The new scrum call “Crouch, bind…..set”. The much debated new engagement procedure at scrum time in rugby union has been in effect for a few weeks now.
Whatever the driving force behind these changes – improving player safety, quicker restarts, fewer penalties, more appealing entertainment for fans – the changes are now in force at every level of the game.
We are in that period when players, referees and coaches are still getting used to the call in competitive matches and it will take a few more games before everyone gets comfortable with the new cadence. Early signs look positive and it is my belief, that this new calling sequence is a big step in the right direction. It may not be the final solution of the scrum problem but it is an improvement.
Here are my positives and negatives of what has been a controversial but necessary change to the set piece.
The New Scrum Call Positive: Technical not purely physical
The new calling sequence means that the props must extend their arm and bind onto the opposition prop for the duration of the scrum. What has this done to the scrums? The distance or “tunnel” between the two front rows has been decreased. The front rows are now at arm distance from each other and no further. The impact from the front row collision, or the hit, has been significantly reduced by about 25%. This is a good thing and the idea is that scrums will once again become a technical battle between crafty and wily front row club players. The art of scummaging will come back into effect. This art was somewhat lost by the massive collisions over the past few years.
The player wearing the No.2 jersey is called the hooker for a reason and the new call sequence will highlight exactly why. The name comes from the fact that the hooker must “hook” the ball with his foot in the scrum and guide it back to the No.8. Hooking the ball in the middle of a scrum is a skill. It requires timing, awareness and understanding with the scrum half, flexibility to get your body is the optimum hooking stance, strength to hold your body weight on one leg and finesse to guide the ball to the back of the scrum.
The New Scrum Call Positive: Focus on the Put In
The art of hooking the ball has been lost over recent years while the emphasis at scrum time was to get as big a hit as possible, followed by a full eight man timed drive as the scrum half fed the ball into the locks’ feet! A slight exaggeration perhaps on the scrum half’s feed but not by much.
Along with the new cadence, referees have said they will be paying particularly close attention to the scrum half, making sure that the ball is thrown into the scrum straight. Officials will be aiming for consistent and rigorous enforcement of the laws – free kicks, penalties and even yellow cards are being dished out against scrum halves who fail to comply with the laws.
The New Scrum Call Negative: The Element of Surprise
I have been studying the new scrum cadence and I believe we are on the right track, however I see what could be a massive flaw in the system. What happens after the ‘Crouch, Bind, Set” call?
In the past, the attacking pack would signal to their scrumhalf when they wanted the ball in, usually through the hooker and on we went. The referee has never had an impact with the timing of the scrum half’s feed into the scrum. This has changed with the new cadence. After the referee calls “crouch…bind…set”, the referee waits for the scrum to stabilize, then he says “Yes 9“. I believe this is the most significant change in the new scrum laws. Rule 20.5 of the IRB Laws of the Game states that,
“No Delay. As soon as the front rows have come together, the scrum half must throw in the ball without delay. The scrum half must throw in the ball when told to do so by the referee.”
So, what’s the problem?
The opposition forwards in the scrum are going to know exactly when the ball is coming. They can hear the referee saying “Yes 9” and time their drive off the referee. Also, the opposition hooker can hear the referee and can strike for the ball on the referee’s command to the scrum half. Therefore the perceived advantage of the team putting in the ball is lessened. I believe that we are going to see much more competition for the ball at scrum time, with more balls won against the head (the team not putting the ball into the scrum, winning the ball).
The New Scrum Call Negative: Are the Players Up to it?
As a player, I played hooker throughout my career and in the earlier days, when hooking the ball was still effective, I loved nothing more than attempting to strike for the opposition’s put in at the scrum.
The ability to do this over recent years has diminished as all eight forwards were better served with their feet planted firmly on the ground and driving forward.
Many young hookers do not know how to hook for the ball in the scrum as they have never needed the skills. My old teammate at Leicester Tigers, Tom Youngs stated this clearly in a recent interview with the Telegraph. Tom was a centre, switched to hooker and has gone on to become one of the world’s best, representing Tigers, England and the British & Irish Lions.
Youngs makes some good points in his interview about the physical development of players but personally I am delighted to see that the skill of playing hooker at scrum time is back in effect. This means that upon engagement, hookers need to dip their right shoulder into the back of the neck of his opposing player. This prevents the opposition hooker from getting into a strong position (ever tried to move forward while your face is on your leg?!).
By pushing your right shoulder down, the hooker naturally turns slightly to the left. This is the position a hooker wants to be in as he is can clearly see the scrum half’s feet and incoming ball. The hooker must ensure that all his weight is on his left leg and that his right leg is free to sweep or hook the ball as it comes into the scrum and guide it back to the No. 8 using the instep part of his boot. Only when a hooker is in a strong position can he effectively strike for the ball.
Safety for all players is the number one priority without question. I am glad to see the massive collisions at scrum time reduced and positional skills come to the fore again. It poses a completely new approach in terms of coaching and educating players. Technical scrummaging will come back into the game and players need to develop these skills by dedicating time to learning and practicing these front row “dark arts”.
It will take time to see if my views are correct but for now rugby season is underway and next week I get to see if my hardwork coaching these new rules works on the pitch.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com