IN A step to answer and assuage the increasingly vocal critics of the scrum the IRB yesterday took a major step to change the set-piece.
The Scrum Steering Group, headed by former international flanker John Jeffrey and aided by the likes of former prop David Barnes, All Blacks forwards coach Mike Cron and referee chief Joel Jutge amongst others, set forth a plan to trial a new engagement protocol for next season in both the northern and southern hemisphere.
The trial means that there will be a change of commands, with the referee calling ‘crouch, bind, set’.
Props must not grip the opponent’s chest, arm, sleeve or collar, but with the ‘bind’ call use their outside arm to pre-grip their opposite number from a pre-ordained distance. There will be a pause, the referee will then call ‘set’ when the front rows are ready. The front rows may then engage.
With this directive the sanction for any infringement during these calls will be a free kick. The sanction for “charging” from a greater distance will be a penalty. It has also been reiterated by the IRB that these changes will be coupled with stricter policing by officials of the put-in at scrum time, and the timing of the push.
Player safety is the paramount point, according to the IRB, with these changes being recommended after Bath University concluded their Scrum Forces Project which looked at the impact of hits in the current scrum format and compared it to the ‘crouch, bind, set’ protocols, paying particular attention to the force of hit (which currently peeks at 16500 newtons) and the predicted regularity of collapses. This study was completed against machines and then in live sessions at Bath University and as far afield as Aberdeen with club players, while also being trialed in the southern hemisphere’s Pacific Rugby Cup. According to the study, the ‘bind’ ensures a more stable platform, with 25% less impact and fewer collapses.
Talking to Rugby World through the IRB, SSG member and IRB Chief Medical Officer Dr Martin Raftery said:”Reducing the compression forces at the scrum by some 25 percent is likely to have a positive impact on injury rates at the top level of the Game where forces are highest.
“This trial has been aimed at enhancing the long-term welfare of our players by mitigating the possible degenerative symptoms that can occur post-career. It is a logical and proactive step in improving player welfare.”
The calls for change have come from several quarters, citing player safety, a departure from the laws of the game and also the loss of entertainment value and appeal to younger audiences.
IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: “The scrum is a fundamental and dynamic part of our game. It is important that we continue to promote the best possible player welfare standards and this trial process is about putting players first and delivering a reduction of the forces on engagement at elite level, which could have significant positive effects on long-term player welfare.”
The trial will be global and in collaboration with member unions with a game-wide educational process involving coach and match official workshops will be rolled out ahead of the trial, according to the IRB. It is also said that “five perspective Law changes [are] currently being trialled and the trial change to television match official protocols will be considered by IRB Council at its annual meeting in 2014” so that any law changes are brought in before Rugby World Cup 2015.
Judgement of this trial will be reserved for a year from now, but as Leicester Tigers and former England hooker George Chuter told Rugby World last month: “Change or any regression back to a pushing contest must be gradual. There is no simple fix and my pet hate is when people say that straight feed will fix everything. You just get a guy on one leg getting bent over backwards.
“These tests weren’t done in a muddy field in the middle of Gloucestershire. Why weren’t any current players asked? There does not seem to have been a proper cross-section of people discussing these changes. We will see how it goes but change comes down to the players.”
Alan Dymock is working on a study of the need for change and the options available to the lawmakers in regards to the scrum on behalf of Rugby World. More to come later this year