By Chris Tipping, rugby writer
As this article is appearing just after the Lions’ 26-21 defeat against South Africa in Durban, it’s going to sound a little bit like sour grapes, but who cares? It’s a point I have long had strong feelings on and definitely needs addressing sooner rather than later.
First thing’s first – the scrum is a fun place, it can look terrible, dangerous, even frightening at times, but let me assure you it’s fun and far more skilful and technical than it’s ever given fair credit for by anyone who’s not been brave enough to pack down.
More than anything, it cannot be totally theorised, it has to be felt to be understood. Having had the pleasure of occupying all three front row positions at various times, I can vouch for the fact that this is the place where the real fun happens and the most pertinent point here is that: until you’ve crunched a few scrums and felt the real fear that your spine is going to pop out of your backside at some point, you cannot have an inkling as to what’s really going on in there.
Not many referees, indeed (I believe) none of the current set on the IRB list, have played in front row positions, and the most basic question is this: how many of those guys are ‘properly’ qualified to officiate this area correctly? The sad answer is that NONE of them are…
In the first Lions test, the match was – arguably – won in the first half by a succession of penalties given against the Lions as Springbok loosehead Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira propped low and almost at a 45-degree angle to totally terrorise tighthead Phil Vickery, and ref Bryce Lawrence, at scrum time.
Before I go on, let me just remind you of something lawful, particularly notable in this respect: subtle shifts of body position by a loosehead prop who decides to scrum against a tighthead’s chest as opposed to his shoulders (commonly called ‘boring-in’) will often cause his opponent to pop out of a scrum and is punishable with a penalty. Important to note that it is punishable by a penalty against the OFFENDING loosehead, NOT the suffering tighthead, as happened in Durban.
And, it is this sort of scrum confusion officiated by guys whose spines have remained intact and in no danger of rectal exposure that is hurting rugby union, and potentially destroying the sport’s most detailed technical discipline.
Why oh why oh why can’t there be a scrum specialist – some gnarled old prop or hooker who is infinitely more qualified – sat in the TMO’s room with a headset on telling the ref which of the beefcakes is spoiling the party for everyone. The sooner this happens, the better. The scrum is a great, hard, unique and loved part of this wonderful game, let’s not let some retired old scrumhalves with whistles spoil it for the rest of us! Speak up front-rowers!