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Everyone must engage if the scrum is to survive

In this parish we admit we are fond of conspiracy theories. We like to keep the door open as long as possible on the idea that you can fit more than one man on a grassy knoll. Even so we are prepared to accept that there may not be an IRB plot to rid the game of the set-scrum.

When the ELVs emerged from the deep two seasons ago the consensus at this end of the world was that it was an Anzac plan to further shape the game to the model of rugby league. In Australia and New Zealand, there are a raft of athletes who could make the transition that much easier if the game was simplified. In any case, we accepted the best of the ELVs and tossed the rest, and the game is better for it.

Still however, we are lumbered with the awkwardness of the scrum. One of the features that makes the game unique, it has become tedious beyond belief. For sure life would be simpler if we didn't have this technical mountain, and if there is a drive to simplify the game then there has to be a suspicion that the same drive is to emasculate it altogether. We accept though that its many amendments have been made not with that goal exclusively in mind.

It is worth considering that the ugliness of the incomplete scrum is largely confined to the professional game. Go and watch club rugby -- AIL or Junior 1 or Under 21 rugby, which are the three levels directly below the pro game -- and you don't see games disfigured by endless resets.

This can not be explained by physics alone, that the power of the pros is such that collapses are inevitable when gargantuan front rows collide. For the lower levels the scrum is aggressive and highly competitive and relatively speaking the dynamics are the same. Look at the front rowers at these levels. They are not small men.

And yet rarely do you get a game destroyed by time set aside for sorting out the scrum. The closest we have come to a rational answer to this is that the pros think differently, that professional props and hookers would sooner run down the street naked than be seen to be running backwards at a scrum. Props are highly paid. Props with a reputation for going backwards are paid a lot less. In a world where you would struggle to fill a phone box with the number of props who admitted being savaged by their opposite numbers, there is more honour in going down than going back.

So they mess about. If they feel the initial hit, when the front rows collide, has gone against them, they collapse. Or stand up. Or come up with some other way of starting all over again.

This is compounded by referees who take the Tower of Babel approach and, figuratively speaking, talk in a language no one understands. Maybe because they don't understand it themselves. Or in the case of Romain Poite, talk hardly at all. You have to wonder how Paddy O'Brien's pre-tournament convention -- much of it about the scrum -- could be followed so closely by such a performance as Mr Poite gave in Rome.

The stats from the Six Nations so far suggest that the number of collapses will be about the same as last year, but that the number of resets might be down. Significantly, early indications are that free kicks are on the rise. Why? Because when refs don't like the look of the elongated engagement sequence they can penalise the premature team and, hey presto, away we go with no scrum needed at all! It is an escape hatch, and refs like it.

So here are four things to consider. One: reduce the engagement process. Currently it's like bringing a stallion to cover a mare and asking him to whinny sweet nothings for a few minutes before getting on with the job. So reduce the stages from four to three: Set (adopt the position); Hold (props grip their opponents and maintain their grip -- which takes away much of the hit) and Engage.

With a standard one second between each step it should take the mystery out of how long the front rows will be left coiled like springs before release.

Two: don't let the scrumhalf feed a moving scrum. Typically packs chase the hit, ie they try and continue moving forward after contact. France did it time and again last Saturday and Morgan Parra was feeding a scrum that was already marching the Scots back.

Three: Get the cards out early, even if it means finishing with uncontested scrums. In fact, this would be the perfect illustration for props that without their co-operation they will no longer have a place in the game. They don't have to be reduced to eunuch status, but there has to be limits to their battleground.

Four: Remove referees who don't follow consistent practice. Or remove Paddy O'Brien, who can't seem to get referees to follow consistent practice. We accept that the IRB are acting in good faith. We don't accept that their best is good enough.

Sunday Indo Sport