Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: More power to the hooker

Scrums could soon be a contest again. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Scrums could soon be a contest again. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The lost art of hooking the ball in scrums might be revived with further International Rugby Board moves affecting scrummaging.

Moves are afoot through the IRB for opposing props to start closing on the 'touch' call (the current call being 'crouch, touch, set'), further depowering the hit by restricting momentum when the scrum sets. A trial was run at the recent Pacific Cup featuring A sides from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Japan, development sides from Australian and New Zealand Super Rugby franchises and national academy sides.

The aims are to promote player welfare by reducing the force on engagement and delivering a more stable scrum with fewer collapses and resets. Early IRB projections are that the force on engagement could reduce by 25 per cent.

There are thoughts in the rugby world that hookers might once again contest the ball as a result. Colin Hawke is a veteran of 24 tests with the whistle. He is also a past high performance refereeing coach for the New Zealand Rugby Union.

He says the latest amendment to the scrum call is likely to help the art of hooking.

"Taking the 'pause' away and adding a one syllable word 'set' makes the hit crisper and potentially creates a more real contest for the ball. At the moment, you get the odd tighthead but they're pretty rare.

"When I first started as a referee, you didn't have a lot to do with the scrum. The tighthead props [generally the scrum anchor on the hit] were in charge. It was a bit like the tackled ball law where referees rarely intervened because players were generally rucked out of the way."

Since the advent of professional rugby in New Zealand, scrums have increased in power, meaning a strike for the ball by an opposition hooker risks injury in a scrum collapse. Combine that with balls being fed on an angle towards the team in possession and it makes losing the ball on the feed next to impossible.

At present scrums rather than the ball tend to be contested, meaning players push on an opposition feed to gain a positional rather than possessional advantage.

Teams instead aim to cut down the angle and distance a halfback or first-five has to use.

Former All Black selector and veteran coach Peter Thorburn says hooking the ball is less important in the modern hooker's skill set: "I see them as more of a fourth loose forward. They need to be good ball runners, quick to the breakdown but still powerfully built because of the pressure put on them in the scrum."

Thorburn agrees with trying to shorten the time required to set scrums but says another crucial factor needs addressing: "You can't hold up two 900kg packs for up to eight seconds on the point of balance but I don't think they understand the difficulty opposing loosehead props have gripping the jersey of their opposite. Slippery, skin-tight jerseys add to the problem."

Former All Black hooker Hika Reid (1980-86) was of a slighter build than most modern day No 2s.

"Serious injuries mean there are efforts to depower the scrum. To me, it seems there are just as many injuries at the breakdown but they don't get as much attention.

"I used to strike for the ball until we came across a monster Argentine pack in 1985. Our scrum got mauled and there was no way I couldn't push. However, injuries will be nullified with the quicker pre-engagement."

A wider problem has been the scrum feed. If a ball doesn't go straight into a lineout, the referee generally blows the whistle for an infringement.

The complicated nature of scrums mean other factors like the bind and set distract attention. The ball is meant to enter the scrum on an imaginary line through the middle of both packs. In reality it often skews towards the hooker of the team with possession.

Halfbacks are masters at moving with the put-in, allowing their weight displacement to 'help' the ball towards their team.

"The feed is not always ideal," Hawke says. "I realise the game has changed and safety has become paramount but rugby's laws and charter provide for a fair contest. It can be hard to remember to get the halfback square.

"I remember [South Africa referee] Tappe Henning issued about half a dozen penalties on this issue during the first half of a game in Brisbane once, but there are so many other areas a referee has to consider - like angling in and collapsing - that it tends to be neglected."

"The way the game has developed I've noticed referees aren't as strict on put-ins," Reid says.

"It seems a subtle way of going down the rugby league route where scrums are used to restart play rather than as a contest."

- Herald on Sunday

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