In 1823, William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball in his arms and ran with it. And for the next 156 years forwards have been trying to work out why. - Tasker Watkins VC, LJ.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Unintended consequences.

Being a front row is a bit like classic Vietnam movies; it's dark, hot, humid, bad things happen in there, and you can't talk unless you were there.

And, the Six Nations having just ended, there's been an awful lot of talk about scrummaging in the media, most of it rubbish; your average out-half would be lucky to know one end of a scrum from the other, still less comment intelligently on it.

However, there's a local issue that I have been thinking about for a while. In Munster (and, as far as I know, in some other provinces), at J2 level and below, the Under-19 Law Variations are used in scrums. That means that a scrum can only be pushed 1.5 metres over the mark, that there are limitations on the amount it can wheel - basically, it's a depowered version of proper scrums.

As someone who enjoyed scrummaging, I loathed it as a player. The idea is perfectly sound for underage players, who are developing and need some protection while they learn their trade. However, I have always had very serious doubts about it at adult level.

The main reason, apart from my own grumpy preference, is that it prevents players from ever learning how to scrummage properly. There is an entire generation of club front rows who will always be in these depowered scrums. That might seem fine; but it's not.

Suppose a small club has two teams, a first team, playing J1 at the highest level, where the winners of provincial leagues go on to a round robin to get into the semi-pro Ulster Bank League, and their second team, who play J2. Now, let us suppose that, as very frequently happens, there is an injury crisis, and the usual props for the first team are injured. Normally, the props from the J2 would be promoted, and would get their chance to play on the first team - where there are full scrums.

Now, this is where it becomes interesting. Let's assume that these props are part of the new generation who have gone from underage to J2. Because they have never been taught, and have no experience of, scrummaging in full scrums, they are underprepared for this scrummaging. They are going straight into a more demanding, more dangerous form of scrummaging, with no proper training or preparation. And if this sounds dangerous, it is. It's not a million miles at all from what happened in Vowles v. Evans, where an under-prepared and inexperienced loosehead slipped and the hooker broke his neck as a result.

So, you now have the situation where, if a team runs out of first-team front-rows, it can't safely play games, and exposes itself to a risk if it asks J2 players to scrummage at a level for which they're not - to quote Vowles - "suitably trained or experienced" - and, to put that beyond doubt, the court in Vowles held that "it is obvious that the training/experience which the Law required related to training for or playing in the front row of the scrum. It would be spectacularly unwise for the Munster Branch to force them to play like this, once made aware of it, because that would put the Branch, too, in the firing line; once aware of the danger, they would have the same duty of care as the WRU in Vowles to look after the players' safety. It's debatable whether a sensible referee would even let it go ahead, but it's unfair to put a referee in that situation, in my opinion.

What's even worse is; how on earth, without proper training and gradually giving players coming out of underage scrummaging are players to learn how to scrummage properly to prevent this arising? And this is where we get to the unintended consequences. Something aimed at making players safer but to keep the scrum at the heart of the game looks like it could, down the line, have exactly the opposite effect.

Better to get decent training out there for front rows coming out of the underage ranks - and let them learn how to scrum, safely, before they get thrown in at the deep end.

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