It is that time of the year when another drizzly January draws to an end and rugby fans turn their attention to the illustrious Six Nations Championship.
But while the players prepare, the Welsh choirs rehearse and the men of Murrayfield tune their bagpipes, in the back of their minds resides that nagging question: will we have to sit through another seemingly endless series of scrappy scrums?
In theory, the scrum is a piece of architectural genius that interlocks 16 monstrous men in a battle of strength, wit and determination. In reality, it remains a disjointed mess that only ever seems to eat up the clock and the underlying turf.
Decline of the scrum
Our sacred set piece has suffered a steady decline over the last decade, so much so that World Rugby were forced to subject the scrummaging law to radical reform in 2013.
On the back of these reforms, many entered the 2014 Six Nations with an air of optimism, but eventually, the pessimists’ predictions were vindicated by countless collapses. Scrums crumpled, referees reset them, props feigned ignorance, commentators cursed and fans groaned.
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World Rugby’s analysis revealed that while there was a slight reduction in the rate of scrum resets compared to the 2013 tournament, there was no reduction in the rate of collapsed scrums. They also calculated that the average time taken for the completion of a scrum had not been reduced; it remained around 60 seconds, despite often feeling like a lifetime.
Wales were the worst offenders in 2013 and 2014. Warren Gatland’s side topped the table for collapses and sanctions in both tournaments, but with the exceptions of Ireland and Italy, no side achieved fewer collapses in 2014 compared to the previous year.
However, the law changes did more than just render Adam Jones obsolete. The fruitless changes proved that it is not the laws that are the problem, it is the players.
Who is responsible?
Those responsible for propping the scrum up have been derelict in their duty. Props have simply failed to prop up the scrum. Of course, under extreme pressure binds and boots slip, but not nearly as regularly as the front row union would have you believe.
Now that, front rows must be bound and set before they contest, with the exception of the occasional slip, scrums will only go down when they are pulled down and it is becoming increasingly clear that many front rowers are opting to dive down rather than be driven backwards.
But do not despair, in recent weeks, front rows competing in Europe’s elite club competition have provided us with a glimmer of hope by displaying a willingness to stay on their feet and compete.
When Leicester thumped the Scarlets at Welford Road on January 16, they dominated the Welsh side in the scrum, but the visiting pack refused to cheat. The following day, Munster’s forwards were decimated by a rampant Saracens scrum, but they also contested fairly throughout the match. The same can be said for a Toulouse, when their forwards were overpowered by Bath.
A week later Wasps’ pack was pulled apart like soft bread in the first set piece of their home game against Leinster. But instead of resorting to negative tactics, they persevered and as a result, just one set piece was reset and the sole penalty awarded for lowering the scrum was conceded by Leinster’s Michael Bent. The scrums were far from perfect and on several occasions both packs slipped up on the loose turf. But Jerome Garces showed no desire to order any unnecessary resets.
Collapsing scrums remain rugby union’s biggest problem, apart from being incredibly boring they are extremely dangerous. The recent rare examples of fair contests do not prove that set-piece cheating is coming to an end, but they do show that when Europe’s best front rows pack down with a positive approach, we are treated to quicker, cleaner contests that enhance the spectacle instead of spoiling it.
Referees must do more
It is not enough to saddle rugby’s most rotund members with the blame, referees need to become more proficient at identifying the culprits.
After the disastrous scrummaging displays of the 2013 Six Nations, Joel Jutge, World Rugby’s professional referees’ manager, called the referees to a meeting in which they identified the worst playing culprits. Jutge and his team then contacted the coaches of the national sides and told them that if their forwards did not make more effort to compete in a positive and honest manner, they would spend a lot more time in the sin bin.
However, this warning obviously went unheeded. So what can referees do?
Be more decisive and come down harder on the offenders. Instead of ordering countless resets, award sides a free kick not a third or fourth put in. If both packs slip up, but the ball is at the eight’s feet, play on. If a prop blatantly drags his opposite man down, skip the warning and bin him for dangerous play and when a side’s scrum disintegrates five meters from their own line, award a penalty try immediately.
Easier said than done, but ultimately, referees need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on dangerous scrummaging and get on with the game. Officials must use all of the powers at their disposal to ensure that the scrum serves its intended purpose, which according to the laws is: “to restart play quickly, safely and fairly.”
Will we see the battle of the bulgers restored to its former glory at this year’s Six Nations? Only if the six best packs in the northern hemisphere raise the plummeting standard with honest and legal approaches. But if they once again fail to set an example, then the referees must be ruthless and make an example of them.