New scrum laws: 2 years on

A quick look at the how rapidly the new emphasis on enforcing the scrum laws properly disappeared. Dishonesty and ignorance amongst referees, who claim they just don’t see feeding offences, refusing to admit they ignore it. And how WR seemingly after having gone through all that fuss about putting the ball in straight, caved to Mike Cron and changed policy.

After much debate amongst experts, general consensus seemed to be that an essential part of fixing the scrum lay in merely properly implementing some of the most basic laws as they are written.

The main two being 20.6 (d): ‘the scrum half must throw the ball in straight along the middle line, so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer prop’s shoulders’.

And also 20.1 (j): ‘until the ball leaves the scrum half’s hands, the scrum must be stationary and the middle line must be parallel to the goal lines. A team must not shove the scrum away from the mark before the ball is thrown in’.

Hardly complicated laws. In fact two of the easiest scrum infringements to spot, but it had become the norm for whatever reason to ignore both.

The view that enforcing the straight put in was essential, also came with wide backing from the public and media who wanted something to be done.

So WR made changes, with an emphasis on the scrum feed supposedly coming back into play.

WR CEO Brett Gosper said ‘there is a commitment to ensure strict policing of the scrum feed’. John Jeffrey, chairman of WR’s law representation group and member of the ‘scrum steering group’, said that now ‘definitely the ball will go down the middle’.

The move was backed by officials, media, fans and even referees as a positive one.

One of WR’s leading referees Craig Joubert talked of how of removal of ‘the big hit’ would allow refs to ‘look at other important things such as the scrum feed’.

And in the very first international under the new laws between New Zealand and Australia, Joubert called 4 scrum feeds in the first 11 scrums.

After the match Joubert was reported as having told the teams ‘we want it dead straight, we are under pressure to get selected for games so we have to make sure we enforce it’.

Stuart Berry, another referee who will be going to the RWC (albeit as a touchjudge) tweeted that day ‘I can tell you it WILL continue’.

That has proved to be simply so far from the case though. After blowing for 4 feeds in the first match, since then Joubert has done 12 internationals, overseeing 143 scrums and guess how many feeds he has blown for? Answer: zero. Clearly not under that much pressure ‘to get selected for games’ after all then, as Joubert remains a referee WR give a lot of major games to. 13 of his last 15 internationals have been either New Zealand, Australia or England ones. That Joubert has not given a single scrum feed since, makes a mockery of how he talked of being now able to ‘concentrate on scrum feeds’. He now, just like the rest of them, allows non hooking scrums such as this example. That isn’t to single out Joubert, as collectively referees simply continued to ignore the scrum feed law. Joubert in the first match under the new scrum laws, blew for as many feeds in the first 11 scrums, as there have been in the past 808 scrums between top 20 ranked sides. Leading English referee Wayne Barnes told media at the start that ‘our priority is the scrum feed’ and that ‘we don’t want to start off being very harsh in week one then by week 20 everyone’s forgotten about it’. Followed by Brett Gosper tweeting ‘and hopefully beyond’ in response so a headline saying they were to be enforced all season.

Despite that, just 3 weeks later, Brian Moore wrote in his Telegraph column, that at an RFU open day when he pointed out a clear crooked feed, he was told by Barnes that referees ‘had agreed that type of feed would be allowed’.

Of course, as stats show, contrary to Barnes comments about not forgetting it after a while, a penalised scrum feed has become progressively rarer over the course of the two years.

In matches between top 20 ranked nations under the new engagements. There’s been 2224 scrums. Split that into quarters (556 scrums), and in the first quarter (Aug-Nov 2013) there were 20 scrum feeds called (still well below the quantity of feeds there actually were).

Over the second quarter, there were 9 feeds called. In the third quarter, there were 8 feeds called. And finally, in the most recent quarter there have been just 2 scrum feeds called. So penalised feeds have fallen 90% from the first quarter.

This year there have been 498 scrums between top 20 ranked international sides and just 2 feeds have been called. The last scrum feed in internationals was 370 scrums ago, in the France vs Italy Six Nations match.

Despite those figures, unbelievably, some referees actually deny ignoring the crooked feed. With the narrative of ‘we need to improve on refereeing it’ but ‘we’re looking at other things’.

In the clips above, Joubert said previously ‘our focus has been diverted by this massive big hit’.

Nigel Owens was also confronted on this issue by Brian Moore, he said ‘it’s an area we need to improve on’, ‘but I’m looking at so many things going on, it’s down the checklist of what I’m looking at’.

Barnes has said likewise in the past, another one of the elite panel Jaco Peyper said ‘the detail (feed) disappears in all the things we have to watch around the props to make the scrum work’, as did Berry who said ‘we simply cannot look at the scrum feed as well amongst all of this’.

Joubert (0 scrum feeds called in past 143 scrums), talking more recently earlier this year said that ‘monitoring the straight feed in the scrum remains an important aspect of scrum refereeing and it’s something we have identified as an aspect of refereeing which we need to be better at’. He hasn’t changed his narrative in 2 years.

All that is utterly dishonest though, laughably so. The idea that no elite referee has seen a scrum half put in a crooked feed in the past 370 international scrums, and that they’re not just ignoring it but looking at other things, is ludicrously far fetched to say the least. Especially with their old excuse of ‘the big hit’ taken away.

(A scrum feed ‘down the checklist’ of what Owens was looking at apparently, or alternatively a scrum feed Owens was ignoring)

While Moore briefly appeared victorious in his campaign for the laws to be enforced properly, and he had much support. The one group where there has always been dissenting voices is from coaches.

As John Jeffrey said on his radio interview with Moore, that behind the scenes, of the Tier 1 coaches ‘none of them want a straight put in’.

And despite the positivity around the new laws, two of the very few to moan right from the start at the straight feed were also coaches, Leicester’s Richard Cockerill and Exeter’s Rob Baxter. Both citing safety.

Another coach in particular, All Blacks scrum guru Mike Cron, a member of the ‘scrum steering group’, also in close contact with other Southern Hemisphere coaches, appears to have been highly influential at WR, and appears to have been the main man in shifting them away from the straight put in under safety grounds.

Just one month into the new laws, he said he was ‘proposing that the tunnel should be widened’.

Later, Cron again argued strongly for relaxation of the feeding law, under the grounds of it is unsafe for the hooker to hook. He said that the margin for feeding the ball into the scrum ‘must be widened’ and that ‘it is fraught with danger to insist the ball be fed down the middle line’.

Funnily enough, Moore actually pinpointed Cron as a man of influence at WR way back in March 2013. He tweeted that ‘Mr Cron clearly leading IRB’ and that ‘their being led by Cron like bulls to the ring’.

Moore also saw the ‘safety card’ coming into play by those against the straight scrum feed as well. Early on writing in his Telegraph column that ‘those resisting change are already cynically playing the safety card and take note how this fraudulent line is pedalled in coming months’.

On both counts, he appears likely to have turned out to be correct. Prior to this year’s ITM Cup which starts this weekend, the New Zealand Herald reported ‘don’t expect those scrum feeds to go in any straighter from the half backs’.

It stated that after a brief attempt at seeking straight scrum feeds, that ‘the thinking has changed after scrum guru Mike Cron raised it as a safety concern’. Again underlining Cron’s influence.

This was repeated by referee Nick Briant, who said the straight feed is too dangerous to hook, so the feed now merely needs to be ‘straightish’. Pretty much a green light for feeding, just put in a slightly friendlier way than saying they will just completely ignore it.

Even in WR’s recent ‘law application guideline’ issued last May, they actually no longer actually asks refs for scrum feeds to be ‘straight’. But instead asks feeds just to be ‘credible’.

That’s simply a cleverly worded way of saying you are now allowed to feed the ball crooked, whilst giving the appearance that they still care. (There’s been 310 scrums between top 20 ranked sides in international rugby since that ‘law application guideline’ and not a single scrum feed).

Ultimately, even though John Jeffrey told Brian Moore that ‘he couldn’t agree more with him’ and saying ‘definitely the ball will go down the middle’.

He and WR have ignored Moore’s advice, plus that of other scrum experts. Instead listening to Cron and the safety fears.

Stats that show clearly how the policing of the scrum feed has dropped off nearly entirely, and in recent games we have seen a return to things that were prevalent previously, with front rowers walking over the ball.

The fact this happened, and happened so quickly after the laws were brought is frustrating, as we were never really given much chance to actually see over a sustained period the impact of a consistently enforced straight put in.

Also WR collapsing to Cron’s safety fears doesn’t make sense. For years we were stuck with a mammoth hit with safety issues involved, but that could only be altered following a wide range of studies and trials.

So how have Cron and a few other coaches, essentially been able to unofficially alter the laws on safety grounds (which are contested by others) and not themselves go through the studies and trials to back them up?

Also why have WR dumped the system they seemingly favoured following those studies and trials?

Moore once stated in a Telegraph article that ‘if they want this (non-policing of feeding), they should have the courage to propose and persuade the IRB to pass different laws’.

It’s a fair point, if Cron and other coaches felt so strongly that the straight put in unsafe, then why doesn’t he put forward the proposal, gain sufficient support from a wide range of experts and studies and trials to attempt to get the law officially changed?

Also if WR seemingly agree with Cron, why do they still have the law that states the ball must go down ‘straight along the middle line’? What’s the point?

Frankly though, we’ve seen for years the scrum disintegrate into shambles in the era of ‘the big hit’. Now feeding has crept quickly back in, it seems referees keen on returning the scrum as closely as possible back to where it was. The scrum was a mess in 2013, it’s still a mess with feeding and early engages now, so why was the suggested alternative of applying their own laws barely even genuinely attempted?

Whilst WR listening to Cron certainly paved some of the way towards the scrum feed returning back to what it was. It doesn’t explain ‘the hit’ and the race for the first initial shove also creeping back into the game, which is possibly more down to incompetence of the referees.

In the same scrums from the first game under the new laws, where Joubert penalised for feeding. He actually completely forgot the early shove law.

Moore wrote the following in 2010: ‘you would think that it is easy to see which pack has shoved before the ball is fed and it is. If a referee draws a line in the turf equidistant between the packs, the one that ends up over that line has pushed early or if both have done this has done so with more power and should be penalised’.

And here you can see a scrum on the halfway line, how ‘stationary’ are these packs? How obvious was it one side was pushing beyond the mark? Yet Joubert still asked for the ball to be put in.

That was the first match and where there was still some emphasis on applying the laws properly, and WR’s leading referee still couldn’t manage it. Or only managed one part of that, and has forgotten that ever since as well.

Also in the first weeks of the new laws in Rugby Championship we had other clueless referees such as George Clancy and Nigel Owens overseeing blatant early shoves on the ‘set’, rather than keeping it stationary until the ball went in. Such as this instance here.

Before the new laws came in, Brian Moore wrote an article for Rugby Refs on officiating the scrum, saying that a pack ‘does not have a responsibility to engage as hard as the other pack and certainly not to match any illegal early push – which is what is actually meant when referees say ‘take the hit’.

Yet on the same day as the previous example illustrated, where Owens ignored early shoves, we also saw another referee, watch an obvious early engage, warn a side ‘to take the hit’, bumble through another reset, then penalise a side for not ‘taking the hit’.

There’s no way the new scrum laws were ever going to fix the problem, when referees were reffing them like the old laws.

JP Doyle gave an interview with The Rugby Paper recently, where he said ‘if the scrum’s moving, what’s the point of calling the crooked feed?’. Yet if the scrum’s moving, then likely one or both the teams are pushing before the ball is in, it doesn’t take a genius to work that out.

In the same interview, Doyle also said ‘I think we’re starting to rein in some of those highly dubious feeds’ and that ‘we’re gradually getting on top of it’.

Last month, Doyle was telling players in the PNC ‘come on buddy, get in the real world’ (a manner he’d never speak to say McCaw or O’Connell but that’s a different topic), perhaps given the remark ‘we’re getting on top of the scrum feed’ he should take his own advice.

Meanwhile, while feeding in the scrum is blown for once in a blue moon, in 164 internationals and 2224 scrums between top 20 nations, there has not been a single occasion where foot up was penalised.

It’s still in the law book, as law 20.8 (a) states ‘until the ball has left the scrum half’s hands, they must not raise or advance a foot’. But it is never, ever penalised, no matter how obvious.

This is less well publicised than the scrum feed, but it would be interesting to know why WR even bother having a law in the book that is never used, or why it is never used.

The very fact on the official laws site, the video example they have of a foot up offence being penalised, comes from an obscure match in 2010 between Romania U20 and Papua New Guinea U20 says it all. They must have really struggled to trawl the archives for that clip.

But despite never being penalised, and less commented on than the feed, ‘foot up’ is actually a common tactic. Ireland’s Rory Best is one of the biggest employers of this tactic.

Plenty of others use that tactic too though, including both New Zealand and South Africa amongst a few others, such as Motu Matu’u for Samoa in this clear example.

It’s hard to know why exactly there hasn’t been a single instance of ‘foot up’ being penalised. But it’s also hard to know exactly why WR have another law in their book their elite panel of referees never use.

My own theory, is that referees ignore offences such as ‘foot up’ or ‘feeding’, and only like to make decisions when the ball doesn’t come out of the scrum. Otherwise if the ball comes out, they don’t care, and are just happy just to let the game go on.

This plays into an attitude of game management rather than refereeing the laws promoted by Nigel Owens who promotes the line of ‘it’s more important to know when not to whistle than when to whistle’, and openly admits ignoring certain offences at maul or offside he feels irrelevant.

For instance, Munster prop BJ Botha, over the course of last season was inexplicably allowed to get away with the most egregious examples of binding on the arm largely unpunished.

There’s no argument that props should be allowed to bind on the arm for safety reasons, on the contrary Cron stated that incorrect binding on the arm by tighthead props is a major reason in instability at the scrum. Not forgetting of course it gives the illegal binder an advantage.

That a player with the most horrendously obvious arm binding escaped sanction for most of the year doing it, was just referees turning a blind eye. Ignorant to the fact what they allow to happen, adds up to an overall alteration in the dynamics of the scrum.

A solution to the scrum issue doesn’t look like happening any time of soon. WR and their elite panel of referees had a golden opportunity in 2013, under a clean slate to put things right, and they bottled it. It’s hard to see any way out of the scrum mess under this generation of referees.

The unofficial world of Welsh rugby and stuff