With 3 round of the 2013 Rugby Championship already over and domestic leagues across Europe already up and running we can already begin to see the impact of the new scrum laws “crouch, bind, set”. I myself was (un)fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play under the new engagement procedure this weekend on both sides of the scrum for my local club side.
One of the key issues the new engagement laws are supposed to address is the issue of collapsed scrums. Now this has never really been an issue down in the lower echelons of the South Manchester leagues as none of the props are well versed enough in the dark arts of scrummaging to be able to effectively drop a scrum without making it blindingly obvious to the referee. We would still see the odd scrum drop during the engagement phase as props failed to make a proper bind or one scrum was so much bigger than the other that they bulldozed over the top of them.
It was hard therefore during our narrow one point victory over local rivals Macclesfield (sorry had to drop that in there) to tell if the new laws had actually addressed this issue or not. I do however believe having witnessed plenty of rugby over the last few weekends, that for the time-being at least, scrums are generally staying up more regularly, even when one team is being driven backwards. I’d like to see some stats from the Rugby Championship, Top 14 and Premiership to back this up but from a fans point of view I do feel that we seem to have made a positive step forwards.
We must remember however that for whatever reason props in general seem to quite enjoy playing around face down in the mud, I’m not quite sure whether they’re searching for truffles or something down there but it seems to be a favourite hobby for front rowers. It is this natural instinct to hit the ground when under pressure that worries me. Currently most forwards have had a few months training under the new laws and a couple of games under their belt but to all this is still a new procedure and as such they are still learning the new techniques and the boundaries for these techniques.
Over time as coaches and players become more accustomed to new laws they generally begin to find loopholes and techniques that allow them to use smoke and mirrors to bastardise the laws of the game and use them to their own advantage. The best case of this is the feed at the scrum, the mantra from the top has always been that the ball must be fed straight, but over time techniques were developed to help disguise how the ball was placed into the scrum. At first the front row would place their feet slightly further back in the scrum to create the illusion that the ball was straight down the middle when in fact it was being fed at an angle.
These kind of practices became so commonplace that scrum halves got bolder and bolder until they were effectively feeding the ball into the second rows feet. It then became hard for referees to penalise every single feed during a game and so we ended up with the mess that we have had until recently. Now despite a bit of a rant and a waffle I do still have a point – although the new laws do currently seem to be working effectively, given enough time coaches and players will begin to discover methods of getting away with illegal practices. This may start slowly at first and result in numerous penalties but players will continue pushing the boundaries until they know just how much they can get away with. It is therefore a genuine concern that over the coming years we could very easily end up back in the same mess at scrum time with deliberate collapses going un-penalised as the referee cannot tell who is to blame.
The other element of the new scrum laws that became apparent for me this weekend was how having the put-in at scrum time is no longer the positive it used to be. For most of the game I endured a pretty rough time at tighthead prop, I still maintain I’m not a prop full stop but of either side of the scrum I would always opt for wearing the number 1 shirt. I was playing against a much more experience loosehead who was using his knowledge to good use and making it incredibly difficult for me to just hold my own side of the scrum down. Miraculously though as soon as his side had the put-in the tables turned and we put a shove on their scrum, on occasion even pushing them off their own ball.
This change in power occurred as soon as the opposition hooker had to strike for the ball. As he lifted his leg to reach for it I was immediately provided with a release of pressure that allowed me to drive down and anchor in the right-hand side of our scrum. During our own put-in I had a much more difficult time as both the hooker and tighthead drove at my side and were at times able to wheel the scrum resulting in the hand over of possession.
Part way through the second half the resurgence of an old niggle meant I swapped sides with our loosehead and packed down on the left hand side of the scrum. This was initially met with plenty of abuse from the opposition front row who thought they had the better of me. Their opinions changed pretty quickly as it became apparent how much more of a drive you can make playing as a loosehead. If we weren’t able to push them back off of the ball on their own drive we were instead able to wheel the scrum effectively in our favour (arcane I know but still very effective) and suddenly the scrum became a weapon once again.
Now obviously me being shoehorned in as a tighthead is never going to be an effective measure of how the new laws will impact the game as a whole but my own experiences seemed to be mirrored in much of the top level competition I watched over the weekend. It appears much easier for the loosehead to get a drive on resulting in scrums being regularly wheeled as we witnessed several times during the opening round of Premiership fixtures. Now I’m sure this will settle down as hookers adapt to having to contend with their opposite number once again rather than focussing their energies on the oppositions tighthead prop, but for the time being I can see penalties for collapsed scrums making way for penalties for wheeling the scrum.
This all points to a return to scrummaging tightheads who are able to properly employ technique rather than the over-grown back-row forwards who currently make up many teams front rows. For many players this represents a return to basics as they have to learn from scratch what many front-rowers used to consider their bread and butter. For those fortunate few who still remember how to properly hook and scrummage this represents a fantastic opportunity to lead the way in once again establishing the scrum as one of the most impressive sites in competitive sport around the world.
The biggest positive for me about the ‘new’ scrum laws surrounds the feed which finally seems to be receiving the attention it as so desperately needed. Having the scrum-half feed the ball straight has once again turned the scrum into a genuine contest that makes for much more enjoyable, and at times genuinely exciting viewing. One of the things that makes Rugby Union stand out from other sports is a scrum in full flow with both teams competing for the ball. For the time being at least I can genuinely see the scrum once again becoming a contest with teams able to fully utilise it as a weapon.
Has anyone else experienced the new laws yet, and if so what do you make of them?