‘A brutal study in physics’: How do scrums and other rugby mysteries work?

With its rolling mauls, tight-heads, loose-heads and crooked feeds, rugby union is a language all its own. How might the uninitiated make sense of this code? And why do fans struggle to get to grips with it, too?

Former New Zealand All Blacks player Jono Gibbes was pilloried for his confused take on the scientist behind the theory of relativity. “Nobody in rugby should be called a genius,” Gibbes declared a few years ago. “A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.” But it’s fair to say even Norman’s alter-ego, Albert, might not have fared much better if he was asked to explain what Gibbes did for a living.

Rugby is, to put it mildly, a complex game. Its rule book runs to a staggering 162 pages, and that’s not taking into account the varied options for a referee adjudicating each rule.

The code’s terminology can seem like another language. In any one game, a commentator will mention scrums, breakdowns, rolling mauls, tight-heads, loose-heads, pod systems, crooked feeds, box kicks and short-arm penalties.

If rugby union is complicated even for boffins, it is positively bamboozling for newbies, including sporting fans more immersed in AFL. In both codes, players tackle and kick torpedoes, for example, but in each game they do it differently and, in any case, the similarities between codes pretty much end there.

In Australia, rugby union’s Super Rugby competition started in 1996 and since then has been played with teams from New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Japan. An Australian domestic competition was organised for 2020 (Super Rugby AU) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is being played again in 2021, starting tonight, and for the first time a game of Super Rugby will be screened live on free-to-air television. (Disclosure: the owner of this masthead, Nine, which also owns streaming service Stan Sport, last year outbid Super Rugby’s founding broadcaster, Fox Sports, for the rights so, yes, games will be screened on Nine and Stan Sport.)

So, whether you’re tuning in or whether you’re just curious about the code, how do you navigate rugby? What’s a scrum? Can you cheat? What’s a breakdown? Rolling maul? Lineout? And who does what on the field?

Nick Phipps of the Waratahs “feeds” a scrum.Credit:Cameron Spencer

What is a scrum and why do they occur?

Nothing baffles, or frustrates, the casual rugby viewer more than the scrum. Actually, the same can be said for devoted rugby fans and even players. After a long set-up in which groups of players from each team prepare to collide, the whole thing can fall over and the referee starts again, or awards a penalty.

Many fans see a particular beauty in the scrum, however, and believe it is a fascinating and essential part of the 15-man game. “A scrum for me is an exciting game within a game,” says Wallabies scrum coach Petrus Du Plessis. “It’s eight men trying to push the opposition eight off the ball either to maintain their own ball or to steal the opposition ball. It’s a chance for a turnover or a chance to show dominance.”

Stripped back to basics, the scrum is a way of restarting play after a knock-on (when a player accidentally drops the ball on the ground in front of them) or sometimes a penalty.

It is a pushing contest – between two packs of eight forwards. Some players are more important than others in a scrum. The three burly front-rowers are basically on the field to do that job. The other five forwards have supporting duties.

The attacking team aims to get the ball to the rear of their scrum and then to the speedy, creative players in the backline. The defensive team aims to push the attacking team backwards to win back the ball.

But while rugby league depowered the scrum decades ago to ensure the ball got back in play as fast as possible, rugby scrums are still a full-on contest of strength that can last for several minutes. One thing to keep in mind is that rugby seeks to create a contest for possession at every opportunity – a major difference from the 13-man rugby code.

“In rugby league the scrum is a reset and off you go,” says Du Plessis.“But rugby games could be literally won and lost from a scrum. We saw the 2019 World Cup final where South Africa was dominant in the scrum and that was probably the main reason why South Africa won … against England. It’s a very physical game within the game. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

Above: Australia asserts dominance in a scrum against Argentina. Credit: Rugby Australia

So if it’s a pushing contest, does size matter?

Rugby forwards are big humans; those in the front row of a scrum, known as front-rowers, are short, stocky and often weigh 120 kilograms or more. The players who push behind the two props and the hooker are locks, and they are generally tall and heavy too. It is not unusual for a professional team to have a forward pack collectively weighing close to 900 kilograms.

But size is only one thing. Scrums are also hugely technical, with expert coaches and analysts who train their forwards to combine tightly and push in the best way to exert the maximum collective force. It is a brutal study in physics.

“It’s a physical act of a front row against a front row and the five guys behind them, putting a lot of forces through a horizontal line to manipulate the opposition,” Du Plessis says. “What people have got to understand is the human body was probably not born to scrum but we’ve become very good at it with the correct training.

“The forces that can go through players … if you’re in a scrum and both teams go quite hard, you’re looking at between 250kg and 400kg of force going in opposite directions. Once I remember us and them going in as hard as we could and 20 seconds later … you’re close to blacking out.”

Above: An example of gamesmanship in a scrum during a Bledisloe Cup clash in 2014, where the All Blacks loose-head prop (No.1) is seen clearly “boring in” at an angle against the Wallabies tight-head prop (no.3). Rugby’s laws state all players must push straight. Credit: Rugby Australia

Why does the referee yell, ‘Crouch, bind, set’?

It sounds like a shoe-tying lesson but there’s method in it. Clearly, scrums are dangerous and in previous decades there were numerous cases of them collapsing and front-rowers suffering serious spinal injuries. In 2007, however, a sequence was introduced by authorities to put the referee in charge of the two front rows safely coming together. Previously, players had regulated themselves and came at it from afar like rams butting heads. The referees’ call used to be “crouch, touch, pause, engage” but even players came together from too far apart and there were too many collapsed scrums, so the sequence was simplified to “crouch, bind, set” in 2013.

A referee will call out “Crouch!” and the front rowers will bend down to ready themselves for a collision. When the referee calls “Bind!” the rival props will grab the others’ shoulder to further reduce the space between the front rows. When the “Set!” call is given, the front-rowers come together and the contest is on.

It is far safer now – spinal injuries in scrums are now rare – but the downside is that scrums can take a very long time to set up and complete, particularly when they collapse and need to be re-set.

Can you cheat in a scrum?

Is the Pope a Catholic, etc? Good scrummaging is often described as a dark art but let’s ask the expert. “If I talked scrum tactics, I could probably write you a book. It’s massively tactical,” says Du Plessis. “Manipulate through tight. Lean on bind. Quick engage, high scrum, how much right shoulder down? Depends on opposition.”

Each of these terms would require their own explainer. But are they about cheating? Perhaps the most common way of cheating is with a loose-head prop “boring in” from the side. The rules dictate both teams push straight but if a prop changes his angle and starts to push into the side of a rival – where they are weaker – their pack can gain an advantage, force their rivals sideways and win the contest. Referees and touch judges are always watching for the ploy, but often don’t spot it in the maelstrom.

The arrival of spidercams has made it easier for the fan to spot, though, and in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, an Australian fan-driven campaign emerged for England prop Joe Marler to #scrumstraightJoe. Thus alerted, referees penalised Marler heavily when Australia played their old rivals – and won the game on the back of a dominant scrum.

Do Australian teams have good scrums?

Not really. Some nations prioritise the scrum, take pride in it and build a game around it. Australians have generally valued attacking, running rugby out wide, and so don’t breed the same scrum-obsessed giants as nations such South Africa and England. Internationally, Australians are viewed as weak scrummagers and often as cynical exponents of those so-called dark arts.

Pete Samu scores off the back of a Brumbies rolling maul. Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

What’s a breakdown?

The breakdown refers to what happens when an attacking run finishes, or breaks down, via a player being tackled. There are a few different versions of a breakdown – the ruck, the maul, even the rolling maul (more on that below). When a player is tackled in rugby league, a ref calls “held” and they play the ball under their feet. When a player is tackled in rugby, teammates have to fight to keep the ball each time. It is contested possession.

A ruck occurs when a tackled player ends up on the ground. Rugby’s laws say that player must then release the ball after a second or two, which allows for them to place it backwards on the ground. The defending team will try to lean over and pick up the ball, however, the attacking team is allowed to send players to “clean out” the poacher and thus secure the ball.

Rugby teams will often have an expert poacher, who is strong and can withstand the cleanout. Now-retired Wallabies star David Pocock was one such player. Defending players have to remain on their feet at the ruck and not come from an offside position but many do, and this is one of the more chaotic and dangerous places in rugby. Many of the penalties you’ll see in rugby are for people doing the wrong thing at a ruck. Attacking teams want to get the ball out of the ruck as quickly as possible to keep up the attack. And defensive teams want to do the opposite, so you’ll hear about terms like “slowing the ball down” or even “killing the ball”, where a player uses the chaos to stop the ball coming out.

Above: The Brumbies execute a rolling maul, resulting in a try. Credit: Rugby Australia

So what is a maul? And when does it roll?

A maul is when a player is tackled but doesn’t go to ground. Here, they don’t have to release the ball. Mauls in general play are uncommon these days, given the attacking team loses possession if the ball doesn’t come out. Rolling mauls are very common, however, given they can be very hard to stop, particularly near the tryline. Not unlike a scrum, a rolling maul is a pushing contest of sorts. The tackled player ensures the ball is moved safely backwards to a teammate, who tucks the ball in his arm, hiding behind a number of forwards who then push as a collective group.

A rival team isn’t allowed to bring the rolling maul to the ground, unless they can somehow get their hands on the ball-carrier and take him down. They’re difficult to do for long distances but when set up well, a rolling maul can be almost impossible to stop close to the tryline. Still, some argue rolling mauls are not fair and have called for them to be banned.

Above: An example of a tactical long kick to open space, as performed by Brumbies centre Irae Simone. Credit: Rugby Australia

How does kicking work in rugby?

Another difference between league and union is the amount of tactical kicking in the latter. Again, how much a team kicks can depend on their attacking philosophy. The Wallabies under former coach Michael Cheika (2014-2019) preferred to hold the ball and run it, and rarely kicked. But current England coach (and former Wallabies boss) Eddie Jones’ gameplans have often been built on kicking the ball a lot, backing his team’s defence, and a strong scrum. Generally speaking, all teams kick from inside their 22-metre line, given you’re allowed to kick out on the full from that zone. Elsewhere, if you kick out on the full, the lineout comes back to where you kicked it from. After that, teams will use a long kick, away from rival fullbacks, to try and move the play up field. This is called playing territory.

Other kicks used in rugby are attacking kicks; short chip kicks over the defence, rolling kicks (grubber kicks) or cross-field kicks weighted for a wide player to catch. And there’s the dreaded box kick. That’s a high kick performed by the halfback aimed to go only 20 to 30 metres, where chasing players can contest the jump and force a mistake from the catcher. Box kicks are a risk-averse tactic and generally considered boring if overused, but they’re also stubbornly effective, so they’ve become a regular part of modern rugby.

Above: Melbourne Rebels fullback Reece Hodge kicks a penalty goal. Credit: Rugby Australia

How do penalty kicks fit in? And who has short arms?

When a referee blows a penalty, the attacking team can kick the ball. If they’re in their own half, they can kick to the sideline and get the lineout thrown, too. But if they’re close enough to the posts, they may choose to kick for a penalty goal, which is worth three points. The team’s goal-kicker will then step forward, place the ball on a plastic tee, and have a shot (in the old days, a kid would run on with a bucket of sand and the kicker would put the ball on a mound). Increasingly, however, teams will choose to ignore the penalty goal option and kick to the sideline for an attacking lineout – and a possible try – instead. (See rolling maul, above).

The short-arm penalty is one where you can’t kick the ball out, or for goal. It is for a minor infraction and, generally speaking, a team will elect to take a tap or pack a scrum when a referee awards a short-arm penalty. (Watch for the referee after the whistle is blown; a fully extended arm is a full penalty but if his arm is bent, it is the lesser category.)

Above: Waratahs hooker throws a lineout that is caught by teammate Will Harris. Credit: Rugby Australia

How does a lineout work?

If a scrum is a pushing contest between forwards, a lineout is a catching contest. But with one team throwing the ball in, the contest should be largely removed if they do their jobs properly.

Generally speaking, a hooker throws the ball in, the second-rowers and back-rowers jump, and the props help lift the jumpers higher in the air. Lineouts run on secret codes, or “calls”, formulated during the off-season and trained over and over during the week. Someone in the lineout is tasked with “calling” who will catch the ball, and how far along the line of forwards it will go. That is relayed to the hooker via the agreed code and when executed well, the jumper is lifted high, catches the ball without trouble, and passes off to the halfback.

Lineout during the Waratahs v Lions. Credit:Dallas Kilponen

What can go wrong at the lineout?

With a collection of moving pieces that requires precision timing, collective understanding and high skill, plenty can go wrong. The ball must be thrown straight into the lineout, for starters, to ensure a fair contest. And let’s just say many hookers can’t master that art.

Former Wallabies hooker Phil Kearns was jokingly referred to as Lightning because of his tendency to never hit the same place twice. Players lifted high in the air can also be endangered if those same lifters don’t do a good job helping the jumper return to earth. And like any good spy game involving codes, rival teams often try to crack the lineout calls of their opposition by studying and watching hours of tape, or even patrolling the sidelines during games. Once cracked, a rival’s lineout can be easily picked off.

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