The evolution of the scrum

There has never been a more controversial aspect of rugby than the scrum.

For many, the modern rugby league scrum is just a way of restarting play. Nostalgics yearn for a return to ‘proper scrums’. Rugby union fans believe that the scrum is very essence of their game.

Yet a look at history shows how much the scrum has changed in all types of rugby since the emergence of the sport in the early 1800s.

Much of what we think we know about it is part-myth, part-wishful thinking. In fact, league’s play-the-ball is based on rugby’s original method of scrummaging.

And union’s ‘traditional’ scrums today are the complete opposite of what the scrum was originally intended to do.

Tom Brown’s Scrum Days

As anyone who has struggled their way through Tom Brown’s Schooldays will know, the game of rugby football that emerged at Rugby School in mid-1800s was dominated by continual scrummaging.

Play revolved around scrummaging and kicking to set up scrums. Forwards - who could number fifty or sixty in school matches - stood upright in the scrum and pushed, kicking either the ball or their opponents’ shins.

This tradition was carried on by the adult clubs that created the Rugby Football Union in 1871. A scrum was the main way of propelling the ball forward. On the rare occasions that the ball emerged to one of the backs, a tackle was immediately followed by a scrum.

Ironically, it is this rule that contains the roots of today’s rugby league play-the-ball rule.

Until the late 1870s, a tackled player had to place the ball on the ground and shout ‘down’, which was the signal for the forwards who had formed a scrum around him to start pushing. This is also the origin of American football’s ‘downs’.

What’s more, the aim of the original rugby scrum was not to heel the ball back, but to push the ball forward through the opposing pack. Called ‘straight ahead propulsion’, this was seen by many in the RFU as the only real way of advancing the ball up the pitch. Heeling out was frowned upon.

It was not unusual for scrums to last ten minutes or more. England and Richmond forward Charles Gurdon described how a scrum would ‘sometimes sway this way, sometimes that; this rotund mass would gravitate safely and unbroken, some thirty or forty yards towards the goal line of the weaker side, leaving a dark muddy track to mark its course’.

The forwards dominated the team. Whether playing fifteen or twenty-a-side, there would be two full-backs, two half-backs and no more than two three-quarters until around 1880. The rest would be forwards.

Passing between players was almost non-existent. If the ball did happen to come out of the scrum, it would be promptly kicked down field for the forwards to chase or to set up another scrum.

Even in the late 1890s, there were many in the RFU who believed that heeling the ball out of the scrum was a betrayal of the principles of the game. In 1896, former RFU president Arthur Budd proposed that ‘heeling out’ should be made illegal.

New thinking in the North

But for most clubs in the north of England, such thinking was anathema. For them, the essence of rugby was running, passing and tackling, with the aim of scoring tries.

‘The public don’t want to witness only scrimmages nowadays but fast, open play... the public want a game where they can see plenty of the ball,’ declared one player in 1891.

In that same year, Leeds’ James Miller proposed reducing the number of forwards to six. Of course, this was not to happen until 1906, when the Northern Union finally grasped the nettle and reduced teams to thirteen-a-side.

But this did little to resolve the problem of the scrum. There were too many ways in which it would slow down play.

Scrum-halves never seemed capable - or willing - to put the ball into the scrum in a straight line between the two front rows. Props could not resist putting their legs across the tunnel of the scrum. Hookers could not wait for the ball to go in the scrum before striking for it. The ball rarely came out cleanly.

And what was worse, there was just too damn many of them. Even in the 1920s an average match would have fifty or sixty scrums. Despite the RFL offering regular ‘guidelines’ to referees, little changed.

It wasn’t until 1930 that forwards instructed to pack down with three in the front row, two in the second row and a loose forward binding the second row, a rule designed to prevent teams having four in the front row and constantly unbalancing the scrum.

In 1932 the hooker - a term that had only recently emerged - was banned from having a loose arm in the scrum. This new rule led to six hookers being sent off on one Saturday in a clampdown. But, in a pattern that was repeated again and again, enthusiasm for the new rule waned and the same issues re-emerged.

Fair cheating all round?

Part of the problem was that teams were prepared to go to any lengths to win the ball from the scrum. Observance of the rules was not a virtue for a forward.

When Australian hooker Ken Kearney arrived to play for Leeds in 1948 he asked a referee what were the best tactics to use in English scrums. ‘Cheat’ was the one-word reply he allegedly received.

The were many radical solutions proposed - such as replacing the scrum with a punt-out or soccer-style throw in - all to no avail.

It wasn’t until the introduction of the turnover after a set of six tackles in 1983 that the importance of the scrum began to wane.

When league was played with unlimited tackles, the scrum was the main way in which the defending side could get hold of the ball. When the four tackle rule was introduced in 1966 (which became six tackles in 1972) a scrum was formed after a completed set of tackles.

This on its own did little to alleviate the scrum problem. But the turnover rule dramatically reduced the number of scrums and their importance for possession of the ball.

By the mid-1990s, the ‘struggle for possession’ at set-pieces had almost disappeared from the game. At the play-the-ball, the marker could no longer strike for the ball with his foot. And, in a classic compromise, a gentleman’s agreement allowed the scrum-half to feed the ball to his own forwards.

The rugby league scrum had finally abandoned its last links with the mass scrummaging of Rugby School.

‘Proper’ scrums?

Will the game ever return to ‘proper’ scrums, in which the ball is put into the middle of the two front rows and each hooker tries to hook the ball out with his feet?

I doubt it. Not least because the ‘proper’ scrum never really existed. ‘Show me a scrum-half who puts the ball in the middle of every scrum and I’ll show you a scrum-half with a very short career,’ as someone once said.

But there’s more to it than crooked player. As rugby became more sophisticated and as winning became more and more important, the impulse to bend or break the rules to win the ball became overwhelming.

Because it involves to so many variables, the scrum is impossible to regulate consistently. It is inevitable that it becomes a tangle of broken rules and roguish players.

It’s not just rugby league that recognises this. American (and Canadian) football’s scrimmage is girdiron’s way of overcoming the problems of the scrum.

Even in rugby union - the game that prides itself on its scrums and ‘struggle for possession’ - the result of a scrum is not very different to a scrum in league.

The International Rugby Board’s 2005 study, Changes in the Playing of International Rugby over a Twenty Year Period, discovered that the side feeding the scrum retained possession ninety per cent of the time.

Alongside a ninety-three per cent retention rate after a tackle and eighty per cent at the line-out, the IRB concluded that in rugby union 'the contest for possession is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed’.

Charles Darwin’s scrum

The rugby league scrum will never completely die. It’s a remnant of the past, rather like the human coccyx used to be the tail of our ape-like ancestors.

It is a victim of one of rugby’s laws of evolution, that the ‘struggle for possession’ of the ball eventually dies out. Players and coaches are simply too committed to winning to allow it to survive. American football discovered this first, and rugby union is discovering it today.

But rather than mourning the death of the ‘proper’ scrum, rugby league should view it as a new opportunity. The surface has barely been scratched when it comes to tactical ploys and set plays around the scrum.

As the clubs that founded the Northern Union knew, the public want fast open and skilful play. And with players such as Benji Marshall and Sam Tomkins around today, maybe the scrum can provide them with the opportunities to prove how right the game’s founders were.

-- A version of this article appeared in Rugby League World, February 2011.

A contest for possession?

This post was originally published on on 6 May 2010.

Former Scotland rugby union coach Jim Telfer's grumpy dismissal of last week's Murrayfield Magic contained one of the classic myths of rugby union:

Some aspects of rugby league are worth noting such as good passing, angles of running and organised defences but rugby union has far more variety especially in the contesting of possession such as scrums, lineouts and ruck and maul.

Of course, if you don't think that the essence of rugby is passing the ball, running with the ball and tackling the player with the ball, then endless stoppages for the ball being kicked out of play or for set-pieces to formed possibly do offer an attractive form of 'variety'.

But, like beauty, rugby aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder. The real problem with Telfer's statement is that the 'contest for possession' in rugby union is essentially a myth.

This is confirmed by a 2005 statistical study - 'Changes in the Playing of International Rugby over a Twenty Year Period' - that compares union international matches played between 1982-4 with those in 2002-4. The report demonstrated that in the 2000s:

  • 13 out of 14 times the side in possession retained the ball at the breakdown.
  • 9 times out of 10 the side in possession retained the ball at the scrum. 
  • 8 times out of 10 the side in possession retained the ball at the line-out.

The report's authors conclude that 'the contest for possession is largely predictable if not almost wholly guaranteed' [my emphasis].

It also finds that the 'contest for possession' didn't amount to a huge amount in the 1980s either. Then, the side in possession retained the ball at 88% of scrums, 83% of breakdowns and 58% of line-outs.

Ironically, the report found that in the 1980s, sides with the ball turned it over on average once every six breakdowns - pretty much in line with league's turnover after every six tackles! But in the 2000s, the ball was turned over only once in twenty-three breakdowns, suggesting that possession is more evenly distributed in 'one-dimensional' league than in 'ball-contesting' union.

Typical rugby league propaganda, you might conclude. And indeed it does confirm league criticisms of union rules. So who was the author of this report?

None other than the International Rugby Board.