Are scrum laws ruining the game?

Written by Greg Kaos (gregkaos)

Posted in :Original Content, Reader Submissions on 10 Sep 2014 at 11:47
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I’m not having a go at refs in this article, despite what I perceived as an exceptionally poor weekend of officiating, but rather musing on the impossible job they have to carry out. There were a few completely wrong calls that should never have happened, considering the technology available, but my main area of concern is around scum time. They say only the front row really understand what’s going on, so why force someone who can’t possibly know exactly what is happening decide who was in the wrong?

The laws created around this aspect of the game are siphoning the soul out of what many of us consider the greatest sport on the planet. Scrums are such a unique part of Rugby where all the heavies are guaranteed to be concentrated in one spot, however the overzealous protection is unfortunately having the opposite effect it was intended. It’s tiring seeing penalty after penalty been awarded seemingly at random at scrums. These laws were put in place to try and dissuade players from using various tactics to disrupt the scrums.

The scrum is no longer the contest it is supposed to be, but rather a platform to milk a penalty. This is a direct result of applying laws far too harsh for the crime. Given the option of a scrum or a penalty, a team will take the penalty almost every time. Now, I don’t claim to know what goes on in a front row battle, but aren’t there counter actions props can take when someone is scrumming inwards, hinging, etc? With points or huge territorial gain on offer it’s in the best interests to make it look like the other guy infringed instead of countering. The effect is that front rows are becoming experts in manipulating the refs rather than experts in the actual contest for the ball. The best illusionists reap the rewards and the plaudits.

A knee jerk reaction to fixing an issue like this would most likely be enforcing even stricter laws in an attempt to scare players from breaking them. What I believe should happen is the near total eradication of penalties at scrum time unless actual blatant fouls are committed. Scrums need an advantage system just like the rest of the game. How infuriating is it to you guys when the ball is available but someone slipped and we have to endure a reset or a coin flip penalty? Is the reward for a dominant scrum either putting the opposition on the back foot and or getting clean ball to launch an attack from not enough? No need to have the ref rub salt in a weak pack’s wounds and denying the backs the opportunity to have a go.

Oh, and just let the scrum-half put the ball in not so straight; minimum the hooker must hook the ball. This is hardly ever reffed right, as the poor guy in the middle has enough to worry about than this inconsequential infringement. If the 9 is blatantly taking the mickey, then maybe a warning that it will be a scrum reversal next time…? Even better, let a line judge keep an eye on that aspect. One less thing for the main guy to worry about.

It is all too much for a single human to properly make calls on. The human brain can only forcibly focus on one thing at a time, and at scrum time there are too many things happening simultaneously that require the ref to be paying attention on to make an informed call. These calls are frustrating the players, coaches, and most importantly, the fans. Give a thought to the refs who constantly see themselves as the villains each weekend because they have to make these impossible calls.

Without penalties on offer at scrum time, there are far less reasons to play negatively to win one. If the object of a scrum is to get the ball back as cleanly as possible and not have a reversal, or to put the opponents on the back foot or win a reversal, then surely that is what our big guys will be more inclined to do.


  • Superb piece Greg. Well done

  • Comment 1, posted at 10.09.14 11:47:28 by robdylan Reply
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  • @robdylan (Comment 1) : thanks Rob! 🙂

  • Comment 2, posted at 10.09.14 12:00:39 by gregkaos Reply
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  • “The scrum is no longer the contest it is supposed to be, but rather a platform to milk a penalty.”

    “Without penalties on offer at scrum time, there are far less reasons to play negatively to win one.”

    A very quotable article but those two statements sum it up perfectly. Now do one on the breakdown. You should be writing more anyway.

  • Comment 3, posted at 10.09.14 12:05:49 by vanmartin Reply
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  • Ja nice only problem I have is the danger aspect. A collapsed scrum is almost as dangerous as a spear tackle and should be penalised almost the same. It’s about the danger that’s involved with the transgression and as such scrums transgression is judged as very dangerous as thus results in a penalty rather than a free kick or reversal of balll possession.
    To be totally honest the refs should be “coached” more with regards to scrums so as to better judge who is transgressing or maybe the tv ref could advise the field ref of transgressions whilst play is going on.

  • Comment 4, posted at 10.09.14 12:15:24 by JD Reply
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  • what it boils down to is actually why people follow rugby league. Less issues just plain touch rugby with tackles…. Maybe its time we all convert? 😀

  • Comment 5, posted at 10.09.14 12:16:35 by Uli Boelie Reply
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    Uli Boelie
  • @JD (Comment 4) : although I agree about the danger, the whole point about rugby is about the danger factor surely? otherwise we would all be watching tennis/bowls?

  • Comment 6, posted at 10.09.14 12:18:26 by Uli Boelie Reply
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  • @JD (Comment 4) : I’m no scrum expert, never had the frame to play there but are collapsed scrums really that dangerous? You see so many collapsed scrums throughout games and I struggle to recall the last time I saw someone limp off with injury after one.

    The last three broken neck incidents I can recall were from:
    – Taking out a man in the air at a kickoff (WP vs Bulls u21 game)
    – Illegal bind at a scrum (hooker switched his head at the last second) (Western Cape High school game)
    – A guy who ended up at the bottom of a maul or a ruck and got trampled (Dan Lombard, High School practice, guy has his own rugby website now)

    Those aren’t by any means the only incidents to have occurred but those are the ones I can remember reading about. Another interesting thing, all of them occurred at junior or school-boy level.

    Point being, I suspect really dangerous injuries are probably the result of illegal tactics at scrum time or in other situations and not necessarily from collapsed scrums themselves. The idiots who use illegal tactics will try and use them regardless of which scrum laws apply.

  • Comment 7, posted at 10.09.14 12:23:31 by vanmartin Reply
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  • @vanmartin (Comment 7) : Having played tighthead, hooker and loosehead the answer to that is “YES”. Theres nothing like going down headfirst into the ground, unable to move because a lock is lying on you only for the opposition props shoulder to be grinding into your neck. Ill put it this way: Put 50Kgs on your back and dive head first into the ground without hands and let me know how it feels.

    just for the record, most injuries from scrumtime are not “broken necks” but displaced vertibrae and nerve damage.

  • Comment 8, posted at 10.09.14 12:30:57 by byron Reply

  • @JD (Comment 4) : Yeah I agree that blatant and dangerous stuff should get penalised. These absolutely have to be correct though. If not it simply gives the props who were rewarded even more reason to do it again. Furthermore it means the punished prop will decide that he will now collapse it get one back.

    That said I just do not see the laws helping in any shape or form in preventing collapsed scrums. The laws are insanely strict already yet we still see a massive amount of collapsed scrums.

    I do think that the “Couch, bind, set” has made a positive effect and possibly reduced the percentage of collapsed scrums.

  • Comment 9, posted at 10.09.14 12:37:47 by gregkaos Reply
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  • There has been a lot of talk about having two refs on the pitch but I wouldn’t quite go that far, what about a TMO monitoring both sides of the scrum, during the game. The TMO would be able to talk to the onfield ref and say something to the effect of “Attacking Loosehead dropping bind” or “Defending Tighthead scrumming in”. That would leave the onfield ref to deal with the No.9 putting the ball in straight etc.

  • Comment 10, posted at 10.09.14 12:55:03 by Jacques Venter Reply

  • @byron (Comment 8) : Thanks for the info. Still surprising to see how few injuries there are if you take the amount of collapsed scrums into account in each game.

  • Comment 11, posted at 10.09.14 13:06:25 by vanmartin Reply
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  • To prevent the opposition tight head prop ”hinging” or collapsing the scrum, I used to bind long by grabbing the waistband of the opposing prop. Believe me, no prop wants to be wedgied and to prevent that from happening, they have to almost angle up a bit, thus it was easier for me to make sure my side does not collapse.

  • Comment 12, posted at 10.09.14 13:18:32 by KingRiaan Reply

  • @vanmartin (Comment 3) : Cheers Martin. 🙂 Will try to write more. Got one for the near future but its current state is an incoherent mess of random notes.

  • Comment 13, posted at 10.09.14 13:58:35 by gregkaos Reply
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  • @gregkaos (Comment 13) : I look forward to it Greg.

  • Comment 14, posted at 10.09.14 14:06:49 by vanmartin Reply
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  • Great article Greg.

  • Comment 15, posted at 10.09.14 15:13:43 by VinChainSaw Reply
  • bring back the old 1980 rules to rugby. no problems in the old days.

  • Comment 16, posted at 10.09.14 15:31:17 by pete69 Reply

  • @VinChainSaw (Comment 15) : Thanks Vin!

  • Comment 17, posted at 10.09.14 15:44:07 by gregkaos Reply
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  • @KingRiaan (Comment 12) : While that is an excellent method for preventing the oppo TH from hinging, and collapsing, it unfortunately makes it very easy for him to scrum in, and as a former Hooker (who also played TH and LH), it really sucks to have a TH scrum in on you, and there is really nothing you can do about it.

  • Comment 18, posted at 10.09.14 17:04:34 by Dancing Bear Reply
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    Dancing Bear
  • @byron (Comment 8) : ja I know as I played there and ate grass without he use of my hands more than once, really not nice!!!!!!! The solution is to get the ref better trained to spot infringement and the only way to do is to get them in a room with some of the heavyweights like Os, Ballie, etc and show them hours and hours of video footage and then get them on a field to judge it live.

  • Comment 19, posted at 10.09.14 21:32:01 by JD Reply
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  • Rugby must be one of the few games in the world where almost no one, including players,supporters & referees really understand all of the rules….!

  • Comment 20, posted at 10.09.14 22:26:37 by Lastoutpost Reply

  • @JD (Comment 19) : @Dancing Bear (Comment 18) : @KingRiaan (Comment 12) :

    Interested in hearing from any of the former front rowers, such as JD, KingRiaan and Dancing Bear if possible.

    I don’t know what its like in there but I can imagine that there are so many small adjustments players can make such as dropping a shoulder slightly, head movement, foot placement, hips up or down, holding jersey/armpit/arm, and so forth. Do you guys know how to use these against an opponent to say make him loose his bind/hinge/slip/whatever?

    Personally I think the refs actually know the rules and technicalities well, just that when they are on the field and they can only realistically call on the first infringement they notice and that would be on the particular area they were focused on. Bearing in mind that this is in real time and there are 16 players in that mix that could be doing something illegal. IMO it just seems too much, no matter how well trained a person is to spot it.

  • Comment 21, posted at 12.09.14 18:32:43 by gregkaos Reply
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  • Firstly, tonight’s Bulls-Kings game underlined your point…

  • Comment 22, posted at 12.09.14 21:40:28 by pastorshark Reply
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  • Secondly, did you hear the news today that the IRB is considering introducing a referral system, similar to the one used in cricket. Each time would get 3 referrals…if they get the referral right they keep the referral, if they get it wrong they lose the referral. Apparently SANZAR will start testing it next year…

  • Comment 23, posted at 12.09.14 21:44:07 by pastorshark Reply
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