Law Discussion: scrum put-in
Everybody, it seems, can see the ball being put in skew into a scrum, but rarely does the referee do anything about it.
Everybody, it seems, the thousands in the ground and the millions looking at a television set, can see the ball being put in skew into a scrum, but rarely does the referee do anything about it. He has two assistants and they ignore it as well.
They blow up forward passes and knock-ons, hookers that baulk at the line-out, packs that set too soon. But not the crooked throw, despite a clearly written law, warnings from the IRB and the mocking hoots of the rugby world.
Why don't they stop the farce of the scrum feed?
The problem is logistical and a matter of care. The referee's first job at a scrum is to ensure the safety of the players. The scrum is still the place where catastrophic injuries are possible. Much of the law changes at scrum time is to make scrumming safer. Those changes involve binding, engaging and shoving. Those are the referee's priorities. They are penalty offences with the possibility of danger - surely more important that a free kick for a crooked feed.
In the scrum itself there are 16 big, intense men who are seeking an advantage over their opponents. That starts in the going down of the scrum, the so-called hit.
The referee uses three calls, previously four, and he is required to monitor each of those three calls - crouch, touch, set. He is required to see that each phase is correctly done, especially by the six players in the front row. For this he needs to be up close and vigilant.
The law requires that the scrumhalf be ready to put the ball in and do so without delay 'as soon as the front rows come together'. That would be when the referee is probably still intent on watching the coming together of the two packs.
Top referees - men who referee top matches in the world - will tell you that they can go the whole match without being able to watch what the scrumhalf does.
The problem is - yet again - the hit. If there were not hit but just a binding of frontrow players, the referee could stand back and watch the put-in because shoving would start only when the ball left the scrumhalf's hands, which is at present the beginning of the scrum.
It would also allow the referee to watch the hookers for 'foot up'. When last did you see a free kick for foot-up? There was one in July 2012 and one had to make sure that one was not seeing things!
The priority of safety and the possibility of penalty offences is the main reason why referees do not see the crooked feed.
Could the assistant referees not help?
They are five metres back from the scrum,, each monitoring the offside lines of the six backline players not involved with the scrumming. They do not have a good angle to see if the ball is put in straight.
Of course, if there were two referees on the field one could make the scrum feed his job.
The law governs the putting in of the ball - the scrumhalf a metre from the mark for the scrum, holding the ball in both hands midway between knee and ankle. He must release the ball outside the scrum in a single forward movement.
It also says:
Law 20.6 HOW THE SCRUMHALF THROWS IN THE BALL
(d) The scrumhalf must throw in the ball straight along the middle line, so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer prop’s shoulders.
Sanction: Free Kick
All of the actions that the scrumhalf is required to do are subject to a free kick.
The middle line?
Law 20 DEFINITIONS
The middle line is an imaginary line on the ground in the tunnel beneath the line where the shoulders of the two front rows meet.
The middle line is not half way between the frontrow's feet. It is under the seam where the shoulders join.
The scrumhalf is required to throw the ball in 'along the middle line'. It is commonly accepted that some part of the ball must be on that line.
Is putting the ball in straight important?
Of course it is for the basic principle of fair contest in a facet of the game that is as old as the game itself. Perhaps if it were observed it might make a great difference to scrumming for if the contest were fair hookers might try to hook again and the exciting prospect of a tighthead might return to rugby with all its unpredictability.
If it were controlled, it might well improve a referee's credibility.
In days of yore, skew put-in and foot-up were penalties. Matches could be determined by such dastardly infringements. That changed when the free kick was introduced for many 'technical' infringements in 1977. So it has gone from penalty to free kick to nothing!
Just a funny thought: scrumhalves could always put the ball in straight if they wanted to and were honest enough to do so. After all they put the ball into a scrum, not the referee. Is it OK to cheat, provided it's on a sportsfield?