The modern day professional scrum is one of the biggest frustrations for the average rugby supporter. The eradication of the “hit” seems to have removed some of the issues but we are still faced with any number of re-sets, collapsed scrums, flankers pointing at offences before the referee awards a seemingly unintelligible penalty. It’s not great value for money.
It didn’t always used to be this way though, and through a selection of short films we can see how the scrum has evolved through the years to get where we are today. This isn’t a technical analysis of the changes but more a high level view of the evolution of the scrum.
This first clip comes from the 1972 test match between Wales and New Zealand in Cardiff. Following a crooked throw at the lineout the referee blows his whistle for the scrum:
The first thing that stands out is the Welsh hooker jogs to get around and in to position for the Welsh pack to form around him! From the point when the whistle is blown the scrum forms and the ball is fed in around 15 seconds – quite incredible by today’s standards.
There is a hit of sorts but the packs find an equilibrium and stabilises before the ball goes in. The ball is hooked and quickly channelled to be released; there is no keeping of the ball at the number 8’s feet to try and milk a penalty.
We fast forward about 10 years and look at a Wales, England fixture from 1981.
Once again it takes about 15-20 seconds from the whistle for the scrum, to the ball being fed in to the scrum. In this example it is the front 5s from the respective packs that form and then the back rows attach.
We head to the southern hemisphere for this video from the 1995 Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand.
The game was ostensibly amateur in the mid-nineties but it was widely recognised that players had been on a professional footing in the southern hemisphere for a number of years.
The 1995 scrum shows a big change when we compare it to the earlier versions. From the whistle to the ball feed is about 45 seconds, which is a big increase on the previous decades with the main reason being that we have had to re-set the scrum.
The now ubiquitous scrum collapse has entered the game as the front rows jostle for the upper hand during the hit. The scrum itself still forms fairly quickly and the New Zealand hooker Fitzpatrick manages to disengage from his front row colleagues, shift the scrum without the need for the whole engagement process to start again.
Once the scrum has collapsed both teams quickly get off the ground and reform. There is no arm waving or pointing by to help the referee penalise the opposition when the scrum went to ground.
From the same game we see another scrum awarded and a quick set by both packs. The interesting think to note is that in the absence of the referee calling an engage sequence the only word he utters is “wait”. He then moves out of the way and the front rows engage with no fuss.
It’s now the 2007 Rugby World Cup final and South Africa are taking on England. As we will see from this video clip the referee has now become the most important person on the pitch and does a lot of talking during the phase of play.
This scrum has one reset and still takes around 40 seconds to complete but the noticeable changes are the scrum engagement sequence has been introduced, including a “touch” phase which was supposed to reduce the gap between the two front rows. The referee also talks to both front rows between scrums and advises them on how much gap to leave and what he wants to see at the scrum.
The second obvious change is the focus on the ‘hit’ as the packs collide and the immediate feed from the scrum half.
The hit and and subsequent drive became the dominant aspect of the scrum, which suited certain props over others. The scrum half would feed the ball once the scrum had formed.
The modern scrum example is taken from this year’s 6 Nations clash between Wales and France in Cardiff.
Nearly 40 seconds after the whistle has blown for the scrum the front rows still haven’t even formed. This has the advantage of allowing the TV companies more time to show reruns but has the disadvantage of giving some of the less fit French props time to recover before they push again.
Wayne Barnes and the front rows have a chat about the scrum as if they have never had to form one before and there is lots of pulling of mud from boots and readjusting of binds.
Other than the number 8 all 3 rows form before the engagement, with the second rows on their knees. The engagement has had the hit taken away but the referee blows for a reset, even though it looks like the two packs have already formed. Instead of readjusting in the positions they are, both packs stand up and the whole sequence has to be repeated.
We now see front rows questioning the referee and Barnes needs to explain again what he wants at the scrum. The scrum half is now only allowed to introduce the ball on a signal from the referee.
This one scrum has taken over 90 seconds and ends in a penalty; which just about sums up the modern scrum – painfully slow and usually ending with a questionable penalty.
The last thing to note about the modern day scrum is the angle the props take when the scrum forms. In this still from the Wales France game, look at the angle of the prop’s legs on this side of the scrum.
On this side the French prop’s right leg is about 45 degrees from the vertical, with his feet about a foot behind his knee. Compare that leg shape with one from the 1995 South Africa, New Zealand game:
The New Zealand prop’s left leg is clearly visible and we can see it takes a very different position than the French player’s. In this example the top half of the leg is nearly vertical and the heads and shoulders of the props are about 6 inches higher than those in the modern day scrum.
With the low body position with the legs at about 45 degrees to the vertical it is no wonder we see so many collapsed scrums in the modern game.
What needs to change?
Firstly, the whole scrum sequence and formation needs to be speeded up so those that pay good money to watch rugby aren’t sitting there in boredom. Secondly, the players have to take responsibility for the number of collapsed scrums and make a decision for the good of the game to try and improve the spectacle. Finally, referees need to stop guessing who has offended and look to improve their knowledge of offences at the scrum.
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