Already the moaning has started. The scrums are going down too often. They are ruining the spectacle. Let the scrum-halves just throw the ball into the second row like they do in league. It is all predictably negative and misses the point entirely.
To us former scrum-halves, the solution seems rather obvious. The law amendment that requires the number 9 to wait for the referee’s permission before he can put the ball in is causing no end of problems.
It is a daft instruction that was brought in at the last moment and with no proper consultation. For nearly two years some of the world’s leading scrummaging experts discussed and drew up plans for the new scrummage. These laws were then trialled at various levels to test their effectiveness. Then, at the last moment, Joel Jutge, the new reffing boss, apparently decides to add his own little codicil to the laws.
This codicil prevents the scrum-half from feeding the scrum until the ref says so. There are a number of reasons why this is crazy. Firstly, the ref’s say-so is a signal to the defending scrum to exert pressure, thereby destabilising the front row before the ball can go in.
Secondly many refs are hopping around near the tunnel to see if all is well and thoroughly getting in the scrum-half’s way. By the time the ref has got his sticky beak out of it, a second or two of prime opportunity has been lost.
Thirdly scrum-halves tend to be much better judges than refs – ex scrum-halves like Alain Rolland excepted – of when to put the ball in. They want to seize the moment before the opposition can get settled and drill in on the hooker.
Fourthly – just what was Jutge thinking? – back in the day, weaker scrums like Japan would put the ball in the moment the front rows touched. It gave them a chance for quick channel ball, preserving their advantage as the non-penalised side, before the mightier props could undo them. This is no longer an option as the refs fiddle about with their set squares and protractors.
The scrum is one of rugby’s mighty monuments. The commentators who moan about the ruined spectacle, most of them ex pros, would do well to remember that rugby is primarily about the players and not the spectators. In the tiny world of the pro game, the spectators matter, but the pro game should not be dictating laws to the rest of us.
Those who want the scrum-halves to feed the second row might also remember that what distinguishes union from league is the contest for possession. The straight feed is bringing back a genuine contest for possession. It is possible for the tighthead of a dominant scrum to strike for the ball now, a great lost art. Hookers are no longer just required to be stocky flankers who can throw a ball in straight.
There is so much that is good about the new scrummage law. But the power given to the ref and taken away from the scrum-half is ill-conceived. If the scrum-half is taking too long, the ref can still penalise him. That is enough.
Message to Joel Jutge: stop meddling and give the power back to the players.