This is part of The42′s Class of 95 series, a week-long examination of professional rugby in Ireland.
IN TONY COLLINS’ book The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby, he describes how in the sport’s early days in the mid 19th century, the game was essentially a scrummaging free for all.
It formed the main way of bringing the ball up the pitch, fought out by up to 50 schoolboys at a time:
Fast forward to February 1995, just a few months before rugby was declared an open, professional game. By now, the scrum had become sophisticated in its own right, a contest for the ball, a battle of both brains and brawn. However, compared to today’s scrummaging, it was a different beast entirely.
To examine just how much the concept of the scrum has changed, we’re looking back at two games from the 1995 Five Nations Championship; the meetings of England and France, and Scotland versus Ireland.
The most obvious takeaway is how the outlook of the teams affected the way the scrum was played. With the main focus being starting an attack, penalties were rare.
The initial hit was hugely important, the moment where the forwards jostled for position before the ball was fed. Both packs started out quite far apart, before lurching forward. As we can see below, the gap between the English and French front rows just before they engage is at least a metre.
Compare it to a modern example, taken from Ireland’s win against Australia in November. With the current engagement sequence of ‘crouch-bind-set’, we can see how the front rows’ heads are almost in line with each other, even before the bind is called.
The body positions in the two pictures is also worth noting. As we can see in the Ireland-Australia picture above, both Jack McGrath and Sekope Kepu are in a full scrummaging position even before the engagement, with their bodies parallel to the ground.
But in that example from England against France in 1995, the two front rows are in a much more upright position.
As we can see below, once the engagement is called, they propel themselves downwards.
Even the way the hookers and props bind to each other has changed, most notably the bind of the tighthead to the hooker.
The traditional way would be for the tighthead to wrap his arm around the back of his hooker, gripping the jersey mid-way up his body, or occasionally on the top of the shorts on his left side, creating as little space as possible for the opposition loosehead to separate them.
But particularly in the last few years, a trend is emerging where tightheads are moving that bind to their hooker’s lower back, which allows them to pop their left shoulder further out. It also gives them a wider platform from which to attack the opposition hooker.
This screenshot of the overhead camera in England and Scotland’s Six Nations meeting last year gives us a good view of where Dan Cole and WP Nel are binding, gripping the top of the shorts, just above the hooker’s backside.
Back in 1995, the body and foot positions weren’t exactly groundbreaking. At best, you could call them messy.
One example below shows English prop Victor Ubogu and France’s Laurent Benezech. Neither player’s technique is particularly impressive by today’s standards.
Benezech has his head quite far below his hips, with his back curved, while Ubogu is facing upwards. Very little detail is paid to the footwork, with his feet quite far forward, resulting in his body becoming bunched.
Another example comes later in the first half. Benezech has come off injured, with Christian Califano switching across to loosehead.
However we can see below how wide his stance is, with his left leg quite far forward, and his right leg much further back.
Ubogu’s bind on the arm is clear but goes unpunished. Some things don’t seem to change at all.
We can also see how messy the body positions are in this shot from the Ireland-Scotland game, with Peter Clohessy and Dave Hilton both having their heads well below their hips, caused in part from being so upright when they engage.
Probably the best example of modern technique is South Africa’s Tendai Mtawarira (the Beast).
In this scrum from their third test with Ireland last summer, we can see a perfect example of how to set up, with the back parallel to the ground.
And as he drives, you can see him maintaining that position the whole way through.
It seems to be a modern myth that there are too many reset scrums in rugby these days. Back before professionalism, it appeared that scrums were reset far more often.
However the reason it wasn’t as noticeable is because of the speed at which scrums were formed and completed.
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In the modern game, 45 seconds to a minute could pass between the referee calling for a scrum, and the teams engaging. If it has to be reset, you’re looking at another 30 seconds for players to get up, get their binds and positions, and engage once again. It all adds up.
In 1995, the players were often engaging within 10 or 15 seconds of a knock-on being called. A huge number of them needed to be reset, but it only took a few more seconds. In many cases the players remained bound as they got up off the ground, and dived back in again.
And if you thought that one was fast, this one from the Ireland-Scotland game took about half the time.
It wasn’t long after the game went pro that hooking was given a twist. New Zealand began to master the art of driving as the ball was fed, reducing the pressure on the hooker, and also sending defences backtracking.
In the end, it morphed further into what we have now, where the ball is either rolled in and walked over by the pack, or the hooker lifts his leg a couple of seconds in advance, and the scrum-half places the ball behind it, like below.
Back in 1995 though, the hooker had far less time to prepare for the strike, and for players like England’s Brian Moore it was an art that they prided themselves on.
The strike was powerful enough to send it back to the number eight’s feet, and the feed was straight down the middle.
While modern referees are far more lenient on where the ball is fed, in large parts it’s because they have to keep their eyes on so much at the same time.
Twenty-two years ago, penalties weren’t as frequent at scrum time, even though there was plenty going on that you could penalise. Instead, referees watched scrums like a hawk. Above you can see how he stoops down to watch the ball being fed, and it’s scrutinised even further below.
You may have spotted it the clip above, but it was often common back in the pre-professional days for the number eight to stay out of the scrum, and protect the nearby channels.
With teams rarely trying to walk a scrum down the pitch to milk a penalty, it was quite a small risk to leave your pack down to seven players, when it meant an extra body in the defensive lines.
It’s long since been outlawed, but even if it hadn’t, many modern teams are unlikely to fancy trying it.
An example of how it works well is that Ireland and Scotland game in 1995. In this case, Ireland’s Ben Cronin stands just off the scrum in the blindside channel, and is able to prevent Bryan Redpath getting over the gainline when he snipes. Redpath gets his pass away, but the pressure eventually forces Scotland into touch.
However, in another example from the England-France game, we can see how some quick thinking in attack can exploit it.
Below we can see how France line up with number eight Philippe Benetton down the blindside. But just as the packs engage, England’s Tim Rodber leaves the scrum to even up the numbers on his side.
In a move straight off the training ground, it allows Rodber to draw Benetton to him, creating space for Mike Catt to make a great break down the blindside, before throwing the most old-fashioned offload to Tony Underwood who scores.
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