Patience seems to be running out even among those who might be expected to be the scrum’s staunchest advocates.
The scrum, in its current form; is it a desperate waste of time? asks Robert Kitson
Via theguardian.com Robert Kitson discusses the pros and cons of ‘reforming the scrum’ in a recent article for the Guardian about one of rugby’s most hotly debated subjects.
“Even devotees of the front-row arts are fed up with the arcane and boring ‘cheat-a-thon’ that scrummaging has now become; improving scrums by reducing the hit would remove guesswork by referees. Chatting to a renowned former prop forward the other day it did not take long for the vexed subject of the scrum to come up. We are talking here about a long-serving club legend who spent more than half his life in the front row and has forgotten more about scrummaging than most people will ever learn. And guess what? Even he reckons the scrum, in its current form, is a desperate waste of time.
[Long-serving Club Legend’s] solution to the endless collapses and boring re-sets of the scrum was straightforward…
The side with the put-in has one minute to get the ball in and away. If there is no decisive resolution, a free-kick is awarded. Re-sets would effectively be outlawed unless props can maintain their footing, stay bound and hold the scrum up. In other words, the game will simply pass them by.
It is not a perfect answer, as our gnarled former prop was swift to concede. Defending sides in a tight spot near their own line would still be sorely tempted to go to ground, time-waste or wheel furiously in the hope of conning their way out of trouble. Referees, though, would be keeping a close eye on them and could still dish out yellow cards where appropriate.
The amount of ball-in-play time would increase significantly and the number of straight-arm penalties for scrum offences would be reduced, opening up the potential for a more fluid game. The scrum would remain a potential weapon but cease to be the protracted eyesore it has become, particularly on softer surfaces.
There are alternatives – going to uncontested scrums if the front-rows go down more than once, or reducing the number of players involved in the next scrum each time one collapses.
What is clear, either way, is that patience is running out even among those who might be expected to be the scrum’s staunchest advocates. Ultimately it is supposed to be a means of restarting a game, not an arcane ‘cheat-a-thon’ that sucks the life and momentum out of a contest.
Another distinguished former Lions forward to whom I spoke last week also said something very interesting. Despite having played in the back row himself, he reckons the day is approaching when union will have little choice but to do away with flankers and become a 13-a-side sport, like rugby league. The reason scarcely needs spelling out: with players getting bigger, stronger and faster, pitches remaining the same size, and the breakdown becoming ever more congested, the amount of creative space available has decreased hugely. At the highest level, the sport continues to mutate ever further away from the game for all shapes and sizes it aspires to be.
Not every modern prop and flanker, clearly, will applaud the above proposals, particularly those on big money.
Both former players I spoke to, however, could never be described as ill-informed or ‘it was better in my day’ old farts. Both still love the game for its passion, camaraderie, commitment and physicality. They are emphatically not floating voters seeking a basketball-style spectacle, but genuine rugby men.
Add everything together, either way, and rugby union cannot blithely assume that nothing much will change in the next 20 years. When knowledgeable rugby men from the relatively recent past, speaking independently of each other, insist their sport needs to grasp some major nettles, it is hard to disagree.
We have not even mentioned the swirling issues of concussion awareness and young player injury risk…
This was the subject of a striking article published by the British Medical Journal last week: “Anyone who has spent an hour picking skull fragments out of the contused frontal lobes of a teenage rugby player is entitled to an opinion on the safety of youth rugby,” writes Michael Carter, a consultant paediatric neurosurgeon based in Bristol. He clearly has a point, even if it is important to emphasise that playing rugby, particularly at youth level, can also have massive athletic and social benefits.