Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Scrums a waste of time

Solutions are required and All Black coach Steve Hansen is hopeful they will be found before the international season. Photo / Getty Images
Solutions are required and All Black coach Steve Hansen is hopeful they will be found before the international season. Photo / Getty Images

There will be plenty of coaches and players sounding like a broken record this season — lamenting the shambolic nature and handling of scrums.

This farcical pantomime of endless collapsing, free kicks, penalties and other baffling outcomes is killing interest in the game.

Scrums have become the untreatable boil on the face of the prom queen. The introduction of the 'crouch, bind, set' command towards the end of last year has failed to fix any of the problems it was supposed to remedy. If anything, scrums have become a bigger blight on the game, a greater impediment to building flow and momentum.

With less than 18 months until the World Cup kicks off, rugby needs to find a solution to a problem that could potentially damage the legacy plans of building player numbers and fan interest at the next global tournament.

The rationale for introducing the new command sequence made sense. It was primarily about reducing the impact of the initial hit to protect players — and to produce a more stable and genuine contest.

Stability was important — stats out of the last World Cup showed that when tier one nations played each other, the scrum collapsed 60 per cent of the time.

The 2013 Six Nations reached unprecedented territory, when more than half of all scrums ended in either a free kick or penalty. One game between England and Wales produced just three occasions when the ball came out of a scrum.

Change was needed but could anyone say the current system has delivered? As an attacking platform, scrums are now the least valuable currency in the game.

Of the 174 tries scored in Super Rugby before this weekend, 59 came from lineouts, 35 from turnovers won, 31 from kick returns and just 24 from scrums, according to Opta statistics.

In percentage terms, that equates to 18 per cent of tries coming from kick returns, 34 per cent from lineouts, 13 per cent from scrums and 20 per cent from turnovers won.

The figures for last year, under the old commands of 'crouch, touch, pause, engage', show that 15 per cent of the 593 tries scored in Super Rugby came from scrums. The figure was the same for turnovers, with lineouts accounting for 36 per cent of tries and kick returns 13 per cent (tap penalties were a bigger feature last year, accounting for about 7 per cent).

The scrum is not providing teams with the opportunities to attack that they want and is increasingly being viewed as a means to restart the game, nothing more.

The more damning statistics to come out of this year so far, however, are around the length of time teams are in possession of the ball.

In 2011, the average length of time the ball was being used by teams was 33 minutes 20 seconds. In 2012, it was 33m 02s. Last year, it fell to 32m 08s and so far this year new figures are tracking at 30m 32s.

That is a 10 per cent drop in four seasons — from a not particularly impressive base. There are close to 50 minutes a game going missing and the chief suspect in wasting this time are scrums. Time in possession excludes scrums.

There was a near four-minute period in the recent Blues-Cheetahs game devoted to scrum re-sets. That's not uncommon and it's little wonder that several coaches — John Kirwan and Todd Blackadder, in particular — have aired their frustration.

It's not just the volatility of the set piece, the time-wasting and inconsistency of the decisions, it's also about the stupidity of the defending team gaining the advantage.

That's the prevailing view: it's actually better to be the defending side and not have to strike for the ball. More often than not, the attacking team has been left scrambling ball out of a retreating scrum in Super Rugby — immediately coming under pressure as a result of their hooker having to lift his foot and the opposition knowing when the ball is coming in due to the referee controlling the process.

On last year's European tour, the All Blacks packed down several scrums that lasted longer than five seconds. There was one famous scrum in Paris when lock Sam Whitelock feared he was going to pass out such was the strain of pushing so hard for so long while the ball sat in the tunnel unclaimed.

Solutions are required and All Black coach Steve Hansen is hopeful they will be found before the international season.

"The first thing we have to do is take away the referee," says Hansen. "We can't be blaming the referee; he is only doing what he is told by the IRB. What it is doing is showing us that, technically, if you are not right, you are going to struggle.

"Scrummaging is becoming more technical because you are there for longer so then technically you have to be better at it.

"There is a responsibility on the player and the coaches to get that right. The third thing we have to acknowledge is that perhaps getting the referee to say, 'put it in now' or his secret signal, is not working. Everyone would acknowledge that and yet we are still doing it. So what can we do?

"[It would be helpful] if they stop the clock, not for the first one, but if it collapses, stop the clock until play starts again. That's about a willingness as a rugby community to agree to do that but I am not sure everyone sees it like that."

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