Posts Tagged ‘scrums’

England have one of the most dominant scrums going – when refs recognise when the opposition are binding on their arms!  Their destruction of Ireland in the spring was a master-class of dominant straight-ahead scrummaging.

Three of the current set-up offer some great tips here.  Couldn’t put it better myself.  I love how they don’t focus too much on things like binds, as for me effective scrummaging is really about body shape and coordination.

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A few years ago we were introduced to the “crouch-touch-pause-engage” sequence to bring scrums together largely in an effort to make it safer.  The sequence has synchronised player engagements so they are engaging at the same time.  The touch aspect – which seemed to anger some props I heard from – is meant to establish a safe distance and reduce the amount of collapses.  I seem to recall that aspect also not working so much at first, but I think when refs started reminding players that the touch couldn’t just be a tap on the arm – but must be an extended arm to the shoulder – that has seen (by my observation) fewer scrums that hinge straight down.  Anyone who watches a decent amount of rugby will agree, however, that scrums still collapse and an increasing amount of the running clock is wasted with re-set after re-set.  Like in this match … seriously, don’t waste your time watching the whole thing, but it takes about five minutes to re-start this play!

With the beginning of the northern hemisphere season in late August, we have seen a new scrum cadence – “crouch, touch, set”.  The argument has been that the fourth stage had forwards perched too long causing their muscles to be strained to the limit, which is probably true as front rowers have a lot of weight to hold back for those few seconds.  I think the use of the word ‘set’ has added a new dimension, which some have been demanding be changed for a few years now – that the aggressive hit created by two teams is the main problem.

Just last week, former England hooker, Brian Moore wrote an informative article, again calling for the IRB to take a serious look at how scrums engage.  He’s very passionate about this subject, even calling out officials directly saying that the very notion of the ‘hit’ must be removed, the simple argument being that it’s created a dangerous situation for front rowers that didn’t used to exist.  He’s added, quite correctly, that a ‘hit’ isn’t in the Law book as being part of the scrum engagement, and that such an action is actually contrary to the laws as there is to be no pushing until the ball is in.  His words say it best:

The word hit is not in the law book but is now freely quoted and accepted by referees who allow front rows to engage with as much force as possible and immediately thereafter drive forward as quickly as possible. Not only do they condone this dangerous practice, they have actually invented a new penalty offence, one not in the law book, of ‘not taking the hit’, which actually means penalising one pack for not pushing with enough illegally-early force to counterbalance the other pack’s illegal shove.

Elite referees, including Paddy O’Brien, the then IRB refereeing supremo, didn’t accept the point saying they had too many more important things to worry about to apply the laws as written and that most people were not that concerned anyway. They might now have to reconsider that stance, because recently the IRB published a report on the most detailed examination ever of the scrum, undertaken over three years in South Africa and at Bath University. It isn’t revolutionary in the sense that it contains startling results, indeed it mostly confirmed many things already known by experienced practitioners. The point it that for the first time these things cannot be dismissed as anecdotal or personal, they come from tests carried out at six levels of rugby from international to school.

The conclusions to the report expressly support my above contention that “modern scrumming involves a high initial impact or ‘hit’ on engagement, followed by sustained pushing forces throughout the scrum” — contrary to the law stating pushing should only begin when the ball leaves the scum-half’s hands.

It’s an important first step that this extensive IRB trial has shown that the hit is a major problem.  The report caused quite a stir, including a great article – and string of comments – on several rugby forums.   Many of the old boys reminded us that old scrums didn’t often collapse and as such players got on with the game after an aggressive few seconds of a fairer contest for the ball.  You can see a few scrums in this clip from the 1980s where the forwards sort of morph together quickly and stay upright.

I do think there is an element of danger in the old style with the lack of a coordinated call and the ‘dipping’ action high front rows have to make to get their heads down.  I don’t think anyone’s saying we should go back to that style, but there are some lessons there which Moore continually brings up during broadcasts and online.  His key elements to keeping the scrums up are:  removing the aggressive ‘hit’ by having the scrums remain steady until the ball is fed, making front rowers wear shirts that are loose enough for opponents to grab (many simply collapse because a prop can’t bind on and he hinges downward0, and to ensure that the ball is fed straight down the middle of the tunnel.  Funnily enough, this is the situation at youth level and it allows the better scrum to win the contest.

I’d also add that scrums wheeled more than 45 degrees should be re-set in favour of the feeding team, as they are in U19 Laws for safety reasons, as I suspect that deliberate wheels or whip-arounds are contributing to collapses.  Some – probably the same who didn’t like the ‘touch’ aspect of the new cadence – would argue that it’s one more step toward having Rugby League style lean-on scrums, but I’d counter by saying that the whole point of a scrum is to provide a fair contest for the ball after a technical infringement like a knock-on.  It’s meant to be a means of re-starting, with the advantage going to the stronger team, not the one that’s better at cheating or bashing the living hell out of the other one with a powerful, illegal early drive.  With the amount of skullduggery that goes on in the scrums, and that refs are never fully aware of who’s doing what to whom, games are also being decided on what many refer to as a ‘lottery’ of scrum-infringement penalties (Wasps fans, like myself, are probably still stinging from the opening day loss to Quins after having given up a 78th minute kickable penalty for ‘not taking the hit’).  Removing some of these bits, forcing the fair contest of which is the better scrum under equal conditions, still will allow the better pack of 8 to win, and even allow us to see more wins against the head – which are always thrilling!

I sincerely hope the IRB takes a look at this issue not just to give us back the time wasted on re-sets but also for the safety of players of all ages!

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Doing battle in the front row of the scrum is where I got my start in rugby, and as a big schoolboy limited by a 1m push, I never really had to think about proper technique and form – that is until I started playing men’s rugby.  In my home province I encountered guys who were bigger and stronger, and whilst in the UK, found plenty of guys who knew what they were doing.  They left a lasting impression on me with regard to becoming a better scrummager, not to mention that a few of the latter were actually much smaller than me!  For those serious about being a solid scrummager, becoming more muscular and stronger is an obvious way to be more effective in the front row.  But this sort of development takes a long time, for some longer than others.  This is the reason one finds very few excellent scrummagers at the top level in their early to mid-twenties.   So what is one to do in the short term?  I think forwards can do a few simple things to improve their scrum technique over a relatively short period while they gradually build size and strength (or if they don’t want to put in that kind of time and effort).  Together as a unit, forwards should look to improve their coordination because driving the opposition backwards in a unified effort is much better than eight individuals trying to do their thing on their own.  The first part of this involves binding.  I’ve never thought that ‘special’ binds of one kind or the other made that much difference – locks binding on shorts, shirt, pocket; props on waistband or upper shirt.  What is important is that the complete unit is comfortable and tight (and legal).

What I think is more important in this respect is that whatever the bind, a tight and coordinated effort is required for a scrum to be effective.  Probably the best way of achieving this is through a pack leader.  Some have their preference for which player this should be, but as with choosing a team captain, one needs to consider who has the combination of knowledge, leadership ability and communication skills to ensure the pack is focused and determined on achieving dominance at scrum time.  I used to do this as a tight head prop, the person who engaged slightly ahead of all others.  Other teams use the hooker, because of his role in the strike / contest with the opposing striker, while others have used a particularly vocal and knowledgeable no. 8 or flanker.  Whichever player, this person’s role is to help bring together all eight players so that they can engage as one unit and employ a coordinated effort rather than a divided one.  There are many calls one can use, but one of the best I’ve seen is from the All Blacks (likely their incredibly knowledgeable scrum coach Mike Cron).  Upon the “engage” call, they simply yell – together! – HIT, SQUEEZE … and … GO!  That’s it, short and focused.  The HIT is the point at which they engage with the opposition, trying to rock them back and get position / leverage.  The SQUEEZE demands they pull in their binds for the impending coordinated effort.  And finally, the GO signifies that the ball is in and they are going to push with all their might – TOGETHER.  Some teams utilise a 1, 2, 3, 4 after to get them moving forward so many steps or holding for that count.  With or without, Hit, Squeeze, and Go get all eight players into the right mindset to do a few seconds of hard, coordinated work to secure possession or establish a stable platform from which to defend.

The other useful way in which players might improve their scrummaging technique in a short period of time is through body shape.  A useful body shape for a forward is with body parts relatively parallel and perpendicular to the ground.  Shins should be just off the ground and parallel to it, thighs should be relatively perpendicular (with a bit of flex back and forward and a narrow angle to aid in driving / resisting), and back should be parallel.  The pelvis should be tilted to allow maximum flexion and shoulder blades should be pinned back to ensure shoulders are high and square.  Head should be neutral with the spine – think “look through your eye brows only” to see your opposition.   All eight players should look like this, with spines in line and backs that slightly incline from no. 8 to front row, indicating that each player has his shoulder firmly planted on the buttocks of the person in front of him.

Low to the ground, feet back far enough to allow body to engage square and parallel without shuffling, shoulder blades pinned back, head in a neutral position (looking through eyebrows).

Note body parts parallel and perpendicular to the ground - esp. the height! Also see note how they are all level and square with each other.

I am of the mind that this is where one’s core strength becomes as, if not more, important as strength required to drive the scrum.  As in the case I mentioned above – I’ve had the weight advantage over players, but their better shape and core strength has won them battles over my ‘advantage.’  I realised that I could no longer rely upon weight and leg strength alone and sought to improve my shape.  Practicing this, I feel, is best done in groups of three.  Two players start on all fours and engage and slowly lift themselves off the ground in a coordinated effort.  I don’t think any pushing back and forth is needed yet (saved for more advanced players comfortable with their shape), with the players focusing only on how maintaining a good position feels.  The crucial third member of the group provides feedback, giving each player suggestions on how they might adjust positioning to achieve perfect form along with commenting on what parts look good.  This last part is very important as, with any closed skill, we have to acquire ‘muscle memory’ to learn good form and this can only be achieved through specific and constructive feed back on the spot.  Watching video of one’s self can help see where problems exist, but timely feedback in the moment can allow the adjustments and muscle memory to take an immediate affect.

When 1 v 1 situations are consistently looking good, forwards can start building “units” that are typical in scrums.  I am not the biggest fan of scrum machines for this – feeling they’re only useful when employing a full pack which doesn’t have enough opposition.  As much as possible, I feel players can learn more from realistic contests and when there aren’t enough for 8 v 8 (and even when there is!) by putting scrum units together.  It’s no surprise that scrums “naturally” wheel clockwise on the tight head.  This is because the opposing loose head and hooker are effectively pushing on him.  As such, it is a great way to employ three players in realistic scrum training – especially when you are limited in players!  Other combinations can be:

  • Front row against another front row
  • Prop and a lock versus a prop with a lock on the opposite side to the other
  • The aforementioned hooker, loose head combo with a lock, versus a tight head, a lock, and a flanker
  • A ‘back five’ – locks and back row – against another (this might be a lot of weight for two locks to handle, however, so take caution)

Controversially, I don’t like spending a lot of time working on scrums at practice because I feel one should work on things proportionate to the time in a match in which they occur (i.e. scrums take up far less time than open field attack and defence, but many clubs will spend 45 mins working on scrums at training!).  But by asking that forwards do these sort of “mini scrums” and other activities in the pre-warm-up / warm-up period (when some are milling about chatting, kicking / passing a ball to no real gain), they can get beneficial personal practice and feedback every session and even before games!

With the above information in mind, it's plain to see which pack is more in-tune with their body positioning and coordination.

Below are some videos featuring Mike Cron and the All Blacks which offer a lot of great advice and practice options for those who want to improve their technique and shape.

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