Something unusual happened yesterday; a commentator said something that I not only agreed with but which also led me to think deeply about the game. Now be sure, it is a rugby player's job to despise the professional rugby broadcaster, primarily because, like the relationship with an ex-girlfriend, we only ever remember the nasty things they say about us. Sensitive beast, the rugby man. I however, perhaps due to my recent and enjoyable experience talking about rugby on television, do not feel this way. I listen to them with a mixture of admiration for their sporting knowledge and sheer awe at their ability to fill dead time with articulate, precise opinions while operating all sorts of new-fangled visual equipment and with livid directors barking into their ears. Not an easy art, I hasten to remind the armchair aficionado.
It was Eddie Jones, commentating on Scotland's match with Australia from Murrayfield, whose comment made my cauliflower ears prick up. "What has happened to the scrum in rugby these days?" asked Butler. A good question. At the risk of exaggerating (I am allowed as everything you read is true), it seemed the first 10 scrum situations between these two international packs resulted in a free-kick or straight penalty. Besides the counting of penalties either way there was no contest. And here I was thinking that the scrummage was, albeit in the eyes of a seasoned front-rower, the very essence of the game. Nothing is more confrontational, more inevitably aggressive. It is the most brutal part of the game regarded as the most brutal of all. Rugby league has no facet that compares, even American footballers cannot claim to have to face any situation so bereft of compromise and protection. Golf will not get you there and, since Stuart Pearce retired, football would not even count as a warm-up to a tighthead prop.
On Friday we at Bath travelled to Worcester for a Guinness Premiership match and we knew that a big, unstinting forward battle lay in our way. Mike Ruddock, Worcester's head coach, had made that absolutely clear by stating "Bath will not want a set-piece battle with us." He was wrong, by the way. What actually became of that battle was somewhat less war-like, though. It actually got a bit boring if I am honest. This is not to say that anybody stopped trying or that the tight exchanges fizzled into the Friday night mist and became an irrelevance. No, it became a battle of the penalty count. Of course, I understand that cheating must be penalised or all hell will break loose (give a prop an inch and he'll take your arm off), but these days it is, in the words of my wise old grandmother, "all getting a bit pedantic." Quite right. The blazer-wearing lawmakers will eventually notice this and no doubt the fault will be laid comfortably at the feet of the engagement process and this will cause yet another year or so to be wasted talking about the wrong problem.
In the old days (not the Jeff Probyn and Jason Leonard old days - more the late nineties) we used to fight it out over the 80 minutes, and I mean properly fight it out. By this I do not mean mass brawls and cheap shots but tough, authentic scrummaging warfare. There were some penalties and the odd free-kick, obviously, but nowhere near the number there are in the modern game. Boring in on an angle was illegal and sometimes even noticed by the officials, collapsing too, but incorrect bind placement? Early engagement? Spin-wheeling? Really? Why do the men in offices somewhere with dandruff on their shoulders and omniscience in their tone think that a prop holding the side of his opponent's shirt instead of the back gives him so unfair an advantage that his side must concede three points? If a team used to beat us to the hit by jumping the gun a little we would try to do the same at the next scrum, try to adapt and overcome. In 1998, when I was just 18, we travelled to Toulouse and took on a front row of Christian Califano, Yannick Bru and Franc Tournaire. For the first 20 minutes they engaged before we had even crouched, once before we had even bound up. The referee, a meek little chap who I think might have been in love with Monsieur Tounaire, proceeded to turn a blind eye. So we sorted it. At around the fifth scrum and at the exact instruction of Paul Wallace, as soon as Franc and Cali put their arms around Bru we piled in. The referee had not yet even told us to crouch, but it worked and we survived. This, while hardly brain surgery, took some thought and was visible proof of the worth of experience on the field. I got caught on the hit once by John Mallet of Bath, tried to whip it round 90 degrees to save face and cause some disruption and got a David Haye-style left hook for my troubles. Didn't do it again - mainly because I couldn't see. A few minutes after that I missed a tackle on Dan Lyle by approximately eight feet. When our boss, Francois Pienaar, asked me what happened in the Monday morning video review my reply drew a laugh from the boys; "Franky, I saw three of them so I hit the one in the middle. Sadly the one in the middle was actually made of air." You see, there were rules, but we enforced them.
It is almost as big a laugh as the breakdown has become (where in a recent Bath match the referee gave six consecutive penalties against the attacking side), but let us not go there now, we have not the time. But I was always taught to offer solutions rather than deliver a problem and leave others to sort out the mess. So, and this may shock you, I have an extremely simple antidote to this most aggressive of sporting infections. Stop guessing, stop over-refereeing and allow the ogres to earn their money. Front-row forwards are like Bulldog puppies; all they want to do is pile into one another and not listen. So you let them off their leads, watch them go wild and soon enough they will run out of puff and peace will be resumed.