Should scrums be banned in rugby?

Academics at the University of Bath are currently conducting research into the biomechanical forces inherent in the rugby scrum. The rationale behind this investigation stems from a premise that the welfare of players should take precedence over all else.

The debate over whether the scrum in rugby is a safe and necessary part of the game is a perennial one which seems to polarise opinion as can be seen in the comments on The Guardian’s article on this. You will get veracious advocates maintaining that one of the key values of rugby compared to the majority of other sports is that it provides an avenue for all body shapes and sizes to perform. Others will state that the front row is a highly technical part of the game that requires important mental tenacity and skills that should remain. Yet the critics point to the serious injuries and long term damage that result from the impact of antagonistic forces on the neck and spine. This is reinforced by the announced retirement of England prop, Phil Vickery, who after several neck operations was advised by doctors that if he continued to play he would do himself even more permanent damage.

There are many philosophical questions that arise from this discussion. First, how much should risk and danger be eliminated from our lives? Do we take a paternalistic stance and limit the type of activities that people can freely choose to participate in? Or do we take a libertarian approach and say that if people want to do dangerous things to themselves, even if it might cause them injury or even death, then we should let them do so?

I’m always inclined to take a libertarian approach to these types of things (although there are some issues surrounding the free choice of children and other vulnerable individuals) but the case of the tight-head prop forward is slightly more complicated than the case of the lone base-jumper. This stems around the notion of ‘free choice’. It is given that there are players who relish each and every scrum as the opportunity to dominate their opposing player and provide an effective platform for the rest of the team. However, as every team knows, these types of front row players, and props in particular are hard to come by. Conduct a poll asking players what position they would ideally play and I suspect back-row and centre will come out on top. Prop forward would be at the bottom. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, it is a technical position that requires immense concentration in order to avoid discomfort at best and serious neck injury at worse. When I started playing rugby (at University) I had no idea what the positions meant and found myself put in at prop having had very limited training. My first match against Cambridge University saw me leave the pitch with three broken ribs. As soon as I recovered I moved to fly-half.

The second reason is that because of the bound nature of the position in the scrum, props (and this is certainly the case at lower levels) often don’t get to appreciate the most valued and essential features of the game, that is; running, passing and tackling. By the time a front row player has extracted herself from the scrum, the ball is over the other side of the pitch and then the whistle is blown for another scrum. At the lower echelons of the game where the basic skills are weaker, front row players find themselves going from one scrum to the next with little opportunity to take part in the rest of the game. This might be accepted by the few players who feel their scrummaging skills are about all they can offer to their team but for all other players who want the opportunity to run with the ball, it is not surprising that there is often a dearth of front row forwards.

This returns us to the problem with the notion of  ‘free choice’. If prop forwards are difficult to find and few players openly express a desire to play there, and yet the laws of the game state that a contested scrum is a key part of the game, players may find themselves being reluctantly cajoled into playing there out of a fear of letting their team down.

A few years ago, the Premiership team Clifton was deducted points and relegated for being unable to field a front row. When this is the outcome, it would be unsurprising that players find themselves pressurised to play in these positions. And this is hardly ‘free choice’ is it? Yes, one could take a Sartrean position and say that the player always has a choice (The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre said that if a man held a gun to your head saying ‘Your money or your life’, you still had a free choice!) but we need to recognise that the pressures that players feel from being part of a team mean that they might acquiesce to things that they wouldn’t do if they didn’t feel these social pressures.

So what is the answer to this conundrum then? I would argue that the research conducted by the University of Bath has to be supported by a philosophical investigation into the values and aims of rugby. The results of a biomechanical analysis will offer no insight into what ought to be done. Even if it were concluded that the forces that players were subject to were great enough to cause injury, then it doesn’t provide any advice as to whether this means they should be removed. The inherent risks involved in many things doesn’t mean that they are banned (e.g. alcohol, cigarettes, horse riding, boxing…).

So the answer to this is to decide what it is that is fundamentally important to the game of rugby. What makes it a worthwhile and valuable sport and social activity? And do we wish to eliminate risk or manage it in other ways (e.g. better training for players, coaches and referees)? These are the questions that will really provide an answer to the place of the scrum in rugby.

N.B. There is a new book coming out in December on Ethical Issues in Sports Coaching, of which I have co-authored a chapter on Coaching Dangerous Sports.

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6 thoughts on “Should scrums be banned in rugby?

  1. I think there are ways to make scrums safer that should be explored before they are banned. Perhaps the most obvious would be the sequential engage where the front rows engage before the second rows and loosies bind up. This gets rid of the “hit” but still allows for a contest after the ball is put in.

    • Thanks for the comment John. Engaging the front rows first is an interesting proposal but I wonder whether it might mean that the front rows end up being in an unstable (and perhaps therefore unsafe) position for longer whilst they’re waiting for their second rows and flankers to get positioned behind them. At the moment, at least the front row is in a (standing) position whereby they can reset their posterior players until they are providing support rather than a de-stabilising effect.

  2. It works. It’s not a new idea. It’s how it was done at schoolboy level back when I was at school in the early 70s. I’m not sure the second rows really do provide useful support in the engage process and certainly not stability. One of the points the (generally idiotic) Australian commentators made during last Saturday’s Aus v NZ game was that it was difficult for the front rows not to engage early because of pressure from the second row. I don’t think that’s actually true but I don’t think it makes it easier either. The problem as I see it is the “hit”. Not only is the force of up to 1800kg of players coming together pretty horrific, it’s also where sides try to get an illegal advantage and so where most of the collapses (and certainly the most dynamic, therefore dangerous ones) happen.

  3. Thanks John – now you mention it, I vaguely remember seeing footage from tv programmes that showed this construction of the scrum (though my personal experience of rugby only goes back to the mid90s!). I also agree with you that the front row have to resist the pressure coming from those behind whilst they prepare for the hit.

    My concern however isn’t particularly with the safety / harm aspect of the scrum but whether players freely consent to be part of it and whether it is a valuable aspect of the game. If we say that the scrum is an important part of the game (and has a direct effect on the outcome) then I would say we need to manage it in a way that ensures those involved feel comfortable in being part of it (and do not dread the next knock-on or forward pass). However, if we conclude that the scrum is just a peripheral part of the game that enables play to continue after an infringement then we might as well reduce it to the (pretty much) non-contested element as seen in rugby league. This would leave those that revel simply in the existing form of the scrum free to create their own sport of scrummaging (with different rules and goals) completely separate to the game of rugby.

  4. Definitely time for the Hit to go. Arm wrestling or tug-of-war starts with the contestants taking the strain, then starting – not one side trying to guess when the ref will say go, and the other not being able to hold on properly as a result! A proper contest has to involve the two teams being set and bound to each properly, then starting to heave – whoever is not strong or skillful enough to hold their bind and win the scrum loses the ball. How many daft infringements, and injuries, occur as result of one side not being able to bind properly and the scrum falling to bits? Paying crowds do not want to sit and watch the scrum fail and reform a dozen times per game – it’s not infrequent that this takes up 10 minutes of the game – fully an eighth of play.

    • Thanks Croydon boy, I think the analogy with tug-of-war and arm wrestling is an interesting one but you could equally use the analogy of sumo wrestling or judo in response. It’s an interesting point about removing the hit and I would agree that a bad starting position is only going to exacerbate the possibility of injury. But if you want to say that part of the game itself is the ability to time your hit well then it wouldn’t be necessary to remove it. It’s also not just about the paying public since most rugby games take place in front of a handful of spectators. Many amateur prop-forwards relish the opportunity that they have to influence the game at front row.

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