There are still some top-level front rows whose first instinct is to cheat rather than to scrummage properly, together with a handful of elite referees who let them get away with it. There are still collapses and stand-ups and endless varieties of unlawful wheeling tactics that eat up valuable playing time, and if you try to count the crooked feeds by the rival scrum-halves over the course of a single half of rugby, you are likely to run out of fingers. And yet, the set-piece is better for the changes introduced earlier this year. Miles better.
With the old engagement protocols, under which the timing of the "hit" was everything and the ancient art of one-to-one scrummaging as practised by the greats of the amateur era counted for next to nothing, an inferior pack could find salvation through kidology. The Wallabies, in particular, sought to mitigate their deficiencies by perfecting all manner of dodgy close-quarter techniques – which very nearly cost England the World Cup in 2003.
Now, with front rows required to bind first and only start scrummaging on the referee's call, there is a greater onus on individual technique – and a more honest contest as a result. It has restored the loose-head prop to his former importance as a guarantor of set-piece possession and it has also improved player safety, which is no small thing. Front-rowers who spend less time diving head first towards the deck are less likely to suffer serious neck or shoulder injuries.
Dan Cole, the England prop, pointed out that for all the improvements, the new arrangement has yet to produce the genuine hooking contest envisioned by the law-makers. This is true, but even so, the scrums have moved a long way – further than a retreating Wallaby pack – in a short time. Give it another year and all will be well.Reuse content