Wayne Barnes, one of the most capable referees in world rugby as well as one of the more controversial, has spent the last few weeks giving England's leading clubs a thorough tutorial in the realities of the new scrum laws – a sporting minefield on which Newcastle and Bath will take the first steps on Friday night. Barnes has even run a session at Northampton, whose captain, Dylan Hartley, infamously branded him a "cheat" during the Premiership Grand Final at Twickenham last May and missed the Lions tour of Australia as a consequence.
Barnes did not address that unfortunate incident during his visit to Franklin's Gardens, because there was no need: scrum laws come and go, but questioning a referee's integrity amid a firestorm of Anglo-Saxon invective has never been anything other than illegal. He did, however, run through the changes that will, over the coming months, transform the nature of the union code's ultimate distinguishing feature.
"There has to be some buy-in from everyone to make this work," Barnes said as he concluded his nationwide travels at Twickenham. "There will be teething problems, obviously, and I'm sure we'll see that this weekend. But we have to make sure this works because we want better scrums and better outcomes.
"The changes will give referees different challenges. Last season it was about being accurate over who was collapsing the scrum. Now, with the front rows closer together and the bind happening before engagement, we can look at other things."
Those worried that the opening weeks of the season will be a penalty-infested mess – and they include a number of rugby directors, the most outspoken of whom has been Richard Cockerill of Leicester – will not have been reassured by Barnes's insistence on a zero-tolerance policy.
"If players continue to do something we spend the pre-season telling them they shouldn't be doing, there have to be sanctions," he commented. "And we don't want to start off being very hard in week one and forget about it by week 20. For this to work, we have to hold people to account throughout the season. That's why it was important for the referees to go into the clubs beforehand: we've paid over 40 visits to the 12 teams over the summer. They know what we're trying to deliver and I'm optimistic. From what we've seen so far, scrums are good pushing competitions. Also, they're up off the floor."
Wasps, former champions fallen on hard times, are also up off the floor, thanks in no small part to the efforts of David Young, the three-time Lions tourist who joined the club as rugby director from Cardiff Blues two seasons ago. Today, Young agreed a contract extension taking him past the home World Cup in 2015.
"There's now some real positivity about the future, about where we're headed," Young said in explaining his decision. "It's been great to have lots of players committing their own futures to Wasps in recent months and I'm happy to do likewise."Reuse content