We look at the scrum laws and why Italy went down to 13 players against Ireland

Uncontested scrum laws explained

Italy’s fate against Ireland in this year’s Six Nations was effectively sealed after 20 minutes. With starting hooker Gianmarco Lucceshi off in the ninth minute following an arm injury, replacement hooker Epalahame Faiva was sent off just ten minutes later a high shot. His red card prompted uncontested scrums, but because of a quirk of the laws, meant Italy were forced to take a further player off reducing them to 13.

In the end Ireland thumped 13-man Italy but many of us were still left wondering what the heck the uncontested scrum laws were and how this all happened. So here’s a little explainer.

According to World Rugby, four laws come into play here.

First: “Scrums will become uncontested if either team cannot field a suitably trained front row or if the referee so orders.”

Then: “Uncontested scrums as a result of a sending off, temporary suspension or injury must be played with eight players per side.” And: “In a squad of 23 players or at the discretion of the match organiser, a player whose departure has caused the referee to order uncontested scrums cannot be replaced.”

Finally, law 3.20: “If a front-row player is sent off, and the team cannot continue with contested scrums with players already on the field, then the team nominates another player to leave the playing area to enable an available front-row player to come on. The nominated player may act as a replacement.”

Related: Should we explain scrums on TV better?

However, in the instance of the Faiva sending off, World Rugby also have a specific scenario pertaining to red or yellow cards, which they sent out for clarification in 2020. It can be interpreted as thus:

  1. If the team cannot field a suitable front row uncontested scrums must be ordered. The permanently suspended (front row) player cannot be replaced.
  2. The (permanently suspended player) caused uncontested scrums to be ordered therefore the team lose a player. The team must nominate a player to leave the field.
  3. A remaining substitute (front row player) must be used in the front row of the uncontested scrums. Another player must be nominated to leave the field to allow him/her to come on to the field to play.
  4. The team plays with 13 players for the remainder of the match.
  5. Both teams must form with eight players in the scrum

Which explains why referee Nika Amashukeli felt his hands were tied, and Italy had to play with 13 men. Unfortunately for them, a yellow card for Braam Steyn in the second half meant at one point they were playing with 12 players too.

There is also one final point from World Rugby in the laws. They say: “Prior to the match, each team must advise the appropriate match official of their front-row players and possible front-row replacements and which position(s) in the front row they can play. Only these players may play in the front row when the scrum is contested and only in their designated position(s).”

This is for player safety, to ensure they are technically equipped to play in those front-row positions. It also protects from funny business, safeguarding against teams trying to pretend another player is front-row compliant in order to keep numbers up.

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