No gain without pain in front-row experiment
Efforts to address ongoing problems at scrum time will have side effects
Last week we came across a man hunched over the deli counter in the local supermarket. Not exactly draped over the top of it, more like bent out of shape as if he was scrutinising through gritted teeth the deal of the week.
Turned out there were no specials behind the glass, rather he had played his first match of the new season the previous night, and he was suffering. He is a front-rower. This is an especially interesting time for members of that fraternity because the latest change in how they go about their business is the most fundamental since the whole crouch, touch, pause, rev-up, attack preamble was written into law in 2007.
So far it is no more than an experiment, and will run for this season in northern and southern hemispheres before a decision is taken whether to legislate or put it in the waste disposal. There is a truckload riding on its success.
The breakdown and how it is refereed is still the focal point for coaches and players, simply because it occurs on average twice every minute. Scrums meanwhile might number no more than a dozen, excluding resets, over the course of the 80 minutes.
But that dozen has become so dirty as to be toxic. It is virtually impossible to referee accurately, and involves so much faffing around while players drag themselves off the floor to repeat the mayhem, that it has strayed miles from the positive aspiration to get value from game time, to maximise the number of minutes when the ball is in play.
It was interesting to note the uproar in the world of the Gael last week over the failure of Hawk-Eye to do as it sounds. Countless rugby games have been decided by scrum decisions made in a place much darker than the black box which figures whether or not a ball has sailed inside the post.
So the scrum needs fixing in the way that a cancer patient needs a bout of chemo. We all know the target result, but some of the side effects will be uncomfortable.
First, the aim of the crouch-bind-set sequence is to vastly reduce the impact of the hit when the front rows collide. This would not only be good for the health of all concerned, it should create a more stable platform. So, fewer collapses and resets, and more rugby.
Here come the side effects. To get a handle on how far we have strayed from first principles consider the comments of Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore, leading up to last weekend's Rugby Championship game with New Zealand, when he said that striking the ball was a skill that players in his position would have to go out and learn.
While they are perfecting an art that used to keep us spellbound – following the battle to steal put-ins by the speed and accuracy of the strike – their props will have new issues to deal with.
Tightheads, for example, will find themselves more isolated because the hooker is swinging away from them to strike for the ball.
This exposes them to attack. Already you can hear Clermont's Thomas Domingo clapping his hands in delight. So if you're a short-assed loosehead tired of being battered by giant tightheads thundering down on top of you when the front rows meet, payback is at hand.
As for the scale of reduction in that hit, it's a bit early to say. We might find that scrums will go on longer, and the initial impact will be replaced by a more sustained struggle that could be even more enervating. In which case props will be called ashore earlier than is the norm.
Second, the reliability of winning your own ball thanks to a crooked feed, and no contest on the strike, is over. The scarcely credible stat that emerged from last weekend's opening Rugby Championship game was that neither side
did better than break-even at the scrum, with the Aussies losing four of their six put-ins. Later in the day the Pumas managed to lose four of their five scrums.
Australia's woes continued yesterday and if that trend spreads then teams will rely less on using this phase as a launchpad for attacks. The weaker ones are already taking the cobwebs off the door to channel one, because the moment the hooker lifts his foot to strike the chances of going backwards are multiplied – as happened Stephen Moore yesterday. Remember that lightning-quick ball so favoured by scrumhalves off five-metre scrums? Well, make way for its return.
In their haste to get it in and out, however, the number nines first have to learn to feed it straight. Despite the advance warning this still generated four free kicks in Sydney last weekend.
That figure should have been higher in Wellington in round 2, and if he hasn't told his refs to be ruthless on this issue, regardless of the outcry, then the IRB's elite match official manager Joel Jutge needs to do it now. And if he has, then repeat it.
While he's at it, he might get the whistle blowers to focus first on the newly narrowed gap between the front rows, and make sure it's not lengthened by those addicted to sudden impact. Our man at the deli counter was a victim of this, when the ref clocked off. An experience all the more painful when you're not expecting it.