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Dublin: 19 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Opinion: Change is required in rugby if the sport is to grow

One word is dominating discussion amongst Irish rugby fans recently: scrum.

Leinster's Jamie Heaslip signals to the Referee after a scrum collapses last Saturday.
Leinster's Jamie Heaslip signals to the Referee after a scrum collapses last Saturday.
Image: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

THE TWO BIGGEST games over the last month from an Irish perspective have been England v Ireland in the Six Nations and Munster versus Leinster last week in the Rabo Direct Pro 12.

If you collaborated every conversation and article surrounding these games, I bet one word would stand as the most prolifically used: scrum.

In Twickenham three weeks ago, Ireland were completely and utterly dominated in the scrum by the English, so much so that it visibly affected the confidence of the entire team and Declan Kidney’s side were simply bullied off the park.

In Limerick last week, it was something different completely. The number of re-sets, warnings and penalties at scrum time ruined the game as a spectacle and frustrated the fans no end.

Watching the game, it seemed like Nigel Owens spent the majority of the first half barking at the two sets of front-rows, and ultimately ended up sin-binning both Mike Ross and Marcus Horan.

In a game of the magnitude of Munster versus Leinster, you ideally want to notice the referee as little as possible and enjoy a fluid game of rugby.

There was no danger of this on Saturday.

Do you blame Nigel Owens? To some extent, you have to. It looked distinctly like he didn’t have a grip on what was going on in the front row. At one point in the first half, a scrum was set when Marcus Horan went down upon the engagement. Penalty Munster. Ten minutes later, the exact same thing happened. Penalty Leinster. How do you legislate for that?

When you have a game like England versus Ireland, it is easy to call. One team is clearly dominating the scrum and you penalise the other side accordingly as and when they collapse or begin to scrummage illegally. Incidentally, Nigel Owens was also the referee on that occasion in Twickenham and his refereeing of the scrum was not called into question.

The crux of the problem lies in the crouch, touch, pause, make a cup of tea, engage! The system is flawed beyond belief and has become a real blight on the game. The scrum has become all about the intial hit, which is bound to lead to problems. When you restrain sixteen powerful men, who are ready to launch into a collision, for that period of time, of course it is going to collapse on a regular basis.

The problem then is that the referee is under pressure to start dishing out penalties in order to keep the game moving, even though he doesn’t really have a clue what is going on or who to penalise.

This ties into a broader problem in the game at the moment. It has become too subjective. When scrums are messy and contentious as they were last Saturday, you could toss a coin as to which way the penalty will go. This is the same at the breakdown.

Any given ruck

During the Six Nations, at any given ruck, there were generally any number of infringements which warranted a penalty. It all came down to the interpretation of the referee. That is fine in itself if all the referees are all singing off the same hymn sheet but they aren’t, which is a problem. There is far too much inconsistency.

Picture a scenario of an attacking team taking the ball into contact through a back row forward. He holds the ball for a moment until his support arrives and then releases. Some referees would penalise the attacking team in this instance for not releasing whilst others wouldn’t. There needs to be some clarity here.

The party line has been that the attacking team would get the benefit of the decision but that simply wasn’t the case on multiple occasions in the Six Nations.  We have heard it a thousand times but it does ring through: consistency is crucial.

There is so much to be admired in so many facets of rugby and its growth as a relatively new sport in the professional arena. The embracement of technology has been a massive success and the attitude towards the officials is outstanding. The rule-makers are constantly looking to make the game better for spectators by tweaking rules.

However, the scrum, the breakdown and the refereeing of these areas need to be addressed as a matter of urgency before they hinder the very sport that the IRB are trying to grow on a global scale.

There are four huge Heineken Cup matches this weekend. When the dust has settled next Sunday evening, let’s hope that the scrum or referees aren’t dominating the conversations.

Twitter: @TomFoxy

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