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Explainer: What rugby’s new scrum laws mean for the game

The IRB say the new scrum sequence is purely to benefit player welfare, but will it impact the wider flow of rugby?

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

There are new scrum laws? THAT’S RIGHT, RUGBY fan. The powers that be have enacted a new scrummaging sequence which they hope will have the by-product of easing the level of frustration among supporters and pundits concerning the game’s defining set-piece.

What’s new? Remember when the referee used to say ‘crouch, touch, pause: ENGAGE’?

Well, he hasn’t said that for a while. Since the start of the ITM Cup in New Zealand this summer, officials have instead been calling the scrum with: ‘crouch, bind, set.’

So…? ‘Set’ means go, but don’t get hung up on that. The big change is the instruction to bind.

Rather than the front rows attempting to get an advantage through a hit from a foot away, they will already be locked together when the pushing starts.

In addition to the changed sequence, referees have been told to start policing crooked feeds. In the first weekend of the Rugby Championship this drew the most ire as commentators complained of ‘pedantic’ refereeing when, in fact, only forgotten rules had been applied.

Why the change? While the reduction of dead time between reset scrums is a strong factor for the change, the IRB council’s John Jeffrey says the amended law is “purely down to player welfare.”

Jeffrey cites extensive tests conducted by the governing body which found that the impact force between two bound front rows will be reduced by 25%. In addition, he says that the key metric of the law’s success will be based on the number of collapsed scrums.

“We’re looking for at least a 70% completion rate. You might not think that is that much, but when you think, in the Six Nations this year, there was only 40% of scrums completed… it is purely down to player welfare.”

How is it working out? Once scrum halves get used to fair put-ins again, then the number of stoppages around the scrum will be cut to a fraction. Already the number of collapsed scrums per game has plummeted.

The reduced emphasis on the initial hit is being said to encourage a return to traditional skills: props will scrummage more and hookers will need to hook if the feed is genuinely straight.

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Rob Griffith/AP/Press Association Images

All good news then? Perhaps not. In some quarters, there are fears that there will be reduced need for bulky props and second rows to lend their weight to the shove. This in turn, could lead to a change in the physical requirements for the tight five positions. A lighter, more agile lock would in theory make defences quicker to react and harder to break down.

Oh? What do the experts say? Former Wallaby hooker Phil Kearns has voiced another opposition to the law, saying it favours the team not in possession as they can shove with all eight men while the hooker of the team in possession must hook.

Another detractor is former New Zealand prop Richard Loe who complains that the new laws lead to ‘folding and dismantling’ after the feed.

However, writing in his column for South Africa Rugby magazine, Ireland’s new forwards coach John Plumtree is positive about the new sequence. Plumtree believes that fears of a reduced need for bulk up front is unfounded as the know-how of those working at the coal-face will always be an asset.

“Good props love the dark places on the field and there is no darker place than the front row battle. Having technically good props and a scrummaging hooker is still going to be crucial under the new laws.

“Because the hit has been de-powered, the back five now also have to generate power by – shock, horror – having to push in the scrums. This is great news for the backs, who now get a little more time with the ball before having someone like George Smith breathing down their necks.”

Joe Schmidt’s assistant also points out the added bonus of a longer time when forwards are actually shoving, thereby increasing their rate of fatigue and creating more opportunities for backs to find space.

“The main talking point has been that a scrum now lasts another three seconds,”Plumtree writes, “so it’s all now about ‘scrum endurance’ for the eight most important guys on the field as they are in a scrummaging position for a longer period of time.”

Have you played with the new sequence? Either way, give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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