Tony Ward: Scrum laws must go back to go forward
The closer we can bring this ancient art back to how it used to be – and the less we see and hear from the ref – the better
Barely a fortnight into the new season and negativity abounds. Advance ticket sales for the Aviva are way down; the Connacht Branch is spending beyond its means; Connacht CEO Tom Sears resigns, albeit for personal reasons – and then, of course, the jewel in northern hemisphere rugby – the Heineken Cup – is facing meltdown.
Ironically, with all this happening off the field grabbing the headlines, it is a development between the white lines that has this observer enthralled. It relates to the scrum and what might appear to be one small tweak – in the form of a return to old ways – could well revolutionise the game as we've known it in recent times.
Quite why the IRB saw it necessary to change the dynamics of scrummaging so dramatically in the first place is beyond comprehension. Once the argument of searching for a safer engagement was trotted out the governing body moved quickly – too quickly.
Sadly, the result has been an unadulterated mess in which each knock-on, crooked throw or accidental offside has been followed by at least 90 seconds of collapsed scrums. This was followed by the almost mandatory tweedle-dum, tweedle-dee penalty which offered the referee the only way out.
Listening to "crouch-touch-pause-engage" or "crouch-touch-engage" (the pause took a sabbatical last season) has driven the public demented. The ref-eree, seldom seen or heard, had become the dominating influence – something you don't want in a game of rugby.
So excruciating and mind-numbingly boring had it become, that some would gladly have traded the union shambles for the league equivalent where the ball is fed deliberately into the last forward's feet in an uncontested scrum.
Now, with just one series of competitive games gone, the initial impression is of a vital facet of the game re-emerging.
For me and my contemporaries it represents another small step back to the scrum of old. Look at games from times past and, whereas the line-out was indeed a sad mess, the scrum was solid and a genuine competition for possession in which the art of hooking, the timing of the feed and the collective heave were central.
Watching last weekend's games in both hemispheres, the difference was palpable. There is still room for further improvement, but a set-piece in which the hooker must now strike for possession, the scrum-half must put the ball in straight and the bottom line is stability, has to augur well.
Anything to take us away from the relentless droll of 'crouch-touch-pause-engage-collapse-penalty' has to be in the game's interest. Where I still see room for improvement is in the timing of the feed. In the current trial period, it is the referee making the call.
The preference would be for the system of old, whereby the scrum as a unit squeezed, the hooker flapped his left hand, the scrum-half then released the ball straight down the middle.
It was a fair contest involving much rehearsal – ie, scrummaging practice – and culminating in possession which backs could use more efficiently in attack. Bear in mind the opposition defence stood just behind their No 8's feet as there was no 10-metre rule in existence at the scrum.
Sometimes old ways are best and, while the line-out has improved beyond recognition, the closer the scrum moves towards the old model the better. As an out-half, having the facility of liaising with your scrum-half, hooker and No 8 mid-match for either a quick or soft channel-one ball was hugely reassuring. The majority of players wearing two, eight, nine or 10 today wouldn't have the foggiest what 'channelling' ball even meant.
Hopefully, they are about to learn every bit as much as the hooker striking or scrum-half delivering down the middle.
The changes are to be reviewed next summer when it will be decided if they should be made permanent, but for now the omens are good. I cannot recall a single collapsed scrum at Parc y Scarlets last Friday night, where match official John Lacey performed his inconspicuous duty like a neutral arbitrator of old. Seen, yes, but seldom heard – and never unnecessarily so.
The IRFU is only too well aware of the scummaging deficiency in Ireland. Without wishing to have a pop at Michael Bent, the principle of parachuting an unknown prop from the other side of the world into the national squad took our stock to a new and unprecedented low.
The fault is with the principle not the player. Just recently, under academy manager Colin McEntee, the IRFU ran an elite coaching course for a dozen or so specialist scrum coaches with front-row technicians Dan McFarland, Greg Feek, Paul McCarthy and Alan Clarke representing Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Ulster respectively.
The welcome brief coming from the IRFU was of a drive to change the scrum culture in Ireland, of an aspiration to turn us into the best scrummaging nation in the world and to produce the world's best front-rowers year on year. It is a clearly ambitious, but nonetheless exciting plan, albeit one that will require significant investment all the way up from grassroots underage level.
If the union is to make a difference – and back words with actions – it will necessitate elite/specialist scrum coaches out and about nationwide teaching the proper technique to underage players in clubs and schools.
At the same time, they must bring the existing youth and schools coaches up to speed, thereby increasing their knowledge and even more importantly providing the confidence and competence to advance underage scrum coaching from within.
Clubs, schools, coaches and players are all hungry for knowledge and will buy into properly organised initiatives.
There are some excellent scrum doctors out there, former professional players who are passionate about rugby, passionate about the scrum and passionate about the overall development of the game in Ireland.
Where there is a will there is a way and, for sure, that will is out there.