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Ollie Barrett: Like eight-man scull rowing, rugby scummaging is all about team work.


WHEN I think of a pack of forwards, I imagine them engaged in a tug o' war contest. Both disciplines have vastly similar techniques. Required is a thick rope approximately 10 centimetres in circumference and there are eight members on the team. The rope is marked with a 'centre-line' and a mark each at four metres either side of this centre line. Another mark is placed on the ground and the ropes centre line is placed over that. Now all that is left is for the opposing teams to commence pulling.

It's a simple as that to compete. But to win it's not a clear-cut case of pulling in the same direction as your colleagues. Not by a long measure. It's all about timing. And each member must exact their contribution at exactly the same time as the others. Failure to work concurrently weakens the team effort. They might as well be out pulling daffodils in the meadow. In eight man scull rowing it would be referred to as stroke.

In Ireland’s humiliating defeat against England in Twickenham on Saturday there was clear lack of stroke, or timing, between the forwards. And I'm particularly referring to the scrum. I think it's unfair to level the majority of the blame on the props. There are eight forwards and each is expected to contribute their push at exactly the right time. And it’s the responsibility of the hooker to get them synchronized. Traditionally it was called set. They might very well have pushed but they certainly didn't all push together and that's for sure. They should be packed tight squeezing to the point of white knuckles. That is where the strength lays.

When defending during a scrum it's instinctive of flankers and the number 8 to show more interest in where the ball is. They will be watching the opposing number eight and scrum half and expect either to pick and make a break for it. While the back-row are performing reconnaissance and dangling from the scum by nothing more than finger nails, the scrum effort is now greatly diminished. So what you have now is an attacking pack of eight pushing against a pack of five. The outcome of this exchange is wholly predictable.

It's an occupational hazard. On one hand the flankers are expected to push and keep the props from being pushed out by the second-rows. Just picture it. The shoulders of the second rows push on the inside cheek of the man crouched ahead of him so the tendency is to force the prop out. The flanker must counteract this, which is crucial if the prop is to scrummage straight. But here is the problem. A flanker worth his salt should never allow an opposing player cross the gain line having made a break with the ball from the scrum. To do so is the height of poor defending. He's caught between a rock and a hard place. Flankers always sacrifice their scrummaging duties in favour of preparing for the arrival of the man leaving from the base of the scrum. It's non-negotiable. And it's never so pronounced as when defending a five-metre scrum.

And it's an area that isn't well policed by the referees either. Flankers must have a shoulder pressed against the prop and bound with the full length of their arm. If not they are deemed to be offside. Referees are spending more time trying to sort out the binding between the front rows. It seems they are just grateful to have a quick feed and bring an end to one of the most contentious areas in the game of rugby.

Undoubtedly the scrum is a particularly unique method of restarting the game for minor infringements. But the problem is the time it takes to actually resume the game. Minutes elapse and it's nothing near as efficient as the lineout.

Take the example of Rugby League and the three-man scrum, well six men in total. It's over and done with in no time. The same with 7's. It really is a means to restart the game and any player without specialist training can be involved.

Yes for sure there is the prowess and hugely inflated egos, the utter manliness, when a front row over powers the opposition. The 'I'm physically stronger and better than you,' syndrome and I suppose that's fair enough. Aside from that this facet of the game is losing its appeal and I imagine it will be revisited once again by the IRB.

In the years gone past the scrum could be wheeled one hundred and eighty degrees. This resulted in the number eight already over the gain line and with an unhindered pick and dash towards the line. But then back-rows were also allowed to break back and stand behind the hind most foot. They waited patiently for the No.8 to reach for the ball. That has all changed for the purposes of speeding up the game. The metre gap before engaging could be up to three metres in the old days and packs would literally collide into engagement. It sounds crazy, but that was the way it was.

Peculiarly the game has once again slowed in this area. Crouch, touch, pause, engage is now the four-step process. Then the ref. is left to see what prop is doing what for the sake of survival or to gain the upper hand—quite literally in some cases. And it has to be said that the referees are only taking wild stabs in the dark. Crafty props can outwit the officiator giving the impression the opposition are the ones responsible for collapsing. It's turning out to be a frustrating area for all involved—and all those spectating.

Again, whatever is going on the front row, props are at their most effective when they have the assistance of powerful and willing men behind them. All working together.

Take an eight man rowing team. Stroke, that is the man nearest the back of the boat, sets the rhythm and pace. The other seven rowers take his example at exactly the same time. And this has the boat looking as if it's rhythmically oscillating in the water. If they all rowed at different intervals they'd get nowhere. Or perhaps go around in circles if not capsize. They would be without timing.

Not unlike the front eight on Saturday. Each of them was doing their own thing at different times. And since the back rows generally see scrums as an opportunity for a breather, maybe there should only be five players in the scrum. Some law changes will have to be made. And I'm patiently waiting to see what they will be.