Crouch, touch, pause ... disengage
The IRB must stop being precious and return the scrum to the players – and referees to the fringes.
There are two things that make rugby union unique: the scrum and the lineout. Other oval ball games such as Aussie Rules and the Irish sport of hurling feature athletes who can run, kick and catch as well as, or better than, the best rugby union has to offer.
Rugby league has a rudimentary scrum, but flank forwards are absent and it's more of a dancing contest than a confrontation between the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Sadly, its union counterpart may be going the same way.
The International Rugby Board (IRB) is running scared of catastrophic injury. It is not scared of the injury itself, for rugby is a collision sport. Rather, it is scared of the way a court of law might interpret the manner in which the injury occurred. Did the governing body take enough care to ensure the safety of its players?
If the answer to the question is no, then large amounts of money might flow out of the IRB, or one of its member unions, in the event of a catastrophic injury. This is the background to the emasculation of the scrum, which is the area of the game where catastrophic injuries, particularly those associated with the spine, aremost likely to occur.
The IRB set up a task team to make the scrum safer and in 2007 we heard "Crouch, touch, pause, engage" for the first time. The idea was to remove the "hit" from the game, that moment when the two packs come together at pace. It worked up to a point, by circumscribing the distance between the front rows. But however small the distance travelled, teams wanted to dominate the "hit" so they focused all their energy on it.
In 2013 the sequence changed, in effect negating the hit entirely, by forcing the front rows to bind on each other before any force was applied. One very large anomaly remained, however – the referee.
For over 100 years the referee had nothing to do with the scrum, other than to ensure that the scrumhalf put the ball in straight. Since 2007 the referee has become the sole arbiter of whether a scrum is good or bad.
Now all the talk is of angles and binding correctly. The point of the scrum, which is to restart the game and contest possession of the ball, has been entirely lost in the relentless pursuit of safety.
Rugby is a game of unintended consequences, and the drive for safe scrums has given way too much power to the referee. So much so that Dai Young, the former Wales and British Lions prop, now the director of rugby at Wasps, says: "The pity is that we do not practise scrum moves because it has, sadly, become an area not to launch attacks from, but to get points or position through penalties."
At the weekend there were several moments in Super Rugby that reinforced the weight of Young's remark. In Perth the game ended with the Stormers conceding a penalty try to the Brumbies. Referee Glen Jackson penalised the Stormers for collapsing a scrum under the posts.
And yet Jackson completely ignored the moment at the beginning of the set piece when the Brumbies scrumhalf placed the ball at the feet of his own hooker. He did not feed the ball into the tunnel; he placed it at the feet of his own player. That's a free kick to the Stormers, something that would have entirely removed the possibility of a penalty try and ensured the visitors earned a bonus point from the game.
Later the same day, the Reds were reduced to 13 men for the final seven minutes of their match against the Lions at Ellis Park. Referee Stuart Berry had simply run out of patience with the Australian team, who were exhausted by the time the final quarter arrived, struggling to catch their breath in the thin Highveld air. Unable to defend at the extremities, the Reds chose to slow the ball down illegally at every breakdown.
The Lions completed their comeback with a try from wing Courtnall Skosan two minutes from time. Television match official (TMO) Johan Greeff reviewed the score several times before confirming the try.
But during the week, the focus was less on a remarkable Lions win, than it was on the scrum that preceded the try, when the seven men of the Reds (they brought a back in to replace one of the missing forwards) forced the Lions front row to stand up. That's a penalty to the Reds, but Berry allowed play to continue, and it had a material effect on the result.
Two games, two debatable decisions, yet when Sanzar's head of referees, Lyndon Bray, announced on Monday that three had been demoted from the pool that provides officials for Super Rugby, neither Jackson nor Berry were among them.
Lourens van der Merwe was among the unfortunate trio, however, and it is hard not to believe that part of the reason was his discussion with Jannie du Plessis about the finer points of scrumming during the Sharks match against the Reds two weeks ago.
Quoting the IRB's head of refereeing, Paddy O'Brien, Du Plessis in effect told Van der Merwe that he didn't know what he was talking about. The time has come to return the scrum to the players and referees to the fringes. The game can still be safe that way and the IRB needs to make it happen – before the heart and soul of rugby union disappears forever.