On The Clock

Speeding up the scrums a key future focus for World Rugby

The recent Scotland v France clash highlighted the frustration for many fans.

WHENEVER RUGBY GETS back up and running, one of the issues that’s set to be addressed is the length of time scrums are taking.

Drawn-out scrummaging sequences have increasingly become a frustration for many in the game in recent years, to the extent that World Rugby discussed the topic at its player welfare and laws symposium in Paris earlier this month.

The most striking recent example came in Scotland’s win over France in the Six Nations two weekends ago.

In the first half alone, eight minutes and 39 seconds of play were taken up by six scrums or sequences of scrums.

The vast majority of that time involved the two forwards packs simply setting up to scrum, rather than actually scrummaging, meaning there were understandable frustration for many of those in the stadium and watching at home.

uk-england-and-ireland-guinness-six-nations SIPA USA / PA Images Ireland and England scrummage in the Six Nations. SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

There was a very noticeable lack of energy from the crowd in Murrayfield during much of the first half and that was, in part, down to the slow pace of the scrums.

Before going any further, it’s worth pointing out that the scrum is a fantastic part of rugby. Having as many genuine contests as possible is central to the sport and the scrum perfectly encapsulates that value.

The tactical, athletic, and technical battle at scrum time can be enthralling and decisive in games, while the collective focus required to excel in this area is welcome in the sport.

Scrums are also excellent attacking platforms for the team with the put-in, drawing all the forwards into one spot and leaving space for the backs to attack.

In short, the scrum is a unique element of rugby that we have to hope remains central in the future.

There are other issues around the scrum – many fans tear their hair out at the sight of crooked feeds – but speeding up the process seems like a simple measure to improve the game as a spectacle. Scotland’s win over France is not an isolated example.

There used to be many more scrums in rugby games. Go back to the 1987 World Cup and there were an average of 32 scrums per game.

That number has steadily declined in the years since to the extent that last year’s World Cup featured 13.3 scrums per game on average.

While the number of scrums has reduced greatly, the time taken for each of them is a growing issue in World Rugby’s eyes.

a-general-view-of-a-scrum James Crombie / INPHO The scrum is a unique and often brilliant part of the sport. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

On average, scrums at last year’s World Cup took 80 seconds from the moment the referee blew his whistle to the ball emerging from the scrum.

83 if the 600 scrums at the World Cup took over 100 seconds to complete, and one in the England v Australia quarter-final even took more than three minutes [including two resets].

There was one game at the World Cup where more than 25% of the total playing time was taken up by scrums.

Some scrum nerds will love that but many supporters, particularly newcomers to the sport, find it frustrating.

Again, there is no sense that the scrum should be pushed towards being removed from the game but there is work to do in ensuring this set-piece doesn’t eat up too much game time.

The reality is that the onus will be on referees – already so busy adjudicating all aspects of the game – to be more insistent on speedier set-ups in this area.

Of course, safety is paramount and forcing players to scrummage before they are ready is not to be encouraged but referees do have the law on their side in insisting both packs are ready to go.

Law 19.4 of World Rugby’s law book states that “[t]eams must be ready to form the scrum within 30 seconds of the mark being made.”

general-view-scrum Billy Stickland / INPHO Wales and England do battle at scrum time. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The sanction for failure to be ready is a free-kick, with referees entitled to upgrade those free-kicks to a penalty for repeat offenders. Speaking on BBC after Scotland’s win over France, former Ireland captain Paul O’Connell urged referees to use this measure to clamp down on the issue.

There are few things Test-level teams fear quite as much as giving away soft penalties so O’Connell’s theory is likely on the money. 

Reseting scrums is an issue too, clearly. The England v Australia sequence is a fine example, with two resets meaning more than three minutes spent on that sequence.

Again referees must be sure that player safety is primary – and we shouldn’t underestimate the physical toll each scrum takes on players, particularly in the front row – but improvements can be made.

World Rugby’s data shows that scrum resets take almost 30 seconds on average.

There are, of course, unintended consequences to consider in all of this – what if quicker setting-up and reseting times for scrums means more fatigued players and, therefore, more collapses or infringements?  

That is obviously the opposite of what World Rugby wants to see, but speeding up scrums might be a very simple step in improving rugby as a spectacle, and any such move would be warmly welcomed by many supporters.

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