/or defend against. But so many of those competitive moments end in ‘score draws’ and so many of those boundaries end up pushed that it turns into a technical minefield for players, officials and fans alike. It’s a fun thing to watch when it is done right, but how often is that really?

The scrum has only been removed as an option from free-kicks – which are not that many, nor are they often in good attacking positions. So it is pertinent to think: has the advantage of having the scrum been changed?
Assume a free-kick from a mark, which by definition is in the team’s 22. Normally the team would exit. Now they can exit kick without 200kg of steam-from-the-nostril flanker bearing down on them. Advantage actually increased there we would say.

Outside the 22 it is harder. The scrum does tie up defenders in a knot of space and create space elsewhere. But teams can still go to the air with the ball which they might do anyway in some field positions, while teams can also take a quick tap at a free-kick awarded at, ironically, scrum-time, which often gives a moment of advantage similar to winning a scrum – perhaps even more, given the likely perturbation moment the defence would be suffering. What is crucial there is how well referees crackdown on the other team ‘accidentally’ preventing such a tap being taken. That is a penalisable offence, from which the team could opt, of course, for a scrum…

Importantly, the scrum has not been removed as an option at penalty time. So strong scrummaging teams still have that weapon to use. More penalties are awarded than free-kicks, especially when you remove marks from the equation. And scrums are still there for knock-ons and forward passes and such. It’s only free-kicks.

This is not a death knell for the scrum, nor is it an attempt to penalise scrum-heavy teams, it is simply an attempt to even up the amount of advantage suitable to the situation on the field, as well as to give us some more playing time.

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All not well at Kingsholm

It’s perhaps fortunate for Gloucester that Newcastle have been so thoroughly up against it all season, but perhaps equally unfortunate that George Skivington’s side has been the only other one not to be in with a decent shout of domestic playoff action come Easter. Attention has thus been focussed elsewhere, while the Cherry-and-Whites’ march to the Challenge Cup Final has also been a sweetener.

But Saturday was an aberration on several levels. A weakened team being saved up for the Challenge Cup Final clearly could not be bothered, giving the league an unsightly mismatch and sparking an ugly public war of words between Lewis Ludlow and some fans on X.

Divisions are on the terraces and seemingly among the players. If the Challenge Cup Final meant a fair bit before, it might be everything now to a number of the playing and coaching staff, who are firmly up against it.

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Awful tired, boss

Weakened or not, Gloucester’s players ought to have shown more. But fatigue is everywhere at the moment. La Rochelle’s capitulation to Union Bordeaux-Begles on Saturday, epitomised by the error from Greg Alldritt, which handed UBB a try and the weariness written all over his face as he sat on the bench, was of a tired team running out of steam and ideas.

Harlequins, too, smashed at Exeter after having played a huge season both domestically and in Europe; just looked plain knackered. It should come as no surprise that the finalists of the Champions Cup this season are the teams with the deepest squads in their respective leagues, nor would it be a surprise if Northampton Saints’ valiant squad of youngsters found the march to domestic glory too long after all.

For some internationals, the season which began with a World Cup will stretch to the end of June. It’s far too long. Even for fans, it’s too long. It would be nice if the season became a survival of the best, as well as the fittest and the deepest. We’re still flogging the players too hard.

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