Scrum under attack — new law will reshape rugby, and not in a good way

Scrum under attack — new law will reshape rugby, and not in a good way
The Springbok scrum is the most feared in rugby. New laws, banning scrums from free kicks, will remove some of the Boks’ advantage. (Photo: Getty Images)

The rare sight of a scrum being called from a mark will be outlawed from 1 July in one of several law changes World Rugby will be introducing.

World Rugby’s recent announcement of three law changes, including no more scrums from free kicks, has created some strong debate about whether the changes are aimed specifically at the Springboks’ power game.

It’s unlikely that the change to the free-kick law is aimed at the Boks directly, but it will have an impact on their options in a game – and not for the better.

Two other changes, which deal with the offside law following kicks in general play and no more “crocodile rolls” to clear players at rucks, are sensible and do not attack the fabric of the game. They all come into effect on 1 July.

The real worry about the outlawing of scrumming from free kicks is: what is World Rugby’s reasoning for it?

The governing body says it wants to grow the game with a new audience. The official line, drenched in corporate word salad, was: “to seek to increase rugby’s accessibility and relevance among a broader, younger fanbase by embracing on-field innovation and reimagined presentation of the sport with compelling storytelling.”

No evidence of a study about whether reducing the number of scrums in a game will attract a “broader and younger” fanbase was presented to accompany the decision.

Perhaps World Rugby should work harder at finding ways to speed up and clean up the engagement sequence for scrums to speed the game up. Scrums are not the problem.


The French word for a prop forward is le pilier, which literally translated means the “pillar”.

The scrum is a fundamental pillar of rugby union – an act which differentiates it from any other sport in the world. It is also the foundation of what makes rugby a game for all body shapes.

If scrums were removed from the sport the likes of Ox Nché and Frans Malherbe would never play at the highest level. The forwards would evolve into a homogenous group of large, athletic, loose forward-type players.

That would suit South Africa too, since this country has an abundance of brilliant back-row for­­­­wards from primary school through to the Springboks. But that would be a different sport.

While some argue that the number of scrums taken from free kicks is small anyway, it misses the point. It’s just one more attack on the bedrock of the game.

Most times evolution doesn’t start with a huge change, but rather a gradual chipping away at something.

“Rugby union is a game for all shapes and sizes, so it’s important the scrum remains a weapon for teams who are good at it,” former referee Nigel Owens wrote in his Wales­Online column.

“I feel they [World Rugby] are just depowering the scrum at the moment. You don’t see any more 5m scrums because of the goal-line drop-out and then you could have this as well.

Read more in Daily Maverick: No more scrums from a mark for Boks after World Rugby changes free kick law

“The scrum could be a nonentity in the game and then you’d just be sitting down to watch Rugby League.”

Exeter Chiefs coach Rob Baxter, widely considered to be one of the most innovative minds in the game, was also angered by the changes when they were initially proposed earlier this year.

“We need to stop changing the laws,” Baxter told The Guardian. “We’re trying to grow the game and there’s no sport in the world that tries to grow by con­fusing new supporters every 12 months.

scrum Owens

Referee Nigel Owens. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

“The game was fine three or four years ago, and we didn’t need to change it then – 90% of the law changes are to redo things that have been created by other law changes. It’s madness.

“You grow the game by introducing new players and people to it, but we’re confusing new people every year by changing laws and ­interpretations,” he said.

“We’re pre­venting ourselves from allowing a good product to happen. If they decide to make law changes [in May – which they did] then they have to decide to put a moratorium on not changing them any more. Let’s settle down and get on with it.”

Springboks silent

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus has been silent on the news since it was announced and it is unlikely the South African Rugby Union will make any public utterances either.

But the Springboks, with their power game and team composition consisting of nearly two full packs of world-class forwards, will feel the scrumming change more than others.

The new laws appear to view scrums as a hindrance, rather than an integral part of what makes rugby union unique.

At the Stade de France last October, Springbok fullback Damian Willemse famously called for a scrum from a mark during the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal against France.

A mark is essentially a free kick and nothing in the laws stopped the Boks from opting for a scrum, even though no one could think of another example of it being done.

Despite losing territory, the Boks backed their scrum to hurt Les Bleus. And it did, as they won a penalty from the set piece.

That incident was hailed as revolutionary by some but decried as being against the spirit of the game by others. It’s impossible to imagine why doing something which had never been tried in more than 100 years was deemed unfair.

That will never happen again under the revised laws.

Unintended consequences

If we take this change to its natural conclusion, it might come with some unintended consequences.

Never mind a scrum from a mark, which as we know has only been done once; this change means that any time there is a free kick, a team cannot opt for a scrum.

Imagine a scenario where two teams are scrumming and the referee penalises the attacking team’s scrumhalf for a skew feed or an early engagement, or some other technical infringement. The referee awards a free kick.

Under the new laws, the team awarded the free kick cannot ask for another scrum, even though the infringement happened at a scrum.

What about a situation where a team with a weaker scrum manipulates a free kick, even against itself? The team with the stronger scrum will no longer have the option to call for another scrum. This seems unfair, because scrums are vital to rugby.

In this scramble to encourage “ball-in-hand rugby” to make the sport more palatable to a younger audience, a cornerstone of the game is being undermined.

Ironically, there is a school of thought that believes scrums do lead to more space on the field, and therefore more incentive to keep the ball in hand, because they concentrate 18 players (including the scrumhalves) in a small area. That opens up space in a larger area.

Under the new law, tap-and-go penalties, kicking for touch or launching an up-and-­under are the only available options from a free kick.

These trial laws came under discussion at the “Shape of the Game” conference in February. And they certainly have lived up to the name, as the game is being reshaped – and not for the better. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Doc Craven was right

  • Johan Buys says:

    Next up they will ban charging down conversions.

    Conversions and penalty kicks are the most boring part of rugby, short of 4 re-set scrums.

    To REALLY change rugby, change the clock. Clock only runs while ball is actually in play. So from when kicker drop kicks to restart play, from when ball is put into scrum or thrown into line-out. The match clock does not run during conversions as the ball is dead anyway. For penalties the clock only runs from when ball is struck.

  • Tom Boyles says:

    Scrums are currently the biggest problem in rugby from a spectator point of view. They are very slow, and nobody in the crowd has a clue what is going on until the referee gives a penalty. Having a few less is fine and they shouldn’t be abolished (for all the arguments made above) but there needs to be a radical change to make them watchable. For a start, I wouldn’t give a penalty for a scrum infringement, give a free-kick instead. It doesn’t make sense for a side to infringe eg knock-on and then have every chance of winning a penalty from the resulting defensive scrum. This is not anti Springbok, it is pro watchable rugby. Seeing a side aim for defensive scrums so they can win penalties and kick them is utterly unwatchable but hats off to the Boks for playing to the rules and winning the World Cup.

    • Wade de Jager de Jager says:

      @Tom – with respect I think you are missing one of the biggest concerns with law changes aimed at depowering scrums – that being the manner in which scrums allow for all shapes, sizes and skills to be relevant in rugby. This is what draws so many kids into the game of rugby (not just the small, nibble, fast kids with ball skills). Remove scrums from rugby and you will take away a third to a half of the kids that play the game. And at the professional level you will simply end up Aussie Rules or Rugby League. If that is the intention then why don’t we just scrap rugby now and all watch Rugby League or Aussie Rules? Maybe we (rugby spectators) should ask ourselves why we continue watch rugby if we are all asking the governing body to change the rules so it can be more like Rugby League or Aussie Rules? be very careful what we wish for…

  • John Patson says:

    The real problem with the scrum is giving a penalty every time to the side which gets a push on.
    Penalties were introduced to stop wild wheeling and strategic collapsing, but in the last five years or so have got silly, one push on and you get one.
    You might as well penalise knock ons.
    Trails where refs give a “use it” warning when the ball is behind the props improved things, but the old “ball did not come out,” reset the scrum, and change the put in side, seems to have gone out the window.
    It was an incentive for the scrum to be used as a platform to restart the game, with an advantage to the put-in side, not for endless resets resulting in a penalty.
    I would also like to reduce the number of replacements in the scrum — it will make front rows lose some fat and be able to play 80 minutes instead of being knackered after 50…

  • PJ T says:

    The worst thing that has happened to rugby is that teams today can spread all their players across the field and force a pick and drive rather than back play. Anything that keeps as many forwards occupied in one place for as long as possible is to be welcomed.

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Scrums are an issue , yet the basis of the game .
    Taken back to fly half , along the line , winger scores .
    Rugby was castrated when the hooker was merely a figure .
    His job was to hang between his props and get the ball into the second row ,
    Today’s scrum is a sham !
    The kick from the base of the scrum is so boring , in my day , never get caught in possession , pass !
    Drive and maul drivel !
    The pack does not run as fast as the back line .

  • Andrew Coles says:

    Soon we will have the players simply standing on the sidelines commenting about how to play the game.

  • Anthony Krijger says:

    The bedrock of a rugby team is the player with the number 1 jersey. This is what we were taught in schoolboy rugby. The hooker had to actually hook the ball and it simply couldn’t be rolled to the back of the scrum. If the number 1 player was weak, the hooker had less chance of success and the second prop was also weakened. The many changes from the origins of the game have led to the debate we find ourselves in.

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