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Dublin: 2 °C Tuesday 25 February, 2020

The scrum has reached crisis point in rugby, and everyone must share the blame

The World Cup has shown up the ignorance of World Rugby towards the scrum.

IT TOOK US 33 minutes to actually see a scrum in Ireland’s win against Romania on Sunday, and when they started to flow, Ireland had little trouble coping with what their opponents had to throw at them.

Nathan White looked at ease fending off Andrei Ursache – starting ahead of the more troublesome Mihai Lazar, while Cian Healy seemed to be gaining solid ground on veteran Paulica Ion.

However, with three of the four scrums Healy packed down for taking place on the far side of the television cameras, analysing his performance can only extend to the fact that he seemed to be moving forward.

Overall, it was another comfortable scrummaging performance, the fourth game in a row where Ireland have had a 100 percent success rate on their own put-in.

The stats for Irish scrum coach Greg Feek make for exceptional reading. From their last eight games, they’ve lost just one of 48 scrums when they’ve had the put-in, while they’ve retained possession on 63 of their 68 scrums in 2015 so far.

But while it all looks healthy scrum-wise from an Irish point of view, on a global scale the scrum has reached crisis point. Players are constantly bending the rules, and referees are being reduced to guesswork, which is disastrous for the game when stakes are so high.

The most obvious and – strangely – most ignored scrum offence these days appears to be the angle of the loosehead.

Since the removal of the hit from the scrum, the jostling for position is no longer there, and it allows the loosehead to wait for his moment, and angle his drive straight across his opponent.

It became a major talking point after Saturday night’s game between England and Wales, and while Joe Marler was the man to come in for particular attention, it’s going unpunished in almost every game so far in the tournament.

The two scrums that were under scrutiny crucially yielded six points in the way of English penalties, and both looked to have been poor decisions by referee Jerome Garces, who deemed that Wales were wheeling the scrum.

As we can see below from the excellent overhead cameras at Twickenham, Joe Marler has turned in at an angle on Tomas Francis to send the scrum sideways, tricking Garces into thinking that Wales were wheeling the set-piece around.

Matias Aguero and Quintin Geldenhuys tackles Mathieu Bastareaud Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The movement of the scrum sparked a good debate between former England hooker Brian Moore and former test referee Jonathan Kaplan on Monday, about who initiated the angle; Marler or Francis.

Kaplan sad that Marler had made the first move, while Moore pointed out that if Tomas Francis had tried to angle in, the physical nature of the scrum means Marler has to follow, whether he wants to or not.



What Moore points out is crucial. Because of the way players form at the scrum, if one player drives in at an angle, his opposition prop will have to follow.

But by looking at the body positions of the scrums, it does appear that Marler. initiates the angle.

We can see below the moment that the angle appears. While Francis’ shoulders have been squeezed in at an angle, his hips are still square, but Marler has stepped out to attack him and bore in.

Matias Aguero and Quintin Geldenhuys tackles Mathieu Bastareaud Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The scrums made for grim viewing on Saturday night, and the “Cheatfest” from both sides was well summed up by Green and Gold Rugby, who are taking an extra special interest in both England and Wales in the coming weeks.

I’m keen to stress that boring into a scrum is not exclusively a Joe Marler problem. Marcos Ayerza of Argentina is often called the best loosehead in the world, and he’s notorious for driving in on the angle.

He won a crucial penalty five metres from his own line against New Zealand in the opening round of matches, and it was all down to the way he drove across Owen Franks’ body, sending the scrum across the pitch, rather then forward.

Ayerza New Zealand

It’s something we’ve written about on The42 lot in the last few months, and it’s happening right across the board. Ayerza did it during the Rugby Championship, as did Tony Woodcock in numerous games. Australia’s James Slipper has been at it, and in the first World Cup warm-up between Wales and Ireland both Nicky Smith and Dave Kilcoyne chanced their arm by driving perpendicular to the scrum. On most of those occasions, it was ignored by the referee and in some cases won their sides a penalty.

I could sit here and list the offenders forever, but the reality is that the scrum has become a free-for-all. Simply blaming the referee for not penalising it achieves nothing. The scrum has become such a mess that every stakeholder in the game has to share the blame.

World Rugby haven’t given the referees adequate help and training on the set-piece. The referees are then playing guessing games, and giving the majority of decisions to the team that appears to be going forward. The teams know it, and will thus scrap the rules in favour of go-forward ball and the chance of an easy penalty. The grassroots coaches see how scrums are going on TV, and show it to the kids. And then the cycle continues.

The first step to improving things has to come from World Rugby. Their influence needs to seep down through the game. They had the perfect chance to when they listed the new experimental law changes, but instead they danced around the issue.

They knew that scrums were becoming a problem with far too much time wasted on collapses and resets, but rather than trying to identify what’s going wrong with the scrum, they’ve instead chosen to reduce the amount of scrums per game.

But crucially, reducing the amount of collapsed scrums is not the same as reducing the amount of scrums that collapse.

They made a point of targeting crooked feeds in the law changes, because it’s what TV analysts complain about after every single game. The cheating that goes on inside the scrum is ignored, and until it is scrutinised, nothing will ever be done about it.

Britain Rugby WCup France Italy Source: Christophe Ena

While the removal of the hit by World Rugby in 2013 has made an enormous impact (I recently watched back a game from the 2011 World Cup and really had forgotten just how bad things were), player safety is still a major concern.

A quick search of the World Cup squads of the major nations at this tournament show that Ireland, England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all have at least one front row player in their squads that have undergone neck surgery since the start of 2014.

Further to that, Argentina’s Maximiliano Bustos was forced to retire with a herniated disc in his neck 12 months ago, Hika Elliot – who missed out on New Zealand selection – has had ongoing neck problems over the last two years, Scotland’s Fraser Brown had neck surgery earlier in his career, while Tendai Mtawarira of South Africa was lucky enough to avoid neck surgery last year, but did spend time out of the game nursing an injury.

The number of front rows with neck problems is not just a coincidence, and it’s the attitude towards them that’s most worrying. Describing the collapsed scrum that resulted in his own neck surgery in 2014 (the second neck surgery he’d had in three years), Welsh hooker Ken Owens described it as “a freak injury”.

When the scrum has descended into a contest to make your opponent fall head-first into the ground, there’s nothing “freak” about that injury.

The only hope is that something is done about it, before another “freak” injury happens in a major televised game.

They won’t be long reacting after that.

France have brought back the big guns for Thursday’s meeting with Canada

Australia and Scotland have both been forced into injury call-ups

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About the author:

Neil Treacy

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