The anti-scrum camp is strong, but consigning this misunderstood mass of bodies to history will have unintended consequences for the All Blacks once international rugby resumes, reckons Scotty Stevenson.
When New Zealand Rugby’s officials decided to mark the breakdown with renewed vigour in the opening rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the intention was clear: get rid of the bodies, clean up the mess, and allow the game to flow. On the face of it, the intention was a good one but, as with all good intentions, there have been unforeseen consequences. One of the consequences of Penaltyfest ’20 is this: the scrum is dead.
Long live the scrum! Oh scrum! You poor misunderstood, misread mass of bodies! You grunting steam pile temple of the “dark arts”! You twisted collision of great human chariots! This was a realm of high science, of interesting angles, leverage and shape. It was geometry and geography and geology: how to get an aspect for attack in the best part of any given field by compacting two sets of boulders over a period of several millennia. And now it is gone, the once eternal reset a thing of the past, the guesswork of it all consigned to history. How can you kill something so beautiful?
I know what you are thinking. You’re sitting back with a smug look on your face grumbling, “good riddance to all that nonsense”. You’re not shedding great salty tears of grief. The only person truly crying right now is Owen Franks. OK, and perhaps Stu Dickinson. The former weeps for what has been lost and the latter for what might have been. At any rate, it is a fact that people who hate scrums have no soul, nor do they possess the kind of John Nash genius to appreciate the scrum’s wondrous patterns, both real and imagined. Well, you keep doing you. You’ll have plenty of company in the anti-scrum camp, all the referees included.
You may think I am overstating things a little. Oh, trust me, I am not. Thanks to advanced The Spinoff research techniques* we have now discovered that just 32 scrums have taken place in the four games of Super Rugby Aotearoa this season, and that includes resets. Break it down with me here. That’s an average of eight scrums per game, and that’s not many. In Super Rugby 2019, the average number of scrums awarded per game was 18.6, and that did not include resets. Let that number sink in for a second before we move on to the unintended consequence of this unintended consequence.
Do you think it is a coincidence that Joe Moody is hitting holes off short balls in the 45th minute with the same pace he hit them in the first? Or that Patrick Tuipolotu is more destructive in open play than ever before? Or that James Parsons is still throwing darts in the 70th minute? Or that Sam Whitelock played for 80 in his first game back? Not at all. Giving these bodies a three-month break from contact and then reducing their in-game plyometric loading by more than 50% will do that. And it comes with a characteristic corollary: change the nature of the job and you will change the nature of the athlete.
There was a time up to, oh, about three weeks ago, when aficionados of the scrum would tell you that the first name on the team sheet would be the tighthead prop, and for scrummaging prowess above all else. The claim had merit. A good tighthead could manipulate opposition scrums in myriad ways, creating penalties when able, but more often shifting weight in imperceptible movements so as to change the angle to either enhance or to stultify the subsequent strike play. Having the chance to do that almost 19 times a game meant the tighthead and his fellow front five teammates were engaged in a calf-blowing, achilles-straining, strength-sapping battle of wills for around a quarter of every match. Not now.
Now all that once indispensable talent is, if not surplus to requirements, effectively looking for other ways to have an impact on the game. To do that, they need to be faster, and more explosive in open play, their training focus switched from repeat power efforts, to repeat sprint efforts. That has the potential to drastically alter athlete shapes in a short space of time. And that is what we are going to see as the competition continues.
And here’s the kicker: In a recent NZ Herald column, veteran rugby writer Gregor Paul claimed this apparent new-found energy from the players mentioned above was the answer to the All Blacks’ problems. Perhaps that is true. What was not stated, however, was the link between fewer scrums and more open play impact, or that over the last two years the All Blacks scrum has dominated all-comers, and that was because the scrum was deemed to be central to the side’s attack. It pays to note the All Blacks won most of their matches over this period. However, if the scrum is now far less important to Super Rugby, does that mean a genuine scrummager is less important to the game, and does that mean the All Blacks scrum, once international rugby resumes in October, is likely to be less potent than it once was, and does that mean fixing one problem has simply created another?
Unintended consequences, indeed.
*we got sent the numbers by a Super Rugby coach.