And we want the ref to decide?

When 2 sets of 900kg units collide, it is pretty tough to ask 4 players to keep it from going up or down, and downright unfair to ask 1 person to decide the cause says Tank Lanning in his Sport24 column.

So I was scratching around in the stats for this year’s “Most penalised” Super Rugby players given that Heinrich Brüssow was again excluded (remarkably, to my mind) from the recent Springbok training squad, the reason given to him being that his penalty count is too high.

And apart from Brüssow not being on that list, there was one other startling revelation. Not only is the most penalised player in this tournament a loosehead prop, but 9 of the 20 most penalised players are loosehead props!

Most Penalties Conceded in Super Rugby 2013:

1. Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders) 18

2. Ben Mowen (Brumbies) 13

3. Greg Holmes (Reds) 12

3. Steven Kitshoff (Stormers) 12

5. Matthew Hodgson (Force) 10

5. Sam Carter (Brumbies) 10

5. Scott Higginbotham (Rebels) 10

8. Ben Alexander (Brumbies) 9

8. Morne Mellett (Bulls) 9

8. Schalk Ferreira (Kings) 9

11. Ali Williams (Blues) 8

11. Beast Mtawarira (Sharks) 8

11. Deon Stegmann (Bulls) 8

11. Ed Quirk (Reds) 8

11. Nick Phipps (Rebels) 8

11. Pieter Labuschagne (Cheetahs) 8

11. Rene Ranger (Blues) 8

11. Salesi Ma’afu (Force) 8

11. Scott Fuglistaller (Rebels) 8

11. Steven Sykes (Kings) 8

That is extra ordinary, and points to only one thing – like the breakdown, which is also subjectively refereed at times, the scrum remains a huge problem area.

Now while some of you thought I had lost my mind when I suggested we ban the rolling maul, asking if I also wanted to get rid of the scrum and call it Rugby League, nothing could be further from my mind. Rugby Union needs the scrum!

It may be the game’s most static situation, but given that the backlines have to be 5 metres back, the scrum is the one place where the defence is on the back foot, especially if you get a good right shoulder. Hence teams now scoring more tries from set pieces than in the past.

And while there are indeed fewer of them per game these days, they remain a problem area.

IRB Chief Medical Officer, Dr Martin Raftery presented some findings earlier in the year showing that the number of scrums per game went from an average of 31 to 19 between 1982 and 2004, with this trend maintained into the 2011 RWC, where there were only 17 scrums per match.

Perhaps because referees now play a lot more advantage from a knock-on, and with teams now good enough to use the ball from it, the advantage is often over before needing to call a scrum. Which is a great sign for the game, but even with fewer of them, the scrum remains the most penalised part of the game.

Referees are being encouraged by the IRB to make decisions rather than have resets, and it seems they are favouring the attacking side. Since 1982, when scrum penalties were evenly distributed between the feeding and defending scrums, as of 2004 the side feeding the ball has enjoyed a 6:1 advantage in having a penalty awarded to them.

Clearly, something has drastically changed if the defensive side has become six times more likely to give away a penalty at scrum time. And with the loosehead props given the responsibility of keeping the scrum up, more often than not, it is these poor buggers who are bearing the brunt of the whistle when the scrum collapses.

And I am not sure we can blame the referees here. I once MC’d a discussion at False Bay rugby club where scrum luminaries such as Guy Kebble, Keith Andrews and Charl Marais were asked to look at various scrums that were either reset or penalised, and prompted to give their reasons for said reset or penalty. I do not remember a single scrum where we all agreed!

Bath University has conducted extensive studies measuring forces on scrum machines, and the key finding is that because of the speed of engagement that professional packs are able to generate these days, the Peak Engagement Force – which measures the force on the ‘Hit’- is twice what it was 20 years ago.

And not even today’s man mountain type props can keep the resultant force of this colossal collision from going either up or down on occasion. And we want the ref to decide who caused it?

So through no fault his own, a loosehead prop could be penalised by a referee being asked to make a decision rather than reset the scrum, that leads to his side losing a Super rugby, Heineken Cup, Six Nations, Rugby Championship, or even World Cup final?

That simply cannot be right, and the IRB need to come up with a solution sooner rather than later.

I have a few, but perhaps a few from you guys in the comments?

Penalty stats courtesy of


  1. Not an easy one as we’ve observed from previous discussions. I’m no expert but here’s my 5c worth. Perhaps the simplest way out is for the ref to just to keep re-setting the scrum until he’s absolutely certain that he’s nailed the infringing player(s). The onus will then be on the players to “get it right or we’ll be here all afternoon”. I know this may be used as a time-wasting tactic in some cases and is contrary to the idea of speeding the game up. Alternatively if, say after 3 strikes he’s still not sure, then call for a passive/static/uncontested scrum and get on with it. Now which self-respecting forward wants to doddle around in static scrums all afternoon?? After all, the side being given the scrum originally should still be in the advantageous position. Not a simple issue but there’s my punt up field and let’s see what comes of it.

  2. Hey,

    the “Loosehead prop problem” comes down to the bind, every collapsed scrum…penalty is a result of that..”loosehead not binding”.

    1.) Lets have a look the “Rugby Jersey” that is being designed and worn by teams these days…most of these “Rugby Jerseys” is designed with the goal of being difficult to “grab / hang on to” in the tackle / slim fit etc.

    Now we still wonder why it is difficult for a loosehead prop to get a proper bind, in split second during the engage with all that force behind him??

    make the front row wear proper jerseys that would make it easier to bind

    2.) Why not give the loosehead 2-3 second window to stabilize himself or support himself with his hand on the ground (if needed) during the engagement this will also give him the extra time to get a proper bind…..

  3. Free kicks for scrum infringements and not penalties. This will also speed up the game as most scrummies wil tap and go. No team deserves the oppertunity to gain points (or determine the outcome of a game) from a scrumming penalty.

    The two front rows must bind and the rest of the pack can get the hit on the refs command. If a bind was established and then gets broken due to the hit, then the prop deserves to get penalised (with a free kick).

    Scrummies putting the ball in under their own hooker’s feet is more of a concern than anything come scrum time at the moment. What happened to the age old skill of hooking an opposition ball. #2 should not be called a hooker anymore but rather a “line out thrower”.

  4. Hi Tank – I’ve posted my comments to you before and my feelings remain the same.


    The laws of physics mean one prop will scrum with two shoulders supported (the tighthead), while his opponent will always have one shoulder unsupported. The guy with the unsupported shoulder is the loosehead.

    Take from the equation any form of collision or “push” – according to the laws of gravity the loosehead has to hold the tighthead up – always!

    As you say the tonnes of impact force transferred to the single shoulder of a loosehead is a recipe for collapsed scrums.

    Let the front rows bind, find their footing, find their binds then (especially at professional level) some good old fashioned “no-holds-barred” scrumming.

    I agree with your point that well coached teams use “advantage” better reducing scrums – but what about the notion that nervous refs sub consciously avoid scrums because they know they may have to make a big call – rather look, or wait a second, for a free kick or penalty option which may come up.

    You also don’t mention the refs being so busy trying to ping the defending loosehead that the scrummy on the other side is putting the ball in under the locks feet – the attacking hooker doesn’t have to hook and can thus scrum with both feet back putting even more indirect pressure on the venerable loosehead (yes, I was a loosehead!).

    So my suggestion should not only avoid collapsed/reset scrums but an added advantage – bringing back the opportunity of a well coached scrum being able to gain a turnover by winning a tighthead ball.

    When last did you see a hooker winning a tighthead at Super or Test level?

  5. Sorry about repeating some of Mario’s thoughts – he posted his comment while I was still typing. Only one finger you know!!

  6. Could not a agree more!

    As necessary as the scrum is for the game it is also one of the most painful, slow and frustrating parts of any rugby game. When 5 mins of game time is swallowed up seeing a scrum reset, reset, reset and then finally penalised leading to 3 points, its just not what rugby should be about especially as the penalty ultimately comes off a referee interpretation (at times you have to give credit to some willy props who are able to get away with murder it seems).

    Get rid of scoreable penalties at scrum time for one and at least take that source of points (which will devastate Northern Hemisphere teams where it feels like half of all points are scored off scrum penalties). Then speed up the whole process, 2 resets and unless there is a blatant infringement move to a tap and go and get on with it!

  7. As a former loosehead prop (ancient) my suggestion:
    a. ref calls “engage” : front row engages and binds, then ref; “shove” and only then shove. Prop may put his hand on the ground to steady himself
    b. scrum penalties be replaced by free kicks, unless deliberate infringement eg repeated early shoving, deliberate collapse -penalty.
    c. ensure scrumhalf throws the ball in straight, otherwise penalty
    Sorry I don’t have time to motivate, but inaccurrate 1 finger typist.

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