By Bernard Jackman
The scrum has always been central to rugby union both as a means of restarting the game and a way of testing the two packs of forwards. It has always been a vital tool to allow one or other to establish an edge, and can decisively shift the momentum in a match one way or another.
The history of the game is littered with examples where dominance at the scrum has tilted a match one way or another: the recent Lions series; Ireland's Rugby World Cup 2011 victory over Australia; and Ireland's painful defeat to England at Twickenham in 2012 come to mind.
The problem is that - as anyone playing or watching the game knows - the scrum had become a real mess over the last decade and more.
It was still a contest and weak scrums were often punished, but there was massive inconsistency. Scrums routinely collapsed on impact, and a huge amount of free kicks were awarded for early engagements. The goal was to jump the ref’s call, time the hit, get forward momentum and then feed the ball directly into the second row.
Not all teams followed that trend. As defence coach at Grenoble, I saw Toulon try a completely different approach, getting their second rows to start with their knees on the ground until the hit, which took a huge amount of speed out of the equation.
They still had a very effective scrum and after our game, I asked Olivier Azam, the former France hooker who was their forwards coach at the time, what the idea was. He told me that Toulon felt that despite investing very heavily in top scrummagers, opposition scrums were risking sanction by constantly trying to win the hit, and it was working for them.
So Toulon decided that they were prepared to lose the hit but ensure more scrums stayed up by being passive and then trying to use their superior power post-engagement. Azam did say that he was not sure it was a viable strategy against the really powerful packs, and I noticed that in the knock-out stages of the Top 14 and Heineken Cup they didn’t use it.
Overall, the situation led to huge frustration for players and fans.
Frustration on the field and off
The extent to which that is felt by those involved in playing and coaching should not be underestimated. I know some backs coaches who became so disillusioned with the situation that they drastically cut down on the amount of time that they spent on moves from scrums, even though it is the best set-piece to strike because the eight defending forwards are held in one position.
Something had to be done, and almost two months into the new season, it looks like the new scrum protocols are changing the game for the better.
The concern was that the new regulations would depower the scrum, making it a Rugby League-style "leaning" contest.
Thankfully, all the evidence so far is that the scrum is still a real weapon and if anything, stronger scrums can win more consistently.
The basic change is a shift in the referee’s call from "crouch-touch-set" to "crouch-bind-set". That does not seem like a huge difference, but the impact on how front rowers have to operate has been huge.
The "hit" has been taken out of the equation.
Under the old rules, we used to work off a principle that the hit was 80% of the scrum, and the scrum itself just 20%.
A quality hit meant the scrum was over, while if you lost the hit you had to expend much more energy trying to regain stability and win the ball. Scrum training was based around creating speed across the imaginary line in the middle of the two front rows. It all meant you had 16 powerful athletes trying to get the jump on eachother.
Props now take their bind before engaging. The distance they cross is short and the engagement is effectively done in two stages.
Technique not power
The new protocol actually provides a better test of scrummaging ability and technique. It also means that the small but technically good prop has a chance again and may even start to dominate in what was becoming a contest for giants at the professional level.
Collapses have also reduced greatly, while giving the referee the power to decide when the ball will be put in means there is a hooking contest again.
Under the old rules, and a lot of teams tried to "hit and chase", with the scrum-half putting the ball in at the exact same time as the hit. That’s not possible any more, and it means the hooker’s strike is back in the game.
As a former hooker I’m delighted to see that. There is a lot of skill involved in being able to strike a ball down channel 1, 2, 3,or 4 depending on what is required, especially when you have an opposition tighthead and hooker working you hard.
For the opposition scrum, there is a great opportunity to disrupt at the moment the hooker lifts his foot to strike, because for a second or two, it is 16 feet pushing against 15.
There will be other knock on effects as well. Starting with props, the props I have spoken to have said that they have to push a lot more than they did under the old rules, but the pain in their necks and shoulders post-match is reduced.
Meanwhile, the different type of effort required from the front row is taking it out of their legs in a big way, and it has become even more rare for props to play the full 80 minutes. I also believe that concussions caused from the impact at the scrum will decrease as a result of the changes.
Instead of speed, the focus at scrum training across the world will now be on body position, body height and constant pressure. Timing and quality of strike will be a lot more technical and tactical.
The end product should be less stoppages for resets and a fairer, more interesting contest. That can only be good for the game.
TOMORROW: Read Bernard Jackman on the new generation of Irish front-rowers coming through at Leinster and Munster.