The collapse of the scrum as we know it

New rules should bring back old skills, with the ending of the big hit between mighty antler-locking props

Phil Vickery was not the first member of the cauliflower-faced front-row fraternity to express the sentiment, but the World Cup-winning Cornishman put it better than most when, over a pint of gut-rot in some far-flung corner of the English rugby landscape, he said the following: "What happens when I find myself in trouble at the scrum? I might go up and I might go down, but I'm buggered if I'll go backwards."

Never the most technically proficient of scrummagers – nor, for that matter, the craftiest when it came to concealing the fact – Vickery may feel that he is now in the best possible place: safely in well-earned retirement. Why? Because front-row forwards who routinely hit the deck when the new Premiership campaign begins next weekend will be the No 1 target for referees, who are finally in a position to exert some authority over the set piece by whistling serial offenders into oblivion.

Vickery was brilliant at many things – unusually mobile for a tight-head specialist, his tackle count at international level was off the scale – but as a prime example of the mastodon breed of prop, his survival in the darkened recesses of the set piece depended on size, power and the capacity to absorb the kind of concussive physical punishment that might have made a crash-test dummy think twice about his choice of career. Now that the union scrum has been depowered, at least on initial engagement, night is falling on the Day of the Mammoth.

After decades of hand-wringing over the iniquities of the set piece, a sacred element of the union code that slowly became a stain on the sport as its practitioners used the deliberate collapse as their default option whenever they felt they had lost the "hit", the great and good of the International Rugby Board have finally taken a stand. From now on, props must bind fully on each other before engagement, rather than crunch into each other from distance, and the scrum will not be "active" until the ball is fed.

This could signal the start of a time of gifts – an age in which union rediscovers the best of itself as a game for all shapes and sizes, rather than the modern approach of "one size fits all, as long as it's bloody big". In days of yore, before the emergence of the locking of antlers from long range that made skill subservient to brute force, loose-head props were often relatively short, endomorphic types (think Ian "Mighty Mouse" McLauchlan and Gareth Chilcott) who brought finely honed technique, together with great physical strength, to bear on events at the sharp end.

In addition, hookers did what they were put on this earth to do by – yes, you've got it – hooking the ball. For this lost art to be recovered, the set piece has to be more than a shock-and-awe smashfest. Hence the IRB's minimising of the hit and the accompanying insistence that scrum-halves break the habit of recent lifetimes by putting the ball in straight, thereby creating a genuine contest for possession between the rival packs.

Many rugby thinkers around the world have welcomed these developments. "You're going to get rewarded for scrummaging well and we're excited by the prospect of what it's going to bring," remarked Steve Hansen, head coach of the All Blacks. As for the England hooker Dylan Hartley, the thought of actually striking for the ball rather than driving over it on engagement intrigues him. "I remember when I moved from prop to hooker and Dorian West [a predecessor in the England front row] started coaching me to strike," he said this week. "I remember thinking it was a waste of time because I'd never have to do it. I was wrong. It means a complete change to the way I play, but it should make life interesting in there."

Some Premiership coaches are deeply suspicious of the move, not least because they think it plays into the hands of those southern hemisphere nations, most notably Australia, who have spent the last few years trying to emasculate the scrum and reduce it to the crouched form of morris dancing we see in rugby league. Both Richard Cockerill of Leicester and Dean Richards of Newcastle made this point at the Premiership launch two days ago, criticising the IRB for failing – once again – to consult the people with a hands-on role in the sport.

It is indeed possible to foresee problems. Rob Baxter, the head coach of Exeter, is far from convinced that referees will ensure either that the new-look scrums will be completely stable before the ball is fed, or that the feed will be anything other than squint. Others, most notably the England set-piece strategist Graham Rowntree, fear that, with referees deciding when the scrum is active, the defending side will have an automatic advantage in calling an eight-man shove while the attacking hooker is momentarily off-balance as he strikes for the ball.

But the thing that most worries Premiership coaches is that they have awarded lengthy contracts to one-trick props who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of scrummaging history. The look of satisfaction on the face of Jim Mallinder, director of rugby at Northampton, is instructive. He finds himself in the happy position of having replaced Soane Tonga'uiha, the very epitome of the big-hit specialist, with the smaller, more technically sound and infinitely more relevant Alex Corbisiero.

The IRB spent £500,000 on a three-year scrum survey before arriving at this latest conclusion, and it may well be that it will have a decent return on its investment. The set piece should be safer for the players and more satisfying for the spectators as a result of the change. Now all we need is the return of the ruck – yes, that means boots on bodies – and the scrapping of tactical substitutions. Then we really will be able to say that rugby is the game they play in heaven.

Five ages: The evolution of the scrum

Pre-1905

It was Dave Gallaher's 1905 New Zealand "Originals" who are widely credited with introducing specialist scrummaging positions. Some chroniclers disagree, but it is certainly the case that until this point scrums were generally formed by the players who happened to be in the vicinity. If you were there, you got your head down.

The 1930s

The popular seven-man scrum, featuring a two-man front row, was outlawed in favour of an eight-man unit, although the configuration varied widely until the South Africans, scrummagers to their very core, established the current 3-4-1 formation as the optimum in the late 1940s, the golden age of Springbok rugby.

The 1960s

Lawmakers belatedly reached the view that back-row forwards were taking all sorts of liberties by breaking off the scrum early and sacking the opposing half-back the moment he laid hands on the ball. The "rear foot" offside line was introduced, along with a change allowing the No 8 to pick up from the base.

The 1980s

A number of teams, most significantly France, developed the concept of the attacking "eight-man shove", thereby relieving the hooker of the need to strike the ball. Frequently, the Tricolores would not pick a hooker at all, opting for three props instead. The inevitable consequence was the long-range hit and a million collapsed scrums.

The 2000s

Years of IRB mismanagement led to ever more comical attempts to regulate the scrum. "Engage"; "crouch, hold, engage"; "crouch, touch, pause, engage"; "crouch, touch, set"… the custodians tried it every which way, without the merest scintilla of success. The latest manifestation – "crouch, bind, set" – offers the best chance of progress.

Chris Hewett

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