How relevant is a scrum in the modern game?
To scrum, or not to scrum? Nowadays, that seems to be the question.
Whether it’s about safety concerns, increasing ball-in-play time, speeding up the game, reducing guesswork by referees, or just moans about the arcane and tedious cheat-athon some find the packdown to have become, the front row arts of scrummaging never fail to make its way into a headline or roundtable discussion. It’s one of the certainties in rugby.
The scrum became a major talking point again when World Rugby proposed amended laws in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and while New Zealand decided to stick to the old laws for the Super Rugby Aoteraroa tournament, which kicked off mid-June, the shoving battle (not that this term was really applicable in Week One) became a highlighted subject yet again – this time because there were so few of them.
It took about half an hour before we saw the first scrum in the opener between the Chiefs and the Highlanders and it was pretty clear that fluidity was the focal point - there were only six scrums in the match.
But is it fair to diminish the scrum to little more than an eyesore and a desperate waste of time?
Rugby coach, Kevin Musikanth and scrum specialist, Paul Day, think not.
“The general movement, it seems, wants to do something,” Day said. “Whether it’ll be effective or not, I don’t know. I would have thought that after the World Cup we would have valued the scrum more seeing as our success was built on a good scrum. You would have thought World Rugby wanted to build on that, but instead it seems that they want to knock it down. Who knows, maybe it will settle down.
“I think the biggest thing is safety, obviously at the top level guys are looking after themselves, but people are also worried about junior level. They’ve got to look at some things to make it safer, but whether cutting down the number of scrums is going to do it, I don’t know, probably not. I would argue that the more scrums you have, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with scrums.
“To me a lot of the resets - once you’ve had the initial engagement and the ball is hooked - don’t make sense. Play on, the contest is over, unless there’s been a deliberate collapse or something. But play on, why risk it again? I would just be practical about it and keep the contest.”
Musikanth added to Day’s sentiments, saying that while he understands the safety component, the set-piece is an integral part of the game.
“The 1987 World Cup had an average of over 30 scrums per game and even more lineouts, over time we have seen them both diminish to the most recent World Cup, which had an average of 14 scrums and 24 lineouts per game. In the first World Cup the average rucks per game were 50. During last year’s World Cup, the average match had over 160 rucks. With the new application of the laws it appears that the team with the ball is getting penalised at the ruck more than the defending team as players are struggling to adapt. We were sitting in a situation over the last weekend where in one half there were only two scrums.
“It’s no secret that from a coaching point of view, if you want your team to succeed, you need to have a good scrum and a good scrum coach.
“I’m not saying I’m against the intention of these changes, but the outcome is where my issue lies. There still has to be a big place in rugby for those players who have been honing their skills for the last 20 years to become brilliant scrummagers…in many ways the set phase is the heartbeat of the game.
“It would be like taking away a forehand in tennis and now you’re only allowed to play the backhand. I believe, fundamentally, it would be wrong. You cannot have five scrums a game."
Many alternatives have been suggested over the years.
Timed scrums, limited resets, going to uncontested scrums if the front-rows go down more than once, or reducing the number of players involved in the next scrum each time one collapses, these are just some of the changes that have been suggested by those involved in the game in some or other capacity.
Day, a former player who took to the field for UCT, Villagers, Western Province B and Under-21, also worked as a scrum doctor with UCT, WP, and consulted for the Springboks in a Test match as well.
Having also played behind a Springbok front row back in the glory years of WP, it's safe to say that he knows his way around the scrum, and he had some suggestions, while adding that South Africa should do its part in ensuring the scrum doesn’t become little more than a reference to rugby days of old.
“If you want to speed up the game and make it more interesting, you need to create space.
“Perhaps keeping your loose forwards in the game a bit longer so that when the ball does get out your backline has the old fashioned five-against-six or whatever it is because that space is covered so quickly nowadays by your loosies. Maybe they can say you can’t break until the ball reaches the flyhalf, that will keep the flankers or loose forwards in there for much longer and in that way you keep the contest and add a bit more excitement.
“You won’t find the English looking to depower the scrum, us neither. The scrum is also still big in France – they’re not so great at the moment at national level, but certainly at club level. So where the lobbying is coming from, I’m not sure, but it certainly is there. So let’s just hope that it doesn’t change too much.”
“New Zealand sides typically don’t contest as much as we would, but it was pretty even (in Round One of Super Rugby Aotearoa), there wasn’t much to be excited about. And if that’s the way it’s going to be, if it’s just going to be a restart, it would be a pity.
“While safety is helluva important, there should still be a contest where one side can dominate and use it as a weapon, whether it’s a pushover try or milking a penalty or just to tire out the opposition if you have a strong scrum. Rugby should always be a contest, in whatever facet of the game, and if you take that away it’s going to disappear, which would be a huge pity.
“For the general spectator I know the scrum can be boring, but for the normal rugby man it can still be an interesting thing to watch.
“I looked back and I saw that when I did the Currie Cup with Dobbo (John Dobson) in 2015 we had an average of 10 to 12 scrums a game, now we’re at about seven to 10 on average in Super Rugby. Some games have got a few more, depending on the weather, but if you take a dry game, it’s become less and less.”
Not everybody tries to avoid the scrum or limit its role, of course, and for those, Musikanth had some thoughts.
“The advantage-over rule is blown shorter now, so advantage can often become a penalty. Teams with strong scrums may now initiate the double knock on from turnover ball just to grab another scrum. What happens often is you play the advantage, get in three passes, and then the advantage is done or when you kick the ball often the advantage is over, so it’s harder and harder for the set piece to happen.
“I still feel that a big part of the romance of the game is the scrum. There is an ecosystem that exists in the game and sometimes decision-makers aren’t at ground level where they know for certain that their intended rule application outcomes are going to happen, and this game is too special to tamper with.”
You don’t need to be a traditionalist to understand why the scrum still has a role to play, besides, there are few things as beautifully brutal as an absolutely overpowering, drive-you-back-into-the-tunnel scrum. But it’s not too hard to see why some are calling for change, be it for safety reasons, the time factor, or a more fluid game, either.
So, the question remains - to scrum, or not to scrum?