If it was up to Rob Baxter, the Exeter Chiefs coach, who was seconded to England to work with their forwards during the summer, the debate over the scrummage and how it is refereed would go stony silent for a few months.
Among several points Baxter made after his team’s somewhat humbling 38-11 opening-day Premiership loss away to last year’s runners-up Northampton, was that too much tinkering in recent seasons had helped bring the lawmakers to this season’s further tinkering.
But his hope that the on-trial engagement of “crouch, bind, set”, straight feed and so on should be given time to bed in without further commentary is about as likely to be fulfilled as Vladimir Putin cosying up to Barack Obama and saying: “This Syria thing, let’s just forget about it, shall we?”
It should be noted – given Baxter’s complaint that his and other coaches’ arguments have been misquoted – that he would have preferred not to talk about the scrum at all, and that Northampton’s powerful victory by five tries to one had many other merits worth discussing. Such as building a lead and then knowing when to concede penalties, as when Saints’ England forwards Phil Dowson and Courtney Lawes were sent to the sin bin for halting Exeter attacks.
Having been gently cajoled on the scrum, however, Baxter said: “At the end of last season scrums were producing some pretty good ball. There were some bloody good games of rugby being played. We had referees who were just about getting experienced at the way the scrum was going.
“And don’t forget, in the last two seasons there’s been directives on: if a loosehead puts his hand on the floor, that should be an immediate free-kick or penalty; then they decided, oh, that wasn’t right because that allows the tighthead just to drive at the loosehead more; then it was the tighthead binding on the arm, that should be an immediate penalty. Referees are getting all these signals and messages, tinkering around with the scrum. Now we’re going to have to wait for these guys to get experienced again. Let’s let them get their experience of refereeing it, and in three or four months’ time if it’s still a bit messy, then we can start to say is it working or isn’t it.”
Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain, who ran himself sore in his first match for 15 weeks since his ruinous sending-off in May’s Premiership final, said with a smile: “I hooked the ball – I’m now a proper hooker. It was still competitive. We got a couple of double shunts on when we wanted to; they got a couple on us. I was happy with it.”
A minority of the scrums produced ball for the backs; from one the Exeter scrum-half Haydn Thomas attempted optimistically to chip the giant wing George North – one of four new Northampton signings, including the England prop Alex Corbisiero, who all had a comfortable introduction as the England coaches Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree watched on. North was the biter bit with a raid infield from a scrum that was easily read and turned over. The new availability of the television match official was utilised for two tries, even if a technical hitch meant no pictures were available to the crowd.
“A competitive scrum will have resets,” said Baxter. “A competitive scrum will have penalties. A competitive scrum will create loose ball coming out the back. We need to learn to live with it – that’s what a scrum is going to be about. [Otherwise] we may as well just completely do away with the scrum – which feels to me a bit like what everyone’s trying to do, so we have to be really careful.”
Northampton: B Foden; K Pisi (J Elliott 70), G Pisi (J Wilson 60), L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson (K Fotuali’i 56); A Corbisiero (A Waller 60), D Hartley (capt; M Haywood 58), T Mercey (G Denman 60), C Lawes (S Manoa 56), C Day, T Wood (C Clark 58), P Dowson, S Dickinson. Exeter: P Dollman; M Jess, I Whitten, J Shoemark (S Hill 56), T James; G Steenson (H Slade 51), H Thomas (D Lewis 56); B Sturgess (B Moon 54), J Yeandle (C Whitehead 54), H Tui (C Rimmer 54), D Mumm (capt; T Hayes 6-15), D Welch (Hayes 66), T Johnson, J Scaysbrook (B White 51), D Ewers. Referee: J P Doyle (London).