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Calling for scrum simplicity

At this point in time, the scrum set piece is a problem the world over. The fact of the matter is that this facet of play has become a lottery. What I’m saying is neither controversial nor debatable – the scrum is a mess at the moment.

I believe that the root of the problem stems from the game’s administrators interfering with the engagement process and finding an issue where there wasn't necessarily one. Owing to said interference, the set piece is no longer a fair contest, which is sad to see. I believe it’s time to stop pussyfooting around the issue and start calling it like it is.

The reality is that there is too much subjectivity at scrum time. Take for example, team red versus team blue in a match. The red team are awarded a scrum 20 metres away from the touchline. The scrum is fed and subsequently the referee blows his whistle to indicate a penalty against the red team. Simultaneously, his assistant referee has shouted penalty against 'blue three' into his earpiece.

I use this example, not to suggest that match officials are in any way confused, but rather to showcase that there are simply too many variables at play come scrum time. The following checklist will go through the referee’s mind: Has the front ranker taken the bind? Is he square? Has he jumped the hit early? Is the loosehead walking around? Has the tighthead fallen into the mouth of the scrum or has he been driven? And finally, who is responsible for collapsing the scrum?

From the above illustration, it’s clear to see that the referees are bombarded with too much information. While it would be easy to blame the match officials, I in fact empathise with their current plight. The referees are merely following directives drawn up by the game’s lawmakers. They are trying to blow the oval game as fairly as they see it, but are being marked based upon a long list of criteria.

If we take a closer look at the scrum battle between the Springboks and the Azzurri this past weekend, I must admit that I was left dumbfounded by some of the penalties both sides were blown for. I strongly believe that this shouldn’t be the case in the modern game. It needs to be clear and obvious for all parties concerned that an individual has broken the law, such as the tackler not rolling away.

Referee managers, in a bid to assist match officials, have appointed ex-international props to advise and educate the referees in the art of scrumming. From my experience in the northern hemisphere this has further complicated matters, because other than the education process, the ‘scrum advisor’ actually highlights certain problem individuals to the referees. Referees are thus sometimes aided incorrectly.

Following on from this point, my question is: Why do 91 per cent of all scrum offences occur on the side the referee is standing? This statistic, which I have gathered empirically, underlines that the current scrum laws are far too open-ended. A game should not be decided based upon one man’s interpretation of proceedings.

Last year, for example, there was a referee who blew a game in the southern hemisphere where the engagement call was ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ and a week later, he flew back up to the northern hemisphere and had to change to ‘crouch, touch, set’ – it’s almost like officiating different rules.

Towards the end of our most recent UK season, we trialled the ‘crouch, touch, bind’ cadence because we knew that it would be implemented from next season. It’s certainly going to eliminate the impact of the engagement, which in my view takes away a pretty crucial element at scrum time.

Around 20 years ago, there were between 20-30 scrums per match and now, on average, there are no more than 16 scrums in total – not counting the resets.

Reset scrums have become a point of frustration for the players, coaches and viewing public alike. In the past, the scrum call was simply ‘crouch, engage’ which offered a fair contest. Today’s scrum laws are over-complicated.

What’s the solution, you ask? I believe that the IRB have to make the criteria at scrum time simpler. What I would recommend is that task committees comprising of international coaches be appointed to offer input. Lawmakers should be open and engaging to their concerns as it would be in the best interests of the game.

Returning to the Springboks, I felt that the criticism directed towards Beast Mtawarira’s scrummaging display against Italy was unfounded.

It’s interesting that pundits still often talk about the scrum as if it’s the responsibility of a solitary individual. First and foremost, one has to assess the pack as a collective unit – all eight men play a part. I like the analogy which describes the front row as the conductors, with the pressure and power emanating from the back five.

The Springboks have a well-coached scrummaging pack, underlined by their cohesion, their setup and their leg speed off the contact.

I expect Scotland to struggle this Saturday. They simply lack the strength in depth and were diabolical against Samoa. They lacked accuracy, precision and committed a high-rate of unforced errors. Don’t be surprised to see the Springboks cut loose and win by north of 50 points.

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