Contested? Really?

I am that rarest of creatures, someone who enjoys rugby union (RU) and rugby league (RL) equally. I have therefore watched many hundreds of games in each code over the years.

Fans of RU will have noticed that there has been a lot of soul-searching concerning the current status of the game in recent months, and in The Times sports pages at least, the arguments have acquired Jesuitical intensity. Almost all of this relates to the refereeing of the breakdown, and most of it goes straight over my head. But it seems to me that the journalists are ignoring a very large elephant in the room, namely, the scrum.

As a RL supporter I have become used to the derision of one-eyed RU fans concerning uncontested scrummaging. For those not familiar with the game, if a scrum is awarded in RL, the opposing forwards just lean on each other without pushing, the scrum half feeds the ball into the second row and then nips round the back and passes it out to the speed merchants. It takes about 30 seconds from the referee whistling for the offence to the ball arriving in the  in the back line (well, perhaps a bit longer towards the end, when the forwards are knackered). RU aficionados take a lofty attitude to this behaviour, claiming that the scrum is a worthy centrepiece of their superior game; a battlefield for real men, not a bunch of wimps leaning on each other for a rest.

And that might once have been true, but now?  When RU fans talk of contested scrums, what exactly do they mean? It used to be simple when I were a lad; the scrum was a way of restarting the game after an offence, giving a significant but contestable advantage to the team putting the ball in. But surely no one believes that there is any contest for the ball in the modern professional scrum – when was the last time a hooker actually hooked? The scrum half, like his RL counterpart, is allowed to feed the ball into the feet of the second row, and winning the ball against the head is almost unheard of. If the ball is actually allowed to leave the scrum (a rare event – see next paragraph), the scrum half will almost invariably opt for a box kick rather than doing anything interesting with it. And of course, none of this happens until the scrum has been set and reset several times; in fact, when I watch a match, I usually record it and start watching about 30min post kick-off, so that I can fast forward through the interminable interruptions.

No, if the modern scrum is a contest at all, it is a contest to see which team can con the referee into giving them a penalty, the direction of the resulting award apparently as much of a mystery to the commentators as it is to the respective forwards. This is why, even with the ball at the feet of the back row, it seldom emerges, because the team in possession is hanging on for the penalty. From the spectator’s point of view, the only good thing about the current scrum fiasco is that it gives them a chance to go and get another round of beers in, secure in the knowledge that the referee will still be resetting it when they return.

It seems to me that if the desire is to increase the speed of the game, and reduce time-wasting, the answer is simple. Just be honest about the situation and make scrums genuinely uncontested, with no pushing, just like RL. The reason that RL is a better spectacle than RU (OK – in my opinion) is just this; that the game flows almost non-stop. The result of using uncontested scrums in RU would be less of the frustrating time-wasting and it would also speed the existing trend towards more mobile, ball-playing forwards. What’s not to like?

To end with, another conundrum of modern professional sport, and this time, it’s something that both codes of rugby get right – namely time-keeping. When the action stops in rugby, so does the clock (although it’s a pity it doesn’t stop every time a scrum needs resetting, only restarting when the ball goes in), which means that everyone knows that once the clock is in the red, the next time the ball goes out of play, the game is over. So why can’t they do this in professional soccer? The amount of time added on by referees seems to be as much of a lottery as scrum penalties in RU. In addition to keeping time, they have to decide if they dare blow the final whistle when the home team is closing in on goal. Using rugby’s approach, the ref would be relieved of the need to keep looking at his watch and keeping track of stoppages, and a team with a potential scoring chance when the clock goes red would be allowed to play it out.

There – major improvements to two professional sports in the space of one blog. I shall hold myself in readiness, awaiting an approach from their governing bodies.

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