Let’s embrace the new scrummage laws. That is certainly the view of most of the top New Zealand coaches. Steve Hansen, John Plumtree and Rob Penney have all made positive comments about the new (or old depending on your viewpoint) requirements around the scrummage.
The ‘hit’, which was one of those laws of unintended consequence, has been abandoned. The new instruction from referees is “crouch, bind, set”. It replaces “crouch, touch, pause, engage.” The crucial part is that the two front rows now have to bind onto each other before they engage.The early games of the Rugby Championship suggest this will lead to a much higher completion rate of scrums. When New Zealand and France played back in June a staggering 18 and a half minutes of playing time was lost to the scrummage being set. This was clearly unacceptable.
Hopefully the new law will open up space on the pitch for a variety of reasons. Firstly there will be a lot more actual playing time, due to fewer resets, so the players will become more tired. Secondly the actual scrums are taking three seconds longer and back rows are having to commit more, again leading to more fatigue. Hansen said, “The great thing is we don’t have too many collapses. Once we iron out the whole thing and get used to it, I think it will be great for the game.” It’s a good attitude and a contrast to some Premiership coaches who are already bleating about a lack of information about how the scrum will be ‘policed’. That should already be obvious. The biggest requirement so far has been for the scrum-halves to put the ball in straight and when they repeatedly infringe free kicks are becoming penalties. There are so many possible variables. Will scrum-halves try to spin the ball, as they did in times past when required to put it in straight. Will the blind side wing have to come up, or another defender, to police the ball squirting out near the flanker. Already we have seen far less control of the heel. Spine and neck positions may not be the same. What are the consequences of that? And will wily old props be able to shift their bind on the moment of set. These play into the biggest hope of the new law which is player welfare.
John Jeffrey, the chairman of the IRB rugby committee, says, “We’re looking for at least a 70% completion rate. You might not think that is that much, but when you think, in the Six Nations this year, there was only 40% of scrums completed… it is purely down to player welfare.” The clearest indication of player welfare will come from New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation. All NZ sporting injuries that require treatment are referred through ACC which is effectively a government medical insurance body.
Perhaps the biggest test of the new laws will come from France, a country where the scrummage is close to a religion. Will they revert to their hookers of 25 years ago who were built like props and who scrummaged over the ball when the ball was put in?
Life should be easier for the refs, although last weekend Jaco Peyper still allowed Tony Woodcock to angle in and then penalised Australia for a lesser angle at the ensuing scrum. The end of Stephen Moore’s conversation with the ref is unprintable, so the new laws will not cure all incompetent officiating.
But let’s look on the bright side. More genuine scrum turnover ball, fewer collapses, more space and a genuine contest for possession. Let’s hope we are still saying the same things next year.