No not that kind of step, for that is a thing of beauty that must be actively encouraged in rugby. What I actually mean is ‘the step’ that has crept into the game quite prominently and very noticeably this season mainly thanks to hookers and scrum halves.
Now in fairness it’s more than likely the step is down to coaches rather than the individual players themselves but this makes it no less of a serious issue as it is providing teams with an uncompetitive advantage as it removes the contestable element out of scrums and line-outs. So what exactly is it that I’m prattling on about?
Well since around June of last year the IRB issued a directive to all referees to clamp down on crooked feeds at the scrum which had become so farcical that scrum halves were practically feeding the ball to their Number 8’s feet. This was not a change in the laws of rugby but instead an initiative to reinforce something successive generations of officials had let slip.
At first all seemed to go quite well as scrum halves began feeding the ball straight down the centre of the tunnel and once again returned the scrum to some sort of genuine contest that saw a few sides win the ball against the head. Unfortunately what came next was the kind of tinkering by scrum halves that even the most fearless practitioners of the dark arts of the front row would be proud of – the step!
The step essentially sees scrum halves take one sideways step towards their own pack when feeding the scrum once the two packs have engaged. This allows the scrum half to feed the ball straight in the scrum whilst still providing their team an advantage as it is already at their hookers feet. It seems the officials are either somehow still completely blind to this blatant cheating or simply can’t be bothered blowing up on it.
The referees lackadaisical officiating has also now seen the crooked feed once again return to top flight rugby with the added bonus of the step. This means not only are scrum halves feeding at a 45 degree angle but they are also half a foot closer to their own forwards thereby providing the opposition pack no opportunity to compete fairly for the ball.
This issue isn’t simply confined to the scrum however as we’ve also seen the step appear (possibly even more prominently) at the line out. This occurs in two ways; first of all the hooker throwing the ball in takes a step or two across to his sides line, the hooker then takes a step onto the pitch as they begin to throw the ball. This means the hooker may still be throwing the ball in straight but once again removing the contestable element of the set-piece whilst also allowing the hooker to join any resultant ruck or maul earlier than previously possible.
The issue here is that line outs and scrums are not intended to be penalties and therefore hand back possession immediately to one side, they are supposed to be a genuine contest for the ball with one side handed a slight advantage. What is the point in having laws and regulations around set pieces when the failure to implement them removes any contest from scrums and line outs anyway?
Unfortunately this continued (at best) indifference from referees will mean scrums and line outs continue to be an issue in the game until such time as we end up with uncontested scrums such as in rugby league. I’m sure anyone whose taken the time to read this will agree that this is a situation all fans of union will want to avoid, and therefore needs dealing with as a matter of urgency.
This isn’t a direct criticism of referees as they have more than enough to deal with during a game, but more a plea for greater responsibility spread amongst rugby officials. The IRB need to do their part in reminding referees of their duties and pulling those up who fail to properly implement the laws whilst touch judges and fourth officials need to bare more of the responsibility of bringing such acts to the attention of the man in charge.
If you agree then please do consider sharing this and making others aware in the hope rugby can sort out a major flaw in the game before the show-piece event that is the World Cup next year.