There have been question marks raised about the viability of the scrum in the professional era for many years now. As a platform for constructive play, it has become an afterthought compared to the other big set-piece starter, the lineout.
In the current Six Nations tournament for example, 18 tries had been scored from lineout after three rounds (38 per cent of the total tries scored), but only five tries originated from scrum (10 per cent).
In truth, the scrum has been in a death spiral ever since the end of the amateur era, and the beginning of professionalism. Not only are there far fewer scrums than before, there is far less production of usable ball too.
Take a look at the following table, plotted via a comparison of the first three, and last three World Cups:
Over the first three World Cups, played before the game turned fully professional in 1987, 1991 and 1995, there were almost twice as many scrums set as there have been over the last three World Cups (in 2011, 2015 and 2019). The professional scrums generated three times the number of penalties awarded, and only 10 bits of useable ball – compared to 25 in the amateur era.
After three rounds of the current Six Nations, the number of scrums ending in a penalty or free-kick was almost exactly the same, running at 28%. Canny coaches have worked out that it is far more economic to scrum for penalties, then kick for a lineout from which they can plan their assault in relative safety, than it is to attack directly from the scrummage.
The shrewd South African director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, recently pointed out the difficulties this presents to a modern top-flight referee. He specifically connected them with that ailing offspring of the game, the set scrum:
“There’s too much microscopic stuff in the game now. We worked out that a referee needs to make between 800 and 850 decisions in one match. It’s impossible, man. It leaves the referee open to criticism — I would know! — and that’s not fair.
“There are too many grey areas to let the game flow. You are always going to get one team that’s pissed off, whether they say it publicly or not. Did you know there are 58 things you can be punished for at a scrum?”
58 things are about 55 things too many, and the law urgently needs simplification in order to restore the original purpose of scrummaging as a way to restart the game positively, with a slight advantage to the feeding team.
The scrum reached a new low point in the match between England and Ireland at Twickenham in the fourth round of the Six Nations. Out of 11 total scrums set, only one was completed – and that was Ireland’s single feed of the entire game. The 10 England feeds ended in seven penalties (of which six were awarded to England), one free-kick and two resets.
A completion rate of only 9 per cent (including the resets) or 11 per cent (without) is miserable by any standards. The main issues revolved around intentional wheeling of the scrum (against Ireland) and deliberate collapsing of the set-piece (one penalty given against each side).
The majority of scrum penalties tend to be awarded to the feeding team, when they successfully accentuate the natural rotation of the scrum around the loosehead prop, and this was the case in the match at Twickenham:
The view from the overhead cam always allows a privileged view of the mechanics involved. Law 19.19 requires that “Players may push provided they do so straight and parallel to the ground.” In this instance, the Ireland scrum was penalised for initiating the wheel and not staying straight, but the picture as the ball is fed into the scrum by scrum-half Harry Randall does not back up that perception:
Five of the six front-rowers are pushing straight ahead as the ball goes in. The exception is English loose-head Ellis Genge, who is pushing in on his Irish opponent Tadhg Furlong at an angle, with his left shoulder advanced well ahead of his right.
That angle is reinforced by the flanker on his side (emergency forward Jack Nowell), and it is clear that if the second row behind Genge (England captain Courtney Lawes) exerts any power, it will have the effect of pushing Ellis Genge’s hips even further out of a straight line. The basic mechanics suggest strongly that England are intending to move the scrum by rotation rather than straight upfield, and it is they who initiate the wheel.
The other aspect of the set-piece was mentioned in dispatches by England coach Eddie Jones after the event:
“I’m a bit disappointed the referee didn’t allow us to scrum fully. That would be my only complaint.
“We weren’t allowed to play advantage away from the scrum. We got four scrum penalties and there was no sign of a yellow card.
“We want to have a powerful scrum and if World Rugby want to have the scrum in the game, they have got to allow the strong scrums to dominate. We’re disappointed we didn’t get more out of that.”
It does appear that Randall has the chance to play the ball at 16:22 on the clip, from the channel in between Lawes and Nowell, but chooses not to. As with the other wheeling scrums which ended in penalty, England are looking to force the referee to make a decision rather than playing the ball away from the set-piece themselves:
Randall is looking at the referee and never makes a move to play the ball. The shot from the reverse side indicates that there is no chance of his number 8 being able to control the ball at the base either. By the end of the play, England’s scrum has disintegrated while the Ireland forwards are still all on their feet.
The overall impression is of players and coaches alike forcing the referee to make a call which is at best in Rassie’s words ‘microscopic’, at worst ‘impossible’. If it is used at all, the wheel has to be employed to open up a side of the field to attack, not to exert pressure on the official. Play the ball, not the ref.
The penalties awarded for collapsing were scarcely an improvement:
Ireland get a slight nudge on as England initiate their ‘walk’ around Ellis Genge, but the ball is available to Harry Randall on two separate occasions (at 9:49 in channel one, and at 9:53 at the back), so why not let the scrum produce the ball it was intended for instead?
This was probably the only instance where a penalty was clearly and obviously justified. On this occasion, Ellis Genge goes forward rather than around, and Tadhg Furlong just as clearly pulls out of the contest.
What is the solution? A couple of remedies may help immediately, and the first is associated with newly-crowned Grand Slam champions France:
These two scrums – the first versus Ireland, the second from the recent match against England – illustrate both sides of the French front row moving forward at much the same rate, with relatively little angle applied by the France loose-head Cyrille Baille.
Even more importantly, Les Bleus opt to play the ball away from the base on both occasions through their number 8 Greg Alldritt, with the first instance developing into a fully-fledged back-line attack. So, why not insert a demand in the law book that the ball must be played away initially from every scrum, including those at which a penalty could be awarded?
The other option links back to my first-ever article for RugbyPass+. Japan, who are traditionally undersized in the tight five forwards, like to utilize ‘channel one’ ball to move the ball in and out of the set-piece quickly, in order to offset the grind of a long contest and create quick attacking opportunities:
If problems persist with disintegrating structure at the scrum when the ball is held in and goes to the base, why not grant referees the power to insist on the use of an alternative? ‘Channel one’ ball, emerging from between the near-side flanker and number 8’s feet, would clear up the mess and produce useable ball immediately?
A competitive scrum is one of the most stirring sights, and one of the biggest unique selling points in the game, amateur or professional. But it also has to respect its status as a restart, not an end in itself. By hook or by crook, the set-piece needs to produce a majority of useable ball or it will quickly become the dinosaur of the modern game – and no Jurassic Park styled innovations will be enough to bring it back to life.