Rugby union will not be the same game from January 1.
Under new scrum laws, opposing forwards who currently pack down two or three yards apart and charge into the confrontation, will be required to assemble much closer, touch and then engage. It is essentially a health and safety ruling.
Rugby has been hit in both its heart and its pocket by players paralysed in collapsed scrums. Schoolboy Ben Smolden’s successful legal action against the Rugby Football Union after being paralysed in a collapse prompted the requirement that only specialists be allowed in the front row of competitive scrums. The similar injury to Leicester and England youth player Matt Hampson caused much soul-searching.
There is an element of “last chance” about the new rules, with the next step being the depowering of scrummages. They would become simply a means of restarting the game, as they are in rugby league.
It would be a profound change. The contested scrum, more than any other phase, defines rugby union.
It has been discarded, or as in league, in effect, denatured, as other codes with common roots went their own way. The single moment in which American Football, in a two-decade evolution away from its rugby roots, became a different game was in 1880 when scrums were replaced by downs.
Only the line-out has rivalled it as a concern to rule makers. The minutes of the International Rugby Board show almost annual efforts to improve the scrum, invariably thwarted by the nefarious intent of coaches and players. E.M. Forster, a gay aesthete, was the diametric opposite of the archetypal rugby player, yet his rule of “only connect” has no better illustration than attempts to legislate a better game of rugby. Interfere with one element in the game, and you affect others.
The rulemakers have long lost their battle to make the scrum a serious competition for possession. Strikes against the head are a rarity. But it still concentrates 16 men in a small area of the field, creating space for the other 14 if the ball can be won quickly.
The new rules were trialled by student players at Stellenbosch and Cambridge universities. Clubs have practised in preparation for the new dispensation – Guinness Premiership leaders Bristol, who visit champions Sale on Monday, had a trial match against Gloucester.
Responses vary. Bristol’s veteran prop Dave Hilton worryingly believes that the new rules will create more, rather than fewer, collapsed scrums. “I think we had the rules about right now,” he says. “Because they’ve taken the hit away, you’ll have more going on in the scrum as we look for an advantage. The tightheads will try to get low, so the looseheads will want to get lower. You’ll have more collapses and the ball will come out more slowly because it is harder for hookers to strike in a low scrum.”
Bristol coach Richard Hill believes removing the hit will favour props such as Hilton who rely on technique rather than sheer size or power. “Not many Premiership teams have relied on overpowering scrummages but teams like France and South Africa who have huge props may lose something,” says Hill.
Club captain and forward Matt Salter hopes to see quicker, cleaner possession from scrums, but adds: “We all know that, when you improve one thing in the game, you can create problems somewhere else.”
Hill does not expect to see much difference outside the scrum itself but points out: “You can practise all you like but, until we see it in real matches, nobody really knows.”
If for no other reason, Monday’s Premiership programme should be the most interesting of the season.