by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Scrums are one of the most unique aspects of rugby union. Eight players, physically bound together, join forces to contest for, or maintain possession of the ball. In this column, we will examine scrum engagement commands and how the recently revised cadence of commands influence scrum engagements. The primary motives for changing the cadence are player safety and the desire to lessen the number of reset scrums. I invited veteran Northern California referee, Pete Smith, to share his experiences of refereeing scrum engagements and to learn his take on the new, deliberately slower scrum engagement commands.
As Pete shared, for decades, the role of the referee during scrum engagements was to observe and enforce applicable laws with little or no influence over scrum engagements. As was the practice during my international career, the opposing scrums would hurry to assemble and slam into the opposition from one or two meters away. The threat of catastrophic injury was always present and hit home for me in 1997 during an away test match versus Hong Kong. At the 70-minute mark of that hot and humid contest, Hong Kong substituted a prop forward just prior to restarting play. Within seconds of this player being on the field, we engaged a scrum with the usual disregard for our safety and the scrum collapsed. What was not typical was what I heard. It was a sound and feeling that something wasn’t right. Boarded off the field, I spent the night in the hospital with what the doctors believed was a fractured vertebra. Fortunately, upon immediate return to the United States and after multiple tests and scans, my initial diagnosis was deemed a “false positive”. My rugby career would be allowed to continue. Thankfully, the practice of reckless scrum engagements would not.
As Pete Smith noted during our exchange, “Injuries, serious injuries, were happening at scrum time as the players got bigger and stronger, making the collisions more violent. The referees were then asked to call ‘engage’ when the teams appeared to be ready, then came ‘crouch…engage’. The U19 variation added ‘touch’ in order to standardize the distance between the front rows making the sequence ‘crouch…touch…engage’. Not long after the senior game added ‘touch’ and the U19 variation added the word, not just the act, ‘pause’. Bringing us to the four-count process we are at today at all levels of play”.
Over the past several years, the International Rugby Board (IRB) has used two primary beta sites to tinker with the commands given by referees before scrums engage. Again, Smith shared that “The four count process of ‘crouch…touch…pause…engage’ has dramatically reduced the number of injuries at all levels. Despite the improved safety, scrum time was still a bit of a disaster. The number of collapses and subsequent resets of scrums was detracting from the game. It was not uncommon for teams to have the first scrum reset five or more times. The tactic was for teams to win the engagement and often times if they didn’t, they would collapse the scrum, and get a second or more chance at the reset. Playing into this problem as well is that the four-count cadence would be either too fast or change”.
As scrum engagement commands were continuing to evolve, it became apparent that further adjustments needed to be made by the IRB. Referee Smith noted, “They tested and discovered that by slowing down the process to a pregnant, very deliberate multiple second pause between the four counts they have been able to almost eliminate resets. By changing to the slower cadence, teams have more time to ready and steady themselves. They are not trying to quickly assemble and hastily crash into their opposition. Typically teams would try to anticipate the ‘engagement’ and would catch the other team off guard enough to either win the hit or cause a collapse”. “Now the teams are both ready for the engagement, this is no longer an issue”. “Moreover, the extended engagement procedure allows the referee additional time to ensure that the front rows are at more similar heights, that the distance is appropriate, the front rows are lined up in the right gaps and most importantly are completely stationary and balanced before they engage”.
Pete Smith and fellow referees put the new engagement process into practice at this year’s Armed Forces Championships and by his unofficial count, there were two resets out of 12 games played. Pete admitted he was sceptical of the new process, but is now a firm believer. He has officiated several matches since those Armed Forces Championships with similar results.
Safe and stable scrum engagements that still allow for players to exert their collective will on the opposition seems to me to be the right fix for mitigating what was a potentially dangerous component of the game.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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