Rob Baxter's grand plan for scrums is wrong — rugby is not a pushing contest

Scrums will remain predictable as long as sides can replace all of their forwards during a match, preventing fatigue - Rob Baxter's grand plan for scrums is wrong — rugby is not a pushing contest
Scrums will remain predictable as long as sides can replace all of their forwards during a match, preventing fatigue - Graham Hunt/Shutterstock

Last week, Exeter’s director of rugby, Rob Baxter, called for the scrum to be a “genuine pushing contest” to make the game more exciting for spectators.

He said: “In the past it’s been too easy to not have a scrum contest. It should be pinning down 16 guys … and making it a genuine pushing contest, which is a fatiguing element for big forwards.”

He continued by adding: “It can be over in three seconds because someone dives on the floor ... Let’s get to a scrum contest first and that will open everything else up.”

While acknowledging Baxter’s right to have whatever opinion he wants about any aspect of rugby, there are gaping flaws in this reasoning.

Scrums in themselves are enthralling to few. They are generally only tension-filled when they are close to the opposition line or when there is a chance of a penalty in the dying minutes of a close game. The rest of the time they are incomprehensible to the many — and that includes most referees.

The premise is that if every scrum is an all-out shoving contest, forwards would tire and be unable to cover as much of the field, creating more space to be used by others.

However, you cannot be sure there will be enough scrums in a game to produce this effect. Last season’s Six Nations game between Ireland and France — said by many people to have been one of the best Six Nations games ever played — had just five scrums. It is the intent to attack that creates sustained excitement for most people, not the narrower confines of a contest that, at its heart, is between the two front rows. Even if you could create this scenario, you cannot be sure that teams who now play to rigid game-plans will run the ball and not just proceed with planned kicks.

Remember what led us to the present situation. A decade ago, when referees did not require a strike from the hooker and the ball was often fed into the back row, it was just a pushing contest. This led to one in three scrums resulting in a penalty and the rugby public complained loudly. World Rugby introduced a mandatory strike for the hooker and the present scrum:penalty ratio has dropped to one in five. The scrum is more often being used as it was intended — a way of restarting the game.

When you make scrums just about pushing, and not about winning and using the ball, you get the very outcome about which Baxter complains. Teams that are pushed backwards are almost always penalised, sometimes even if they technically haven’t actually committed an offence. To stop this happening, the front row that is under pressure dives on the floor, knowing that there is at least a chance the referee will penalise the other front row. This works, because virtually no referees at elite level have played in the front row and they simply assume and guess. How would Baxter prevent this ineluctable pattern of reasoning and action?

To worsen matters, during this contest the backs are completely redundant and given the vast majority of scrum penalties result in either a kick at goal or a kick to touch with the resulting throw-in, they are left kicking their heels for the subsequent play as well.

Unlike any other part of the game, when a team is beaten at the scrum they can be penalised just for not being as good as their opponents. They can get bested in the line-out and all that happens is they lose the ball. This dissuades teams from playing rugby in their own half. If they knock the ball on, they risk giving away three points from a kickable penalty. It actually goes further; the opposition can knock the ball on in their half, push them back at the scrum and get three points from the inevitable penalty.

The only way to achieve Baxter’s vision is to change the substitution laws. Previously, the fatigue effect was achievable and happened. You cannot do this when you can, literally, change all eight forwards if you are prepared to take that gamble with your bench. Make scrums more important as penalty vehicles and see how many teams mirror the Springboks and choose a 7-1 forwards-to-backs split on the bench.

It is this point that really requires addressing for the fatigue factor to work consistently. Not only would forwards get tired having to play 80 minutes; they would have to lose bulk. That way you might reverse the seemingly inexorable trend towards size and brute power. Unfortunately, this option is instantly dismissed as dangerous in today’s game, even though no evidence is provided to back this reflexive retort.