Time to scrap this madness
'Crouch, touch, pause, engage'
The most sensible comment I have heard from any analyst in recent times came from former All Blacks hooking legend Sean Fitzpatrick when he was asked for his opinion on the unmitigated disaster area that is now the scrum.
What once was an art form -- and for those central to it an endgame in itself -- has become a bugbear and a festering sore on the modern game.
Even the most blinkered of props of my acquaintance are bored to tears by what passes as the re-invented scrum. For Fitzpatrick, the solution was simple and contained in his rhetorical question: "What was wrong with the scrum of old?"
Far be it for me to proclaim any expertise in the dark arts of the scrum, but for over two decades I stood as close as any other, bar the scrum-half, to that part of the game. I can state categorically that not once in that time, thankfully, did I witness a front-row injury of consequence.
I can only assume the International Rugby Board (IRB) have player-welfare statistics to the contrary, necessitating what has in effect been a depowering of the scrum.
It is difficult to argue with any law change designed in the best interest of player welfare, and yet I know of few, if any, former forwards who approve of the amendment to the scrum law as introduced in January 2007.
The redesigned law (20.1g) states: "The referee will call 'Crouch', then 'Touch'. The front-rows crouch and, using their outside arm, each prop touches the point of the opposing prop's outside shoulder. The props then withdraw their arms. The referee will then call 'Pause'. Following a pause, the referee will then call 'Engage'. The front-rows may then engage. The 'Engage' call is not a command but an indication that the front-rows may come together when ready."
So 'Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage' came into being and, with it, the referee assumed an unprecedented, and in my view unjustifiable, level of importance.
Where once the best referee was seldom seen and never heard, now he is the main man dominating almost every game vocally and practically. It is a playing and spectating nightmare, with the natural variation in cadence from official to official taking scrummaging to the farcical.
Quite apart from the issue of playing time lost, the sequence is now: 'Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, Collapse, Penalty'.
Recent statistics at Test level show an average of 14 scrums per game with nine collapsing and eight resulting in penalties or free-kicks. Not great for putting bums on seats in difficult financial times.
The real issue, and the one central to the IRB's well-intentioned effort at redesign, is that of reducing impact on engagement. In simple terms, it means decreasing the space between packs, thereby reducing the force exerted at contact.
Surely, then, the 'Touch' and 'Pause' can be eliminated, making it a more simple matter of 'Crouch' (no more than a foot apart) with the referee's arm in between and only being lifted upon the call to 'Engage'.
In this instance -- unless the IRB possess facts and figures indicating the scrum an area of major injury concern -- we do appear to be using the sledgehammer to crack the nut.
Of equal concern, though, stretching back a little further, is the scrum law in relation to schools, introduced by the IRB in 1994. It reduced the shove in the scrum to a metre and a half.
Here again the safety initiative was clearly well intentioned but it effectively destroyed propping, as coaches at underage -- yours truly included -- reverted to picking more mobile players, generally back-row forwards, on either side of the hooker.
It made life somewhat more difficult for the No 8, but by and large led to a much more efficient and effective forward unit about the pitch.
The inevitable knock-on has been a fall-off in props coming into the senior system. Look no further than recent props of the calibre of Reggie Corrigan, Peter Bracken, John Hayes and Tony Buckley.
The common denominator? Each and every one was a back-five forward converted to the front-line upon leaving school. So dire has been the problem that all four professional provinces have been forced to trawl far and wide in search of front-row depth by way of overseas imports.
I doubt any one position has facilitated the influx of foreign players more than prop. How could it be otherwise? And if countries below us in the IRB pecking order -- I'm thinking specifically of Georgia and Argentina -- can churn out props at a rate of knots why can't we? Surely an emergency spy mission to either country is one well worth making.
As to the solution at under-age, remedial steps could be taken. For starters, the one-and-a-half-metre rule could be limited to junior (now U-16) down, leaving the senior cycle (fifth and sixth years with an U-19 upper limit) to develop front-row forwards through a more purposeful scrum.
Were I a parent with a son keen to make a fist of the professional game after school, I would be looking at the front-row options. In the current climate, props are worth their weight in gold. Just ask Ulster and John Afoa.
The need is great for a return to the Old Wesley-type front-row clinic of old, whereby the expertise of front-row technicians Roly Meates, Philly Orr, Mick Fitzpatrick, Des Fitzgerald, Johnny Cantrell et al were tapped into, albeit on an annual basis.
Now that need is greater still but with a full-time unit on the road -- whether through private initiative or under the direct control of the IRFU -- dedicated solely to front-row player development.
As things stand we are edging ever closer to rugby league. Take any more power from the scrum and we may as well merge the two codes into one.
As a 'pretty-boy' back, I never thought there would come a day when I would be advocating the need to restore the scrum to its rightful place. But that is where we are at. The time has come to turn back the clock and balance brute force with propping technique.
I don't know about you, but every time I hear 'Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage' it simply wrecks my head. Whatever happened to the thinking prop?