On Saturday afternoon, in North Cardiff, Llanishen Rugby Club played Aberdare. It was a tight contest, finishing 11-8 to Aberdare. Ultimately, for all their possession, Llanishen could not create any momentum, due to constant scrum penalties. They lost with the last kick off the match.
Scrum penalties are a nuisance. Mainly because scrums are such a delicate part of the game. How can a referee make a split-second decision based on an intricacy that he does not fully understand? There is so much that goes on within a scrum that one just does not see and the few front rows that do understand rarely make it as a referee!
The opposition were gaining an advantage from pushing early. World Rugby’s laws state that “the scrum begins when the ball leaves the hands of the scrum-half”. “Only when the scrum begins may the teams push”. Despite this, the shove was coming on the ‘set’ rather than when the ball came in. As a result, the Llanishen scrum retreated and the referee would award a penalty at almost every scrum.
Granted, one can only blame the front row for allowing this to happen. However, on review, this is undoubtedly a microcosm of today’s game.
Rugby scrum laws must change
The 2012/13 season marked a big change for the referee’s call sequence. In order to improve safety, the sequence was changed from “crouch, touch, pause, engage”, to “crouch, touch, set”, before being finalised with “crouch, bind, set” for the beginning of the 2013/14 season. Once the referee has called set, according to the World Rugby scrum laws, “all players must be in position and ready to push forward”. This clearly states that ‘set’ does not mean ‘engage’ and there should be no pushing.
This was enforced properly when the laws were introduced. There would be initial destabilisation on the set, but the referee would wait for it to stabilise before letting the scrum-half put the ball in. Nowadays, the scrum-half does not have to wait for the referee, due to a law change. Whilst this means that there are now have less collapses and resets, it leaves an unfair competition in this area.
Relaxation of the rugby scrum laws
As scrums have become penalty machines, the edge in this field comes from those props who can destabilise their opposition best on the set. The hit that we used to see from the old call sequence is back. Collapses usually result in a penalty. This is a disincentive to encourage players to keep the scrum stable but it does not work. The majority of decisions go in favour of the team going forwards, however only once the scrum collapses or breaks up, regardless of who’s fault that is.
This is a key reason that Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira was so influential in the world cup. His world cup final destruction of Dan Cole was symptomatic of his destruction of Phil Vickery on the 2009 Lions tour a decade previous. Mtawarira’s power in that initial hit gives him the edge, an edge he was not afforded in the middle of his career. Ultimately, the Springbok scrum defeated England and won them the World Cup.
Abolish scrum penalties
The legitimacy of that victory should not be disputed, South Africa were the better side on the day. However, the objection to the prominence of scrum penalties in the modern game. The scrum is a means of restarting the game. It should be used to restart it.
It is also a far too complicated area to judge blame within a split second. Penalties can decide matches, and many decisions at the scrum are 50/50. Compounding this is the fact that referees are no longer acknowledging what the laws actually state. Though the scrum may be safer and take less time, how can a referee justify why he has given a penalty when laws are blatantly ignored at every scrum?
Free kicks should be the maximum sanction. World Rugby’s laws need adjusting, the scrum is pretty healthy at the moment, but it does not adhere to the laws.
“Main photo credit”