"The Scrum is Integral" - Dylan Hartley Defends Set-Pieces Amidst World Rugby's 5-Point Proposal - Ruck

“The Scrum is Integral” – Dylan Hartley Defends Set-Pieces Amidst World Rugby’s 5-Point Proposal

Former England captain Dylan Hartley has defended the need for scrums in rugby, despite World Rugby’s proposed ‘five-point’ plan to increase the speed of the game. Hartley believes that rugby union can not be an ‘all-action’ game, yet admitted how there are areas of the sport that need to be altered.

World Rugby’s five point proposal focussed on the following quintet of elements; speed of the game, language and presentation, player welfare and wellbeing, disciplinary process review and the constantly growing women’s side of the sport. Scoping his attention on the speed of rugby as a sporting spectacle, Hartley expressed how a limit on the set-piece re-start could be the way forward. Speaking with Gambling Zone, Hartley said;

Dylan Hartley of England during the Quilter International Match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on 10th November 2018. – PHOTO: Gareth Davies/PPAUK

“The game can’t be all-action; it can’t be non-stop, naturally with set pieces there has to be stops and time of organisation. There are certain things that need to be addressed. When refs say, “use it”, it should be used – that would get rid of the caterpillar rucks, which would likely result in less accurate kicks, disorganised kick chases and potentially more charge downs leading to less structured play and a more heads open game of rugby with a more open attitude to playing

“Anything that helps increase the tempo of the game can only be a good thing. I’m not saying that rugby needs to be fast and frantic, and the fabric of the game needs to change. What makes the game unique is the different ways teams can play, whether that is by mauling and controlling or by being fast and unpredictable. If there are laws that can remove the dead time in a game, then that would be a good thing. If you look at the average game, the ball is in play for thirty-five of the eighty minutes, so there’s a lot of downtime.

Scrum during the Gallagher Premiership match between Exeter Chiefs and Leicester Tigers at Sandy Park, Exeter on 23th Dec 2023. Photo: Mat Mingo/PPAUK

“I think putting a time limit on scrums (could be a solution to make the game quicker). That was one of my bug bears when I played. You’re in a game where you’re behind with five or ten minutes to go, and I would always be in the ref’s ear saying, ‘come on.’ I’d have my team set ready to scrum. When I look at other teams that are playing now, I don’t see that urgency to scrum and restart the game. I don’t think that referees are that bothered either.

One of the top scrummaging hookers, Hartley made a career about winning the ball against the head and securing an all-important turnover. The former Northampton Saints man accredited his scrummaging success to his longevity in rugby’s upper echelons, and believed that the phase of play is essential to the sport’s appeal to all onlookers.

Dylan Hartley, Captain of England Rugby leads the team into Twickenham stadium before the International Old Mutual Wealth Series match between England v Argentina on 11th November 2017 at Twickenham Stadium, London, England (Photo:Phil Mingo/PPAUK),

“The scrum is integral to Rugby Union. Without that you remove a whole type of athlete that plays the game, and rugby should be a game for everyone. We are heavily influenced by the attacking shapes of Rugby League and are attempting to emulate Rugby League defensive principles.

“If we remove set pieces and make the break a non contest we basically have rugby league. If rugby removed the scrum, you have to think about how that filters down to children, because it is a game for everyone of all shapes and sizes. I would have been out of a job if there was no scrummaging!”

The scrums sets during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Exeter Chiefs at the Recreation Ground on 2 December 2023. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“I think we need to be careful about removing a scrum (from the game). Rugby is very unique in the fact that you might have a huge scrum that is the focal point of your team. Having a big pack could be central to your recruitment and serves you well in the depths of an English Premiership winter.

“But if you’re playing on a hard track in Durban (South Africa), a more mobile, lightweight athletic power based pack is how you’d recruit, It’s a horses for courses situation, and this is when we get the debate of when teams that are from different countries and climates, different gene pools, differing attitudes and focuses on the game come and play each other. There’s such contrasting styles regarding how to play and how to win, but evidence suggest size and set piece matters in the international game.”

Ben Spencer, Captain of Bath Rugby watches the scrum during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Match between Bath Rugby and Bristol Bears at the Recreation Ground on 17 November 2023. Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“A team’s philosophy could be built around scrummaging because it’s in their DNA. If you take that away, I don’t think that would be fair or just. Everyone wants to see a free-flowing game, but equally there are teams that play with a ‘put the ball up the jumper’ style and they can squeeze teams with their set-piece which leaves them exposed elsewhere when that style of rugby isn’t suitable. It works both ways as on a sunnier day that heavy pack can be exposed and made to run.”

Hartley then expressed how their needs to be better communication between the mic’d up referee and the players. For a spectator in the stadium or watching on at home, it can often be bewildering when a scrum penalty is awarded and there is not a clear justification as to why play has changed hands. Speaking on the necessity of clarity from the match officials, the former England captain added;

Referee Sara Cox oversees a scrum during the Gallagher Premiership match between Harlequins and Worcester Warriors the Twickenham Stoop, Twickenham, London on Saturday 25th September 2021 | Photo: James Fearn/PPAUK.

“Is a part of it how scrums are spoken about in games? A lot of commentators think scrums are boring, but there is a lot going on there that gets overlooked by the untrained eye. Players like yourself brought that aspect of the game to life and, perhaps, that made them more interesting.”

“As a starting point, when a referee says to do something, do it. You can’t rush scrums because of the force of them, and the players involved. You still need to give the biggest guys in the field the opportunity to go through the process to ensure it’s safe and to ultimately give a positive outcome of a solid scrum and fair contest.

Referee, Wayne Barnes over sees the scrum with Ben Spencer of Bath Rugby and Sam Maunder of Exeter Chiefs during the Gallagher Premiership match between Exeter Chiefs and Bath Rugby at Sandy Park on 2nd April 2022. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“If guys go into a scrum fatigued and are rushing things, like back in the 80’s and 90’s where players would just fly in, we’re going to have injuries and sloppy negative outcomes. There is a fine balance between speeding and tidying up the scrum and player safety without compromising the game within the game.  A scrum is a fair contest and should remain one.”

“I think that maybe there is a limited understanding of scrums and their importance to the game. Scrums are a complex beast. Looking back to when I played, the whistle would go, you’ve gone forward and been dominant. You think you’ve done a really good job and the penalty would go against you, so even as a player they can be confusing. But just because something is confusing, it doesn’t mean we call it boring and throw it in the bin.

Dylan Hartley, Co Captain of England during the Quilter International Match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium, Richmond, London on November 3. – PHOTO: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK

“There’s so many factors at play, but if I was reffing, I would concentrate on 3 simple and obvious red flags. Timing of the push. Direction and angle of the push. A fair contest to strike the ball. The average spectator can understand these 3 things so a ref should be able to see this too. If you were going to break down into basic fundamentals these are the pillars to focus on, the big numbers.

“I feel the ref is constantly finding the small numbers, a random binding issue, something that had little or no effect on the scrum and pings it… concentrate on the big pieces of pie (think pie chart!) – timing, direction, contest to strike. I feel a lot of scrumming is a pantomime or game within the game to con or gain favour with the ref to win penalties instead of sixteen players working towards a ball in play outcome.

Referee, Adam Leal directs the scrum during the Premiership Rugby Cup Final match between London Irish and Exeter Chiefs at The Gtech Community Stadium, London on 19 March 2023 (Photo: Danny Loo/PPAUK)

“Mindset from players will shift when refs give clear guidelines on what they are policing and taking a zero-tolerance approach to infringing on those three highlighted areas. No team wants to concede a penalty as it’s a territory loss of many meters and of three points on the board, resets and free kicks are just soft outs for refs and players. Set a higher standard and demand teams to step up or be punished.”

Rounding off the discussion into the dark arts of the front row, the former hooker expressed his opinion on how a referee should have the casting vote over their assistant touch judges. Hartley believes that the man with the whistle has a far better understanding of whats going on in the scrum, than that of his officiating partner that is occupying the touchline.

Exeter Chiefs player Jack Maunder stands over a scrum with Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys during the Gallagher Rugby Premiership game between Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs at JW Bell Stadium on October 3rd – PHOTO: Steve Bond/PPAUK

“There are so many intricacies that come into it. One thing that I would potentially do would be to remove touch judges from the calling process because it gives the referee an out and removes the responsibility of making a call. It’s like linesmen seeing something from thirty metres away which is irrelevant to what the ref has seen from his side. Put more responsibility on the referee to call it as he sees it and remove exterior influences.

“We can’t go through rugby with a fine comb. At every breakdown there will be a head contact; we’re always going to see something that we don’t like. This is where I think the game is now. The TMO thing has been parked and we’re trying to empower the refs to make on-field decisions. I think scrummaging is one of those parts of the game that should be set aside for the ref.

Dylan Hartley, Captain of England Rugby listens to Steve Borthwick, Forwards Coach of England Rugby before the International Old Mutual Wealth Series match between England v Argentina on 11th November 2017 at Twickenham Stadium, London, England (Photo:Phil Mingo/PPAUK),

“If the ref has got an issue, when I played, he would go to the other side of the scrum and ref that side of the scrum, so the other side would get up to something a bit naughty and he would have to go and look at that. Empowering the refs to make stronger calls (is paramount). We’re at that stage now. You hardly ever see a ref reset a scrum three times. They get to an outcome quickly.”

“When the referee says, “use it,” use it. Putting a shot clock style time on scrummaging, getting set-up, and getting to an outcome earlier. I think once it goes to a short arm and a free-kick, you could probably remove the option to scrum again after that. Zero tolerance approach, penalise and punish teams until they clean up their act – read on to understand this wild statement!”