Refs get to grips with scrum laws
The world's elite referees have been given a hands-on scrummaging demonstration by former England hooker Brian Moore at a workshop on the new engagement protocols being trialled globally this season.
Moore, an outspoken critic of how referees handle the set-piece, was invited by the International Rugby Board to address the officials as the game looks to tidy up the mess that is the modern-day scrum.
The purpose of the workshop, held at the headquarters of French rugby in Marcoussis, near Paris, was for the elite referees to debate the new 'crouch, bind, set' engagement sequence and how the new trial laws and directives will work in practice.
While the IRB arranged for players from the local club Massy Essonne to do some live scrummaging, the referees had not banked on being asked to pack down themselves.
Moore ordered all the referees on stage to give a practical demonstration as he stressed the importance of a straight feed, of scrum stability and of props binding properly.
English referee Wayne Barnes scrummed down against Australian Steve Walsh and, at one stage, the lean South African Craig Joubert was tasked with driving against Moore.
While there was some bemusement among the officials, Moore was attempting to hammer home his belief that referees must enforce the trial laws and directives to the letter.
"This is our last chance to save the scrum," he said.
It sounded dramatic but Moore's sentiment was shared by John Jeffrey, chairman of the IRB's rugby committee, who described the trial laws as a "seminal moment" in the development of the sport.
The driving force behind the introduction of the new engagement sequence was not to improve the game - that is a hoped-for by-product - but player safety and long-term welfare.
The research, overseen by the IRB's scrum steering group, cost £500,000 and covered all levels of the game from international rugby to youth rugby.
The results were the same at every level. By having players bind before they engage, the force of the two packs coming together - known colloquially as 'the hit' - is reduced by 25 per cent.
The referee will then wait until the set-piece is stable before instructing the scrum-half to put the ball into the scrum straight with a call of 'yes nine'. Only then can the two packs push.
The new scrum protocols are expected to lead to fewer collapses, fewer re-sets and a genuine contest for the ball, although there will be teething problems.
A whole generation of hookers have grown up not having to strike for the ball. The Massy Essonne hooker, a professional, was initially trying to hook with his left foot.
Some Aviva Premiership directors of rugby are known to feel the IRB has rushed the trial laws through too quickly, but time was of the essence for the governing body.
If the trials are accepted in full law next summer, then teams will have had two years playing under the new scrum sequence before the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
England forwards coach Graham Rowntree is concerned by the fact that the new sequence will benefit the defending team, who can push with all eight players while the attacking hooker strikes for the ball.
But he is encouraged by the fact that the early bind will make it impossible for teams to "bail out" if they lose the engagement, by going to ground and forcing a re-set or in an attempt to win a penalty.
The new laws are expected to develop "stronger scrummagers who are technically more efficient".
Packs will look to get as low as possible, which will benefit the more skilful front row practitioners rather than those whose success has been down to their size and power.
The new scrum laws are being used in the forthcoming Rugby Championship and will be in place for the start of the northern hemisphere club season.