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Law Discussion: Feeding scrum frenzy

Tue, 20 Aug 2013 06:55
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They are old bits of law
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On Saturday there was the first public exposure on an international scale of the new procedure for setting the scrum and putting the ball into the scrum.

The aim was to make scrumming legal, less of a bore and, above all, safer for the players.

The International Rugby Board has sanctioned an experimental change to the setting of the scrum.

The going down in the scrum has varied greatly.

There was a time when the front rows folded in firmly, but without aggression, and then the ball was put into the scrum with a referee bending to make sure that the ball was put in straight, that the hooker did not advance his foot before the ball hit ground and certainly did not play the ball while it was in the air.

In those days collapsed scrums were rare, certainly rarer than penalties for foot-up or a skew put-in. Penalties - with a three-point potential.

They are old bits of law. In 1892 it was first stated that a player who 'wilfully puts the ball unfairly into a scrummage' was liable to 'free kick by way of a penalty' and in 1893 it was specifically stated that the same sanction would apply to a player who 'being in a scrummage lifts a foot from the ground before the ball has been put into the scrummage'.

Scrummaging changed radically when Francisco Ocampo of Argentina invented the bajada scrum, a scrum emphasising pushing power based on engineering principles. That lasted until the 'hit' became the scrumming fashion.

In the early 1980s there was a lot of concern about the catastrophic injuries emanating from scrums as the scrums were now more powerful with the heavier front rows and no need for an agile hooker. The injuries led to various ways to make the scrum safer, especially for younger players. There was even a suggestion that scrums become uncontested.

So the IRB introduced a law that the scrum was to be formed with a series of referees calls - crouch-touch-pause-engage. Now you had 16 muscular players intent on getting dominance for their scrum.

This became the hit.

Players would gather together and all eight would ram into the opposition with speed and force. Winning the hit became a priority. There even were refereeing sanctions for 'not taking the hit' or 'fading on the hit'.

This was reduced to crouch-touch-set and then this year altered to crouch-bind-set.

And the longer the hit was allowed to go on, the worse the scrumming became. (The 1995 RWC was also compared to the 2011 World Cup. At the latter there were three times as many collapses and four times as many penalties. Scrum were taking nearly 18 percent of the playing time.)

Earlier this month the world's elite referees met are Marcoussis, the national training facility in Paris. Apart from the referees there were some administrators, but no coaches.

In his introduction to changes John Jeffrey, the former Scottish forward who is now on the IRB council and the chairman of its committee that selects referees said clearly: "the hit is illegal." He said it in public, a dangerous facet of play that was protected by referees. He hoped that the change would reduce 'collapsed scrums in terms of player safety."

What makes the hit illegal? It's there in the law where it has been for years and years:

Law 20.1 (I) Charging. A front row must not form at a distance from its opponents and rush against them. This is dangerous play.
Sanction: Penalty kick.

The hit is charging in.

So in comes crouch-bind-set and a promise that referees will see to the fair feed into the scrum.

After two weeks there are those singing a jeremiad, a lamentation for the poor state of scrumming, a mess in fact. And referees, mocked before for not policing the put-in, are now being lambasted for policing the scrum.

The reason for not policing it adequately - as every referee acknowledges was the case - was the hit. That was an area of massive collision with the potential of serious damage. Player safety was the referee's main focus. The ball in skew would not cause harm, but the hit of eight massive men against eight massive men was potentially seriously harmful and so they concentrated on the hit. Everybody watching the scrum but not concerned with player safety could see that the ball was not in straight.

What is straight?

Law 20.6 HOW THE SCRUMHALF THROWS IN THE BALL
(d) The scrum half 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

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.

So we have the greater possibility of a safe bind with the muscular action of the two packs' starting when the ball comes in.

To give the referees the chance to do all things well, including checking up on the feed, the Marcoussis meeting gave them a modus operandi.

The referee would be close to the scrum as he says crouch, bind, scrum. He will then back off and say: "In, No.1." When he says that the scrumhalf will put the ball in. This enables the referee to have a wider view backed up with the old refereeing scrum habit of bending to watch the feed.

As the player behaves in this regard, the referee may well be able to watch foot-up as well!

The IRB's Marcoussis meeting has given the referees an orderly list of sanctions. Earlier SANZAR had decided that repeated free kicks were not improving player compliance and so it said that the second skew put-in would be a penalty, not a free kick.,

The post-Marcoussis order of sanctions will be:

1st offence: free kick
2nd offence: penalty
3rd offence: penalty plus warning
4th offence: penalty plus yellow card
5th offence: penalty plus red card.

South Africa, eager to get rid of the skew put-in and the damage it does to the credibility of referees, has taken out the third step and goes free kick, penalty, penalty plus yellow card, penalty plus red card.

What is the legal justification for these increasing sanctions?

It lies in the law of repeated infringement. (Putting the ball into a scrum unfairly is, after all, an infringement. There are two other possible infringements - early engagement by a team, which is less likely now than in the days of the hit, and putting the ball in before the referee gives the go ahead. The latter is not in law but it is contained in an IRB instruction to referees, just as the Marcoussis modus operandi is.) The law of dealing with repeated infringements dates back to 1888 becoming more explicit in 1922 when it says that a player guilty of 'persistent infringement' must be ordered off the ground.

Law 10.3 REPEATED INFRINGEMENTS
(a)`A player must not repeatedly infringe any Law. Repeated infringement is a matter of fact. The question of whether or not the player intended to infringe is irrelevant.
Sanction: Penalty kick
A player penalised for repeated infringements must be cautioned and temporarily suspended.

In other words a penalty against you for repeated infringement means being sin-binned.

At Loftus Versfeld last Friday both sides replaced their starting scrumhalf when he infringed a second time and the infringement was upgraded to a penalty. Griquas took off Jacques Coetzee inside 30 minutes of the first half and the Blue Bulls took of Rudi Paige early in the second half. The teams clearly did not want a player in the sin bin.

After all, they knew what was required of them and the consequences of non-compliance. The procedure which the referee followed, did not just start on the field. The referee started it in the changing room when he did the boot inspection. He made the scrum requirements known to both sides and made sure that the scrumhalves on each side, knew exactly what was required of them

But then what about the case of Ruan Snyman? He came on as a scrumhalf substitute for the Blue Bulls. The first time he was free-kicked for an unfair put-in he was sent to the sin bin, this after he had twice fed the scrum acceptably.

Law 10.3 (b) Repeated infringements by the team. When different players of the same team repeatedly commit the same offence, the referee must decide whether or not this amounts to repeated infringement. If it does, the referee gives a general warning to the team and if they then repeat the offence, the referee cautions and temporarily suspends the guilty player(s). If a player of that same team then repeats the offence the referee sends off the guilty player(s).
Sanction: Penalty kick

Before Snyman had come onto the field, Rudi Paige, the Blue Bulls' starting scrumhalf, had been free-kicked and then penalised for scrum-feed infringement.

After Snyman was sent to the sin bin, wing Clayton Blommetjies took over as scrumhalf. The first time he was going to put the ball into a scrum, the referee warned him that if he infringed in doing so he would be red-carded.

The referee was merely doing exactly what he was required to do. If he had not done so, he, the referee, would have been sanctioned, even though the scrumhalf is the one who chooses to infringe.

A leading speaker at the Marcoussis meeting was Brian Moore, the outspoken former England hooker, the poacher turned gamekeeper. He has for years railed against the hit. He said at the meeting: "The referees know it should be done properly. It's up to them to do this consistently If they do it consistently and coaches and players can't adapt to the techniques required, it's not the refs' fault. They'll have to learn to do it properly and everything will be better."

It may just be fair to let the referees settle into their job. They certainly are trying.

By Paul Dobson

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