Tuesday 19 September 2017

Game stuck in a bind if this corruption is allowed fester

The IRB must pause for thought before engaging in mindless meddling of scrum, writes Neil Francis

‘You are dealing with the sort of people who still point up at the sky at aeroplanes flying by’
‘You are dealing with the sort of people who still point up at the sky at aeroplanes flying by’
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Legend had it that William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it and our game was born. There is a greater probability that he stole from the Gaelic games of Caid and Harpastum which he discovered and watched being played in Ireland when he was a young boy living with his father, who was stationed in Ireland for a good few years.

The central tenet of the game is to run with the ball in your hands. What would happen when there was a minor infringement or a mistake? The game would have to re-start. How would he think that through? How the hell did he dream up the notion of a scrum? A phalanx of bodies exerting pressure to get a push on and drive over the ball and win it for their backs. The first couple of scrums must have been fun. I wonder how crouch, touch, pause, engage would have gone down in the 1850s.

How did props come about? There must have been a surfeit of pudgy, un-athletic left-footed maladroits hanging around the sideline and Webb Ellis had a eureka moment of how to incorporate them into the game.

For the second week in a row Gary Halpin gets a mention in this column. We often talked about how we ended up in our specialist positions from the time we were kids. Gary's reasoning was "if all else failed you could become a prop".

"And?"

"All else failed!"

The recent Lions series was dominated by props and scrummaging and the Lions prevailed not because they picked up the ball and ran with it but because they could push their opponents back five metres and get a penalty from it. Admittedly, the Lions scored a couple of decent tries but only after the Australian spirit was broken at scrum time. At Test level, a good scrum will not win you the game but it is a cast-iron certainty that you will lose the match if you have a weak one.

Fifteen points from scrum-related penalties and a ridiculous yellow card for Ben Alexander – not because he was committing infringements but because he wasn't good enough. That did the series and the international game a disservice.

Even though I was a tight forward – I have very little time for the scrum, scrummaging and props. You are dealing with the sort of people who still point up at the sky at aeroplanes flying by. If Adam Jones is our poster boy for the 2013 series then the game is in trouble. In four years' time, the scrum will not be a factor and the Lions will have to be able to play the game the way it is supposed to be played. The way the All Blacks play it. I see 3-0 in my crystal ball.

One of the things that has puzzled me over the last two seasons or so is the penalty for the advancing scrum. I'd like to know where it states in the statute books that you get an automatic penalty if you drive your opposition pack back five metres. In the third test the Lions, in their own half, drove the Wallabies back five metres in the first half. The scrum was still up and well formed. It had not gone sideways or skewed around and Toby Faletau had perfect control of the ball at the base of the scrum. Mike Phillips could have, at any stage, whipped the ball out to his backs. That is, after all, how the game is supposed to be played. There was no strategic advantage to anyone. The Aussie backs just filtered back five metres and the Lions backs crept forward five metres. Nobody tried to collapse it or skew it or broke their bind. There is no penalty awarded in the law book if you get pushed back five metres or 10 metres and yet referees award full penalties for it. This has to stop. The effect that it had was that from 50 metres Leigh Halpenny put it over the bar for three points. Is that not a corruption of the game? The ball is usable but kept inside the scrum until a full penalty is given.

If a maul – which is effectively a loose scrum – goes forward five metres, there is no penalty awarded. The Lions had 50 metres to go before they got close to the target line. The Kiwis were probably looking and shaking their heads – on reflection they probably turned it off after 10 minutes. The scrum should be a factor 10 metres from either try-line and nowhere else.

The laws of engagement have changed again. We now have crouch, touch and bind. We don't even need that now. Effectively what we have now is what I suggested two years ago – both teams fold in and power up. All the referee has to do is say "set" and the power comes on. It's simple. Take the hard hit out of the equation or, as the Confucians amongst you might ask, 'what is the difference between light and hard?' – you can sleep with a light on.

The change of the engagement law had less to do with the length of time it took to get the packs together or the number of times they had to re-set after a collapse. We all remember the famous Scotland v Wales game a few years ago in Edinburgh where there were 16 scrums, 16 collapses and 16 re-sets, with a full 22 minutes of the game gone. Something had to be done; it was but for different reasons.

The change in the engagement laws were mainly down to health and safety – or, as the IRB likes to blandly remind us, 'best practice'. The hit at scrum-time had become so hard that the neuros and orthos who advise the IRB called them and said, 'Lads you are going to have a problem in 10 years or so'.

"Well, your honour, my client was a professional prop forward and he was in the front line of a scrum where a metric tonne in weight was propelled vigorously at another metric tonne of pure muscle in matches and in long practice sessions. My client has bulging discs and severe spine and neck problems, loss of power, pins and needles going down his arms and is incapable of doing any work."

If the soldiers got some deafness compo for shooting a gun, it is only a matter of time before props get something for scrummaging. The IRB depowered the engagement purely for medico-legal reasons. Class action and Anglo-French league are the two terms that send shivers down the IRB's backbone – if they have one.

The IRB with their meddling of the scrum will also have come a cropper on the crooked feed issue. The law of unintended consequences will come back to bite them on their well-nourished arses.

I was watching a bit of Australian NRL on Setanta a while ago. The Manly Sea Eagles and the Sydney Roosters. At scrum time, the ball reaches the feet of the No 8 without anyone touching it. The feed is actually perpendicular. It's great ball out and gone. No collapsing or messing. No stupid penalties and the ball goes out to the backs and they play rugby .

In Union, scrumhalves were getting a little jiggy with it. The ball was fed to the hooker's feet as the step came. Very often the hooker didn't even have to lift his feet as the ball came because it was placed behind his foot. The hooker didn't hook, he concentrated on scrummaging. Most hookers on their own feed are in pushing mode as opposed to being set for the strike .

Our chaps – most of whom have never been in a scrum in their life – decided that there needed to be an even contest for the ball at scrum time and decreed that scrumhalves will get pinged for a crooked feed now. As a consequence hookers now have to strike for the ball with their right leg as opposed to merely stepping over it with their left leg.

The mechanics of the strike are such that the hooker has to reach across and stretch with his leg. This leaves a large gap between himself and his tighthead.

Any scrum coach worth his salt would have his front row attack the tighthead who is receiving the feed. He will be left isolated and vulnerable when his hooker stretches for the strike. The pincer movement when the opposition hooker and loosehead go after the tighthead means the scrum can be turned over. Turned over easily.

Really, when the attacking side is awarded a scrum it is important that they win usable ball to continue that attack. That is no longer the case as you have eight forwards against seven and one hooker slightly discommoded who now has to learn the skills of hooking either all over again or for the first time. How many scrum turnovers will we see as attacking sides are deprived of the ball? If you have a really good tighthead, you are guaranteed you can continue your attack. If you have a chocolate teapot there it does not matter if you have Flash Gordon and Captain America in your outfield they can do nothing without the ball. Adam Jones' stock goes higher and higher. Is this the game we want?

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