CAPE TOWN – There are many issues in and around rugby that puzzle me.
Why tannies and oomies never tire of voicing their dislike for Elton Jantjies’ hairdos, how Beauden Barrett managed to slot eight of his nine kicks at goal against the Springboks, where Handré Pollard’s contract that initially precluded him from playing Currie Cup suddenly disappeared to two weeks ago... I can go on and on.
But one of the biggest puzzles for me is how to fix something in the game that has become a complete drag – the scrums.
We’ve seen it so many times – reset after reset, and the set-piece easily going on for almost two minutes. It’s annoying. It disturbs the flow of the game. And it’s really something I hope we don’t see too much of when the Springboks meet the All Blacks this weekend.
Just think of what a let-down it would be if a contest like that, a contest that rugby fans are finally treated to at Newlands for the first time in almost a decade, gets dampened because of never-ending, momentum-killing scrums.
And it’s an area the Boks will surely want to do better in, as tighthead Ruan Dreyer was penalised a number of times when they packed down opposite the Australians last weekend.
So whether the Bok front row go up against Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala or Wyatt Crockett and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, they can’t afford to have Jerome Garces take to the whistle constantly when it comes to scrum-time.
It’s obvious that scrums take up a big part of the game, and there’s few things worse than seeing the clock run down on scrums in a tight clash or, even worse, teams (possibly conveniently) losing their footing over and over again with a few seconds left on the clock.
Scrums rarely produce a result on the first go, and resets have become almost as synonymous with the set-piece as Los Pumas with ill-discipline.
But what can be done to solve this problem?
Well, time can be stopped – something that seems like an obvious solution, given the essence of the problem.
But what is that going to achieve?
Yes, scrums won’t take away from playing time then, but we will still have to deal with constant collapses and resets – not to mention games that will easily run for over two hours.
The law changes that are currently being trialled are designed to promote scrum stability and speed-of-ball availability; so ultimately, it should reduce the number of collapses and resets.
Apart from the scrumhalf being allowed to stand closer to his side of the scrum and the referee not providing a call to feed the scrum anymore, teams in possession are now obliged to hook for the ball and they can no longer just drive over it, while the No 8 is also allowed to pick up the ball from the feet of the locks.
Yes, these changes might give an advantage to the team in possession and allow for the ball to come out quicker (relating to the No 8 picking the ball up), but I don’t see how it will drastically improve the stability in scrums, which is the major cause of constant resets.
Also, although these changes also aim to give an advantage to the team in possession, the fact that one player from the team in possession must hook the ball kind of takes away from the initial stability of that front row.
The opposing team can decide to not strike for the ball at all and rather focus on producing a powerful drive and aim to disrupt the attacking No 8 from getting the ball from the base of his second-rower’s feet.
Or, numerous players in the front row striking for the ball can debilitate the stability of the front rows. And right there, we go back to collapses.
One option that I think can improve the stability of the set-piece and also bring back some of those displays of pure power and dominance is a pre-set scrum (or pre-connected packs).
Because come on, scrums have become blighted the game, but just imagine what a highlight it can become if powerful shoves become the main focus again?
But how would something like that work?
Basically, both packs get into formation and bind with the opposing front row (there is no ‘set’ call from the referee that instructs teams to engage with force).
Then, once the referee deems the scrum to be stable – the binds and body positions – the No 9 feeds the ball in straight (he can maintain the stance closer to his side, which will ensure that there is still an advantage for the non-infringing team), and the shoving ensues.
But the hooker of the team in possession isn’t obliged to hook the ball, as any player in the front row can strike the ball.
This will mean that the front rows don’t only connect on the referee’s call.
Rather, they get into formation, bind and get into a scrummaging position with the opposition, the referee checks the structure to make sure everything is stable, and then instructs the scrumhalf to feed the ball to what should be a more stable structure (of course, once the scrumhalf has fed the scrum, the ref can call for the scrummaging).
Another option is timed scrums.
Basically, from the scrumhalf’s feed, the team in possession, or the opposing team has, say, 30 seconds to get the ball out.
If they don’t, the ref awards possession to the other team.
However, although this might lead to the ball emerging from the scrum quicker, unless the above option is applied, the safety aspect could be influenced, seeing that teams’ only objective will be to get the ball out as soon as possible in fear of losing possession, and that would obviously go against the safety-first approach that World Rugby is so big on nowadays.
The current trials are still being assessed, but whether it works or not, something’s gotta give when it comes to the scrums.
And the sooner we reach a real solution, the better.