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.

Friday, September 9, 2011

RWC Part I - Scrum five

First match of the RWC today, between the All Blacks and the Tongans; the All Blacks won 41-10. Ma'a Nonu is making tries out of nothing with the support lines he's running, and the Tongans did a hell of a lot better than anyone expected after a first half that was all All Black.

The aim here, during the World Cup, is (apart from watching a lot of rugby), looking at games and seeing what they throw up in terms of law-related issues. Today's one was the scrum..

From about the sixtieth to seventieth minute of today's game Tonga - courtesy of some stunning tackling and a hospital pass thrown to the man NZ can least afford damaged, Dan Carter - were camped on the AB line. There was a string of scrums, with resets. My rough count was three resets with no penalty, one free kick for an early engage, and three penalties, all to the Tongans. They were scrummaging very well at that point.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, happy days. I love scrummaging. Love watching it, loved it when I was playing; it's brilliant, and I could watch scrums all day long. And the Tongans were doing a right number on the AB scrum. But it did get me thinking.

Back in the good old bad old days, scrums were set where the ball went dead. If it was within five metres of the line, it was set where the ball went dead. It was then changed to a minimum distance of five metres out from the line.

Now, the longer a scrum goes on, and the further it drives, the more unstable - and hence, dangerous to the players in the scrum - it gets. Hence the limitations in the U-19 variations; it can't go more than 1.5m forward, to prevent that happening. It means, of course, that you can't have a pushover try at underage level.

It also means that, at the top level, where injury is more prevalent, the laws are set up so that to score a pushover try, a scrum has to go further than it did before the law change when the scrums were set where the ball went dead. 

But, as noted above, that's more dangerous; a scrum that has to to go five metres is longer, and more likely to collapse, than a scrum that only had to go three metres. Bizarrely, it made the scrum more dangerous, while reducing the chances of one of the greatest things in rugby - one pack pushing the other back over their line and scoring.

It also creates a perverse incentive. If I'm a prop, two metres from my line, under pressure, and I drop the scrum to prevent a probable try, chances are I'll give away a penalty try. I'm as well off to keep it up and fight it out. But if I'm five metres out, under pressure, well, five metres is a long way to drive a scrum; it's not a probably try from five metres out. So, if I'm under pressure, the sensible thing to do isn't to wait until I'm driven back to drop it; it's to drop it straight away. I'm better off to drop the scrum straight away. Yes, it's dangerous; but that's not how props think. You don't want to give away seven points; so, drop it five metres out. The law change rewards props who don't stay up and fight it out, but drop the scrum. And that's not how it's meant to work, either in terms of the game, or the law.

So, a well-meaning law change has led to more dangerous scrums, at a higher risk of collapse, more collapsed scrums and fewer pushover tries. Exactly what no-one wants.

The IRB has mentioned that it would like submissions on the proposed changes to the laws. So, in that spirit, I would love to see a reversion to the old law of the scrum being set where the ball went dead being tried out, and a proper comparison done. It would be safer, and therefore a better option in terms of avoiding liability. 

It would also mean more pushover tries and good scrummaging being rewarded. And that can't be encouraged enough.

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