Something’s gotta give

JON CARDINELLI finds out whether it’s the players, the referees or the impractical laws that are to blame for the profound mess at the scrum.

The loosehead prop paws the turf, the whistle blows and the crowd groans. The commentators take aim at the referee, the prop wears a look of disbelief and his captain shakes his head bitterly as his opposite number gestures towards the goal posts.

Moments later, the two packs set for another scrum. ‘Crouch, touch, pause …’ begins the referee before signalling a free kick for early engagement. This time the captain is livid with the official for a laboured delivery of the four-word credo, but all complaints are given short shrift. The referee is, after all, just fulfilling the IRB’s mandate.

Rugby’s governing body will claim to have the game’s best interests at heart, and that the current law set ensures scrums are safe as well as competitive. There are many coaches and players, however, who believe the laws and the application thereof are de-powering this set piece as well as spoiling the spectacle.

The ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ calling system has been widely criticised, while penalties against the loosehead for placing his hand on the ground have sparked an outrage in the front-row fraternity. These are the two sanctions that have generated the most confusion and frustration, and few teams have been able to adapt completely.

DROPPING THE BIND

When players are penalised for putting their hand down after the hit, they are technically guilty of dropping their bind. Former Springbok prop Ollie le Roux says it’s a pedantic penalty that doesn’t consider the physics of two 900kg packs slamming into each other at an incredible force. Le Roux argues that if a player uses a hand to steady himself after the hit and then rebinds, play should continue.

‘It’s a diabolical call,’ he seethes. ‘It’s difficult for props to bind these days because players wear thin shirts instead of jerseys, and when these shirts become saturated with sweat, it’s even tougher. It seems that lawmakers and referees just don’t appreciate the difficulty of making the hit and getting the bind when there’s not a lot to hang on to. There should be allowances for a player who’s able to recover after dropping his hand to the ground.’

A high percentage of the total number of penalties (13%) were awarded at the scrum during Super Rugby, while the statistics also confirmed that as many as 10% of all scrums ended in sanction. Some referees were stricter than others, but the numbers suggest that most officials targeted the loosehead prop.

Former Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter believes the absence of a balanced approach to refereeing is robbing the game of a contest at the scrum.

‘The defending loosehead is getting murdered,’ Venter says. ‘I’d like to see a change to ensure there isn’t such an overwhelming focus on one side of the scrum. It seems the law is there for the benefit of the refs, they’re looking for what we call “pointers”, which are illegal things worthy of a penalty.’

Another former Bok prop, Robbie Kempson, is even less enthused with the way the game is being managed, and says the referees need to make more of an effort to understand the intricacies of the scrum.

‘They are reverting to the laws instead of doing their homework. The laws are up for revision at the end of the year, and whoever rewrites them should do so with the aid of a prop. At the moment, they are designed to absolve referees of responsibility, and the net result is that we’re not seeing a contest. The way the game is going the IRB may as well get rid of the scrum altogether and complete the move from rugby union to rugby league.

‘We didn’t see many scrum contests in Super Rugby and the referees and laws were to blame. Cheetahs loosehead Coenie Oosthuizen was blown to pieces in the first part of the competition because he wasn’t getting his bind up. These are the penalties that can cost teams momentum, and if the penalty is within kicking range, it can cost them points and possibly matches.’

Balie Swart was at the scrumming coalface when the Boks won the 1995 World Cup, and is employed by Saru as a scrum consultant. His job entails training referees and in some cases travelling to the five South African Super Rugby franchises when there is a major scrum issue that needs to be addressed.

After Oosthuizen was nailed by officials at the beginning of the season, Swart flew to Bloemfontein to work with the player and ensure that his coaches at the Cheetahs understood the law.

‘If a loosehead is putting his hand on the ground, it’s because the tighthead is winning the hit and the loosehead is not strong enough to stay up,’ says Swart. ‘If you can’t take the pressure, you usually take a step back, but because every player wants to dominate, they don’t want to take a step back to relieve the pressure. They want to put their hand down to steady themselves before having another crack at the tighthead.

‘There was an issue earlier in the season when Coenie was penalised repeatedly. I never get involved from a technical perspective, but I do help players understand what the law requires. I discussed the problem with Coenie and his coaches, and they obviously made the necessary adjustments because, as we saw, Coenie improved as the season progressed.

‘Players have to get it right or they are going to cost their teams points and games. It’s the responsibility of the coaches to coach their teams to the letter of the law, and the responsibility of the players to ensure they don’t transgress. There is no place for bad habits or tactics in today’s game.’

Swart also challenges Kempson’s assertion that referees don’t appreciate the machinations of scrummaging.

‘It’s easy to assume that refs are ignorant. Most people think that because referees haven’t played in the front row, they don’t understand what’s happening, but I know for a fact that they do understand because I’m the one who’s trained the South African officials. I’ve made them pack down against each other and explained the different pressures that are applied and how teams will sometimes use illegal tactics to get the upper hand.

‘Having said that, it’s not the job of referees to coach players during a game. Referees need to blow according to the law.’

‘CROUCH, TOUCH, PAUSE, ENGAGE’

Venter believes the better teams are adapting to the four-part call, but Le Roux and Kempson are for a simpler and quicker engage. Again Le Roux suggests that referees underestimate what it takes to hold back nearly a ton of weight for a period of five laboured seconds.

‘Most of the problems stem from the fact that there is too much emphasis on the hit, and players are still too far away,’ says Le Roux. ‘The front rows must get closer and the emphasis should be on the scrumming after the engage. That’s when the better scrummagers got the upper hand in the old days. These days it’s too technical and complicated.

‘The players have done well to adapt in spite of this ridiculous law, but that doesn’t mean it should continue. It’s a cop out to automatically free-kick a team when they engage early. We see a lot of false starts before a 100m sprint, but imagine when a group of eight big men is trying to get it right. The margin for error is higher, and while I’m not saying that you can’t penalise players for repeatedly jumping the gun, there has to be an appreciation for the fact that it’s extremely difficult to get that engagement right.’

Swart says that professional players shouldn’t hide behind this excuse. He also believes that if a referee takes control of the situation, the timing won’t be an issue and fewer infringements will occur.

‘There are very few problems when the referees make it clear that they won’t stand for any nonsense. Craig Joubert handled the Super Rugby game between the Waratahs and Brumbies, and when he stated that they wouldn’t get away with illegal tactics, there were no hands on the floor. There were also very few resets because players knew that they had to get their timing of the engage right. The Australians aren’t the strongest scrummagers, so if a referee can manage them to the point where there are minimal resets and infringements, it shows the system can work.’

SOLUTIONS

An IRB study has revealed that the average time taken to complete a scrum in a tier-one international has increased from 43 seconds in 2009 to 53 seconds in 2010. The study also confirmed that 60% of all scrums collapsed while 40% needed to be reset.

A full-scale investigation incorporating scrum clinics in England and South Africa will be conducted after the 2011 World Cup, but until then the current laws will remain in place. Whether the laws are altered or the referees and players are held more accountable, the reality is that something’s got to give.

‘I really hope the IRB sorts this out, because scrumming is one of the purest forms of the game,’ says Kempson. ‘We don’t want it to disappear.’

Le Roux agrees wholeheartedly. ‘The northern hemisphere players and fans still enjoy a scrum, and unfortunately it’s the people down south who are obsessed with the spectacle. While we all want to see running rugby, it mustn’t come at the cost of the forward contests. You can’t have rugby without the scrum.

‘The lawmakers need to keep it simple when formulating the actual laws, and perhaps there also needs to be an experiment with two referees. Most front rowers tire towards the end of a game, and that’s when mistakes occur. It could be the same for referees, and perhaps the game nowadays is just too fast and intense for one referee to maintain the expected high standards.’

Venter is all for the experiment of two officials, but would like to see two referees working in tandem at the scrum.

‘The ref can only stand on one side, and often it’s the props on the opposite side who resort to illegal tactics. Some refs will ask for a touch judge’s assistance, but in most cases the touch judge is too far away to make an informed call. Many arguments have been made for a second referee, and I believe it would help to have an extra official at the scrum. It would cut down the illegal play.’

Swart concedes that the system could do with a tweak, and believes the four-part call prior to engagement should be reduced with the word ‘pause’ falling away. He also says the punishment for an early engagement should be more severe, as this would force teams to perfect their timing. This would also result in a decrease in the number of resets as well as the time spent at this scrum in a game situation.

‘A free kick is not a harsh enough punishment, because the worst-case scenario is that you concede 10m. For teams that are stronger on defence and at the breakdown than they are at the scrum, they won’t be too worried about conceding a free kick.

‘If there was a full-arm penalty for this transgression, you would see more teams getting the timing right. Teams would work harder, because they wouldn’t be willing to risk conceding the three points.’

– This article first appeared in the August issue of SA Rugby magazine. The September issue – a 260-page World Cup special – will be on sale from 24 August.