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Has the scrum become a blight on modern rugby?

What is supposed to be a means of re-starting the game after one team makes a mistake has somehow evolved into an interminable wait, write Whiff of Cordite.

Ireland pack down against France last weekend.
Ireland pack down against France last weekend.
Image: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Updated at 12.39

Reproduced with permission from Whiff Of Cordite

RUGBY IS IN trouble, if the vast amount of print and blog-space devoted to pieces lamenting the state of the modern game are anything to go by.

We wrote about it ourselves recently, decrying a game that has become so systems-based as to be robotic. The Guardian has a piece this week in which several players from bygone eras try to make sense of what the game they loved and played has become, and Alan Quinlan wrote a thoughtful piece in The Irish Times along similar lines to our own, noting how players have become slaves to systems and individual flair has been wiped out of the game. Ireland’s stupefyingly dull but ultimately winning rugby in their last two games have rammed the message home.

It’s hard to argue with most of it, and at the very heart of things when it comes to pig-ugly awfulness lies the scrum.

Let’s just come out and say it: the scrum is a blight on the game of rugby. What is supposed to be a means of re-starting the game after one team makes a mistake has somehow evolved into an interminable wait followed by an unwatchable, dangerous melange of pushing, grappling and, mostly, falling over; it’s become a licence for huge men to cheat and con the referee into thinking they’re doing the right thing, and a chance to milk penalties from the opposition.

And worst of all, nobody understands it. How many times in the last year have you watched a scrum go down, heard the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle and then waited expectantly to see which arm he throws skywards, with no real idea which way it’s going to go. Have your team won a penalty, or conceded one? Who the hell knows?! It’s a random number generator.

Northampton marched to a Heineken Cup final in 2011 on the back of a scrum that all commentators agreed was illegal, and yet they got away with it throughout the entire year, and beyond.

With two children apiece, both Egg and Palla are frequent users of the record and live-pause functions on their tellyboxes. Confession time. Palla will quite happily admit that if he’s a few minutes behind real time, he’ll use the endless scrum resets as a means to catch up. It’s easy: simply hold down the fast forward button (x6 works best) until you see the players are running again and the dreaded set piece is over.

Another confession: when Leinster or Ireland have knocked on and their opponents are playing with advantage, Palla secretly wants them to get over the advantage line so at least he doesn’t have to endure yet another interminable scrum. Hoping one’s own team concede ground?! What has the world come to? But yes, it’s really become that dire.

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The problem is that the more they try to fix the scrum, the more broken it becomes. Putting the defending team five metres behind the hindmost foot has had a detrimental effect. It was designed to make it a better attacking platform, but the unintended consequence has come to pass. It makes it such a good attacking platform that the defending team dare not offer it to the opposition; better to simply sink the scrum umpteen times and take your chances that you’ll break even in penalties over the course of a match. Sure, the ref hasn’t a clue what’s going on anyway.

Ireland Rugby France Source: AP/Press Association Images

(Last week’s Ireland-France game was criticised by some as dull)

The other consequence of the scrum is it slows the game down to a crawl. It takes an age to set up in the first place, and drags on interminably if it collapses a couple of times, which it usually does. This has other consequences, and brings us back to the points made by Quinlan and others.

Punctuating a match with so many lengthy stoppages to set the scrum up (and, to a lesser extent, the lineout) allows the modern-day behemoth gym monkeys a chance to get their breath back. If we are concerned about the sheer size of players and the lack of flair on view in test rugby, every opportunity must be taken to speed the game up.

It’s a faster game that tires out bigger men, and results in speedsters being given the opportunity to find mismatches and space into which to run. The scrum simply places a premium on huge, hulking 130kg monsters and further reduces the value of those who are lighter, fleeter of foot, or liable to throw the ball to another player.

The new scrum calls have, to be completely fair, marginally improved matters, but not to any great effect. Most scrums still collapse a number of times before a penalty or free-kick eventually results. This is a problem without an easy fix. We can’t provide a catch-all solution. What nobody wants is a reversion to uncontested scrums such as in rugby league. No, please, not that.

But one solution that might help would be to at least reduce the stakes of losing a scrum. The majority of technical scrum infringements should be downgraded from a penalty to a free-kick.

It has never made sense that the simple error of slipping a bind — losing one’s grip while trying to grab a hold of modern day jerseys which are custom designed to be impossible to hold onto in the first place — should merit the same punishment as cynically killing the ball on your own five-metre line.

If one team enjoys scrum dominance over another they can still exploit it by marching their opponents down the pitch, and using the platform to unleash their three-quarters, so the chances of this law denuding the importance of props would be slim. Besides, heavy set chaps would still be required to lift in the lineout. But it would at least reduce the multitudinous, seemingly random array of three-pointers that have begun to take on a disproportional importance in deciding the outcomes of rugby matches.

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