Law Discussion: Put it in straight

Thu, 09 May 2013 03:15
Large scrumhalf feeds scrum2 Large scrumhalf feeds scrum Large dean greyling bulls scrum Large stormers scrum2 Large kings scrum practice Large stormers scrum

There is nothing that has so destroyed the credibility of referees as much as the way the ball is put into the scrum in modern times.

There is nothing that has so destroyed the credibility of referees as much as the way the ball is put into the scrum in modern times.

There was a time when putting the ball in skew and foot-up were the main source of penalties. Now, even in these gentler times of free kicks, they are rarely sanctioned.

Why is this?

The law is clear enough and the spectator with the thickest glasses and the most rudimentary knowledge of the laws can see a scrumhalf putting the ball in skew and that nothing is done about it.

Listen to the complaints, which often begin with Why do referees never.... And it goes beyond that. If he can't get such a simple thing right, how can he be trusted with complex stuff like the tackle?

Just a bit of history. In early times in some places scrums were the essence of the game. Men stood upright, chest to chest without flinching, hacking away at the ball and each other's shins. It was bad form, to knock that ball out of the scrummage to your side. For a while it was formed when the ball was put on the ground and men gathered round to scrap for it.

Then besides putting on the ground there was putting the ball - fairly - into a waiting group of men. In 1893 a free kick by way of penalty could be awarded if a player 'wilfully puts the ball unfairly into a scrummage'.

In 1920 New Zealand and New South Wales proposed that the referee put the ball into the scrummage, which has not become law. In 1927 England proposed that 'The ball is not fairly in the scrummage until it has been put in straight.' This was accepted and became law. In 1931 straight was a 'line midway between and parallel to the line of feet of the opposing front row forwards'.

In 1958 this middle line was changed to what it is now: 'The middle line means an imaginary line on the ground directly beneath the line formed by the junction of the shoulders of the players forming the respective front rows.'

This is an important change as straight does not mean along a line midway between the two sets of feet but along a line under the junction of the shoulders.

(a) The scrumhalf must stand one metre from the mark on the middle line so that player’s head does not touch the scrum or go beyond the nearest front row player.
Sanction: Free Kick
(b) The scrumhalf must hold the ball with both hands, with its major axis parallel to the ground and to the touchline over the middle line between the front rows, mid-way between knee and ankle.
Sanction: Free Kick
(c) The scrumhalf must throw in the ball at a quick speed. The ball must be released from the scrumhalf’s hands from outside the tunnel.
Sanction: Free Kick
(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
(e) The scrumhalf must throw in the ball with a single forward movement. This means that there must be no backward movement with the ball. The scrumhalf must not pretend to throw the ball.
Sanction: Free Kick

Middle line?

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.

This all seems clear and is long established. Why then is it harder now that in was 25 years ago to police the scrum feed?

Blame it on the hit and the multitude of things the referee must watch and control, all the facts he has to process as 16 strong men in a confined space battle for the ball. And he knows full well that this is a dangerous area, one where catastrophic injury is always possible.

The referee needs to watch the binding of the six players in the front row, which means what they do with each of their arms, the position of their feet, the angles of their bodies. He needs to check two sets of locks, two sets of flanks and when and how the No.8 joins in.

He needs to get the hookers into position and to see that there are gaps for heads to be put in appropriate places.

Then he gives three commands and checks that each is complied with - crouch - touch - set. Each one must be checked on. He needs to check that spines are in line so that players push straight.

To do the checking he needs to be upright and he needs to start the process when the scrumhalf is ready to put the ball in so that he can comply with the law.

No Delay. As soon as the front rows have come together, the scrumhalf must throw in the ball without delay. The scrumhalf must throw in the ball when told to do so by the referee.
Sanction: Free Kick

Just think of that. The referee needs to be up and close to check from above binding, direction of bodies and compliance with the three commands. When he has given the third the scrumhalf is required to put the ball in. Mindful that on SET the players hit in, he has to supervise the hit - to see that it's not premature or illegal and that front row players still get their binding and their angles right. He has to ensure that teams do not fade on the hit or pull out of it altogether.

Doing all of this properly with the duty of care paramount in his mind, the referee has little chance to see the scrum feed - and after all the scrum feed is not a dangerous action and is chastised by a free kick only.

What about the use of the assistant referees?

Their competence in this regard was greatly reduced with the law requirement that the backlines be back five metres from the scrum. That is an awful offside line for a referee to police given his urgent duties at the scrum and so the assistant referees tend to do that duty, which means that they are each five metres back from a scrum, making them prone to the error of parallax.

In olden times it was much easier when there was no hit and the referee had time to get in line and do things like bending to see if the feed was straight. Those times may be returning.

There is serious consideration being given to introducing the scrum procedure being tested. There are then three commands as now, starting with Crouch. Then comes Bind. The referee can then check the binding before the scum goes on. It also means that the heads of the front-row players will be in gaps in a line with ears adjacent. Again that is easier to monitor.

Then he gives the order Scrum. The players then have a much less vigorous hit from a short distance and already bound.

The command will thus be - crouch - bind - scrum.

Imagine scrums without that modern monstrosity - The Hit, which has no place in law or commonsense.