Scrummaging is no longer a level contest for the ball, says Malcolm Cupis. It is a frustrating, time consuming, unsatisfactory charade. Here’s what he thinks is wrong with it and what rugby needs to do to fix it. Do you agree?
Let me declare an interest at the start of this, I spent more than 20 years playing rugby in several countries around the world and, for the most part of this, I played in the front row. I’m not suggesting I was scrummaging God, I wasn’t. I played at modest levels, but the rugby I played left me with a very good understanding of front row play in particular.
I had to retire 10 years ago after getting badly injured and since then, I have watched with frustration as I have seen the scrummaging contest at all levels of the game descend from being an honest contest for the ball to being an egotistical showcase that all too often ends in collapses, resets, penalties and free kicks, administered by referees who can’t possibly understand what is happening. Sadly the whole downward spiral has been aided and abetted by instructions from the rugby Gods that have guaranteed it to be so.
Scrummaging is no longer a level contest for the ball, it is a frustrating, time consuming, unsatisfactory charade. Here’s what I think is wrong with it and what rugby needs to do to fix it.
I should really start by saying that I watched a DVD the other day of the Lions test matches against South Africa in 1972, and it was immediately obvious that the restart phases of the game, the scrum and the lineout, were fair competitions for the ball. The game was simpler then and I’m not arguing that the standards aren’t higher today in the professional era, but there are definitely lessons to learn.
Focussing on the scrum, what was it that made the 1972 version so much better than the 2012 version.
It starts with the set up and the bind. In 1972 there was no hit on engage in the scrums. The two front rows bound loosely to each other. Their back fives bound onto them and the shove didn’t start until the ball was fed in. The hookers then competed for the ball and the hooker who had the best performing pack enjoyed a significant advantage.
The players played in cotton jerseys that gave their opposing numbers plenty to bind onto.
In very simplistic terms, the two tight heads tried to disrupt the opposition hooker by putting him under pressure. They largely did this by trying to drive between the loose head and the hooker, splintering the scrum and then driving into the hooker. The two hookers tried to work in tandem with their loose heads, trying to maintain their bind and drive off the opposition tight head, whilst mainly focusing on securing possession with their feet . The two loose heads were focused on nullifying the threat of the opposition tight head, largely by maintaining a strong bind with their hooker and by getting under the chest or armpit of the tight head and driving him upwards, making it more difficult for him to get between them and the hooker.
Obviously there were variation on this theme, depending on pitch position and attack or defence, but this describes the fundament of the battle. It has never been a completely even contest. It is far too simplistic to say that a front row in a scrum is engaged in a man-to-man battle with their opposite number. You work together as a unit and if any part of that unit fails, you fail together. As somebody who played mostly at loose head, I always felt that the tight head had an innate advantage because the loose head’s position is destabilised by being stuck out on the end. The moment the tight head gets between you and your hooker, which is where his head starts, you essentially become an arbitrary part of the contest. You must maintain that bind come what may and ensure that this doesn’t happen.
So, what has changed?
The first thing to focus on is the hit on the engage. This started to creep into the game about 20 years ago. Fundamentally, a scrum that wins the hit has an advantage – they have gained forward momentum before the bind and the contest takes place. That forward momentum gives further advantage to the tight head, because he immediately succeeds in putting pressure on the opposition hooker and getting into the space between the hooker and the loose head.
The force of the hit soon led to injuries, hence the need to revise the engage laws to those we have established today, breaking down the process into crouch, touch, pause, engage. In many ways though this adds to the problem because the front rows are destabilised by being left in the crouch position. The packs are pausing anyway before the pause command, waiting for the hit, so this is superfluous. All the focus remains on the engage, so the power of the hit is not reduced and therefore the risk of injury is not reduced.
Secondly the skin tight jerseys that players now wear. Imagine being shunted backwards by eight eighteen stone men. As you fight for balance and to stop yourself from going backwards, the props are also required to quickly bind on the body of the opposing player, who is wearing a skin tight shirt and charging forward with huge momentum.
As if this wasn’t hard enough, referees seem to additionally have been asked to turn a blind eye to the tight head binding on the sleeve. One thing I know from years playing loose head is that if your opposing tight head gets to bind on your sleeve, he will pull you away from your hooker and down towards the ground. If the referee doesn’t pick this up your position goes from difficult to hopeless.
So, if you are a loose head prop, how do you counter this? David Flatman seems to me to take the view that the only way is to hold back his bind until the last moment, so that the opposition tight head can’t make an early bind on his sleeve. His choice is to bind early and almost guarantee losing the scrum, which is his prime purpose, or to risk giving away a penalty.
Unfortunately, this last season it seemed as if word had got around about this tactic and referees began to look for out for it and penalise it, without apparently asking themselves why he was doing it.
To even up the contest referees simply must penalise tight head props from binding on the sleeve again.
Having watched David Flatman play over the years, and spoken to people who have been unfortunate enough to play against him, I know that once the contest starts, he was, and still is, one of the most effective scrummagers in English rugby. In terms of his power and technique, he is a formidable loose head prop and there is no way he has suddenly become a bad scrummager or a bad player. He suffers because the laws are not properly applied and the contest has been skewed too far in favour of the tight head prop, aided by the hit and the bind.
However, his power and skill are completely nullified by poor application of the laws of the game. This can’t be right.
The only other defensive option for the vast majority of loose head props who have lost the hit is to take the scrum down. This is frustrating for the spectator, time consuming and an ugly spectacle, especially as it puts referees into an impossible situation whereby they have to make a snap judgment as to who is offending, something they all too often get completely wrong. There may be one or two loose heads props in the world who can lose the hit, get shunted backwards, find a bind and then recover their balance into a position of power to drive back at the tight head, but in practice this is almost impossible.
So, for the good of rugby, what is the answer?
Rugby needs to even up the contest so that it becomes a fair fight and a genuine competition for the ball again. The first thing to do is to change the engage and bind. We need to go back to front rows binding loosely on each other and the competition only starting when the ball enters the scrum. This way you can check the bind before the contest starts. There is no false advantage from the hit. Props wrestle for advantage and hookers hook – compete for the ball in the scrum.
Jerseys need to have provision for binding, guaranteeing that everybody binds in the right place and referees need to penalise props who do not bind in the approved place.
I strongly contend that the outcome of this will be genuine competition for the ball, far fewer collapses and resets and far better safety for the players. Above all, spectators will see scrummaging becoming an intrinsic part of rugby again, rather than a boring waste of time, and the best scrummagers will secure more and better ball for their backs to play with. Everyone’s a winner…apart from weak scrummagers and cheats!
Nicely constructed piece, Malco. No idea about the strength of your technical arguments, but cetainly, the put in should be reffed better, but whilst Sir has so much else to look for at the scrum (as you describe), it is impossible for him to check on the tunnel at the same instant as he is checking binds & body positions. The IRB do need to tackle this area properly to bring competition back, and so need to force TJs to play a part.
Being as the front row is so alien to me, I do struggle to understand why the current problems have been around for so long and have not been tackled effectively. Yes the IRB have tinkered, but as Malco says, the hit is still there & the requirement to bind on to something that has been manufactured to inhibit this seem to offer easy solutions to me. So I can only wonder why they remain issues
Of course that's true Ballsout, but the side that wins the feed should have a small advantage. that doesn't mean that it wouldn't be a far more even contest though, and a genune competition for the ball that would favour stronger scrummagers and skilled hookers.
Listened to the leading ref's debating this yesterday - and they would appear to agree with you. Next year is a three phase command going crouch, touch, set - but there appears no great expectation that this will lessen the "hit". There was keen anticipation to see how Barnes/Pearson handle the Quins/Tigers confrontaion tomorrow particularly in view of the fact that the Quins front row seems to have much improved their scrummaging.
There is no pushing before the ball is in (by the laws). I don't see why a hit is any different? Presumably there is a directive or even in the laws that a front row should not apply more pressure on the opposition than is required to maintain balance (or whatever).
Just apply that to the engage, sufficient but no more pressure than required. If the opposition front row are pushed back, you're engaging too hard. If they step back that is different, but I think refs can make that distinction? I'd have thought they have to with the pushing before ball anyway?
Sounds good, although I have no real idea of what goes on in these dark places. However, it would appear that constant tinkering by the powrs that be has lead to a far too elongated scrum process, causing destabilisation whilst props are crouch awaiting drawn out commands. Why not simply, once the forwards are bound together on each side, call out engage, feed and away you go?
Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2012:05:25:11:33:19 by Duke of Earl.
Malco Of course that's true Ballsout, but the side that wins the feed should have a small advantage. that doesn't mean that it wouldn't be a far more even contest though, and a genune competition for the ball that would favour stronger scrummagers and skilled hookers.
Good props used to have some skill in striking - THP's to snaffle opposition ball and Loosies to prevent this happening.
Surprisingly enough, I agree entirely with the article, and the addendum on feeding the ball straight. Let's face it, prety much every rugby forum has this "debate" at least once a year; and generally come to exactly the same conclusion. front rows bind to each other, then locks and backrow, then the ball comes in, TJ to help out on the blindside, ball to go in straight, and something to be done about prop's shirts.
From what I can gather, ref.s generally agree, and most journalists.
However, I also get the impression that coaches hate uncertainty, and would far rather have a play that they can plan for, arrange their backs (and flankers) for, with possession guaranteed, and competition not for the ball, but for the quality of that possession.
Personally, I think that's plain not good enough. The thing that separates rugby union from any other ball game, is competition for the ball - at every breakdown, at every re-start; you have to earn retention of possession, it should NEVER be a forgone conclusion. The powers that be seem to agree; except for at the scrum. The "hit" is illegal under the laws of the game; enforce that, and the rest should look after itself to some extent.
Really enjoyed that article, thanks Malco. I played hooker for many years before having to move to the back row (and therefore moving to more social rugby). My shoulders were getting slowly damaged from the hits in the scrums that at University and then Senior rugby were heavy. It was the right thing to do to change that.
If a hooker is adept enough he can strike for the ball whilst giving a little nudge forward with his left leg. If this is done in conjunction with the whole pack then there is no reason why you are at a disadvantage by putting the ball in.
Andy Robinson was my school coach and (in training) used to make me strike for the ball blindfolded so that you kept your head (and shoulders) straight rather than looking to see the ball!
So much of scrummaging is about timing and working together as well as technique. If rugby doesn't sort the mess of the scrum out then the likes of those in Oz who want it to be more of a rugby league type contest might get their way and we lose a huge part of what rugby is all about - i.e. being suitable for all shapes and sizes.
The cynic in me (which is generally the dominant part) leads me to believe that this is precisely what the IRB is seeking to achieve Tricky. They don't want to fix the scrum, they want to depower it and fundamentally remove the contest from the game. I think they've been trying to do this ever since the England pack dominated everybody else and won the World Cup in 2003, despite the IRB's most determined efforts to stop them.
Yes I agree conditionally, I haven't got time at the moment but I'll post the results of a long chat I had with Nigel Horton a while back, he was a British Lion Lock and was the designer of the scrummaging session that brought the Lions in 97 to the ascendency in the scrum.
Diffrent shirts for props is all well and good in the top leagues but what about lower down? Does the few penalise a prop because he is to big for his shirt and the loose binding bit on his shirt is too tight?
What ever happens we can't go to uncontested scrums all games I have played in that have done this have lead to the rest of the game feeling rather pointless and the edge completely goes.
Players wanted! Any one who wants to get into or back into rugby or just fancies the odd game for Sutton Benger RFC, PM me.
Once again Malco I find myself either strongly agreeing with or vehmently opposing what you say (much like your comments on thisisbath ). In this instance you talk such eminent sense I'd be tempted to vote for you if you stood for President of the Universe.
I think the drive to de-power the scrum began in Australia before England's 2003 win. At one time Australia set out to have a powerful front row (they naturalised some Argentines and brought others in to coach), but since their 1991 World Cup side their front row play has declined.
They have been campaigning for a reduction of time spent on scrums since 1995 - ironically, with the opposite result since the "Crouch -Touch -Pause -Engage!" is in itself long-winded and leads to so many resets.
"Diffrent shirts for props is all well and good in the top leagues but what about lower down?"
Lower leagues don't charge 40 quid for the privilege of watching; they aren't televised. I have no problem with the professional game having slight variations. Paul Ackford was floating the idea quite recently of having different rules for scrummaging in the professional game - recognising that professionals are less likely to be injured in the event of the front row collapsing.
The one thing always missed out when discussing this area is the way that the pro teams view scrummaging
Imagine Mondays video analysis if the Tigers front row don't dominate and don't cheat their way out of it.
"You were getting snotted in that scrum, why didn't you stand up/collapse/bore in/etc? Do nothing again and you're dropped! Oh, and make sure you hit faster next time!"
Until this is addressed front rows will continue to try and nullify any fair advantage the other team gets. There is no reason why the current rules CAN'T work, particularly with better policing of the key rules. However there are many reasons why they DON'T.
A fine read, like the article and all the comments after it
Vis-a-vis lower league rugby, in the local matches in which I have spectated it has been very rare for the ref to need to say 'Up you get lads.' They are already playing it differently to the pro game. I'd have no beef with a moderate divergence of amateur and pro laws. Is that any different to differing age group rules?
I'm with Lee here, collapsed scrums are a rarity at the lower level, probably, nay certainly for many of the reasons espoused above. It's the pro game that's killing the scrum and it's at that level that it needs sorting. Contest for the ball is at the very heart of rugby and needs to return front and centre to the IRB's core view of how the game is played.
There's a moment in one of the Lions 1971 Test series in NZ where a scrum forms whilst the Lions Loosehead, Mighty Mouse, is sat on the ground putting on his boot! The other five front rowers cracked on and McLaughlin joined in as soon as he could. The scrum stayed up.
IIRC*, the "crouch, touch, pause, engage" was brought in to both simplify the scrum and to make it safer. It has manifestly failed to do that and has killed the scrum as both a contest and a spectacle.
*me and Spugsy had a long chat with Chris White about it at Cheltenham Tigers just before it became Law (boys were playing there, it's his club, no willy waving) and he stated quite robustly that it would stabilise the scrum and allow the referee to police other scrum discrepancies such as crooked feeds. One can therefore surmise that, given that was the intent, it's been the most disastrous law change in rugby's history. (hyperbole alert I know but most of us love the close quarter combat of scrums, mauls, lineouts and rucks. Take them away and you have rugby league with 2 too many people
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2012:05:25:23:52:07 by Gareth Redux.
As a supporter of the team Stuart Barnes dubbed the scrum who watched tigers and quins destroy our front row I couldn't agree more with this article. Binding panels IMHO make very good sense. Even more sense would be consistent refs. At the gardens this year we saw mujati penalised at scrum and then at the very next scrum his opposite number was penalised. On winning the penalty the mooj looked bewildered at sir and commented "I just did the exact same thing" so either sir had changed his mind or hadn't a clue. If saints get a French ref we win every scrum, Celtic league refs whistle us off the park and in the premiership semi final sir allowed quins tight head to take tiny out of the game by driving in at 45ish degrees. Now I don't blame sir for that in the same way you have issues with flat man but I do think the fat lads have to adapt to different interpretations and when you practice one way all week, I don't see that as easy. The masters are tigers as stated above, much as it pains me to say.
Come join my Heineken Cup prediction game on SuperBru! It's free and loads of fun. Just click here:
Without wishing to start any kind of interclub argument, for me Saints (Hartley and Tiny mainly) have been one of the most cynical scrummaging teams in the last two years.
As soon as the pack starts going forward Hartley pops up looking for the penalty aided by his big Tongan mate. Refs always penalize the retreating team as they seem to have no idea what's going on in-between a knock on and the fly half getting the ball again.
Not sure I blame Saints for going for it, but just another example of how teams view the scrum as a chance of a penalty rather than an aggressive restart that opens up the field for an attack.
Not going to disagree ken we found a formula that worked possibly until the 2nd half of the hc final. I think we saw a similar pen for quins today, awarded as the team going forward but offending on multiple levels!
Come join my Heineken Cup prediction game on SuperBru! It's free and loads of fun. Just click here:
Crouch touch pause phase is officially for the ref to check that both sides are about to engage square and level. It has nothing to do with the safety of the hit.
Since the laws state that no pushing should occur prior to the ball being presented to the scrum. I don't see why the "hit" is required. We should make the front rows waddle in together in a slow mo engage.
Yell "In" to the scrum half - check the ball goes in between both sides and let the hookers kick each others shins or whatever else they decide to do in that dark and gloomy pit.
Big baggy jumpers like the old days or lets just say the props can put the free hand on the floor for support if needed.
I really should sort one of those witty signatures
Sorry, only registered users may post in this forum.
We record all IP addresses on the Sportnetwork message boards which may be required by the authorities in case of defamatory or abusive comment.
We seek to monitor the Message Boards at regular intervals.
We do not associate Sportnetwork with any of the comments and do not take responsibility for any statements or opinions expressed on the Message Boards.
If you have any cause for concern over any material posted here please let us know as soon as possible by e-mailing