Former Scotland coach turned Irish television rugby pundit Matt Williams believes the scrum-heavy approach to rugby union as encapsulated by South Africa is not good for the sport.
A scrum penalty three minutes from time in the South Africa versus England Rugby World Cup semi-final at the Stade de France was what ultimately the difference between the two sides, with the Boks’ fabled ‘Bomb Squad’ seemingly pulling off the impossible for the defending world champions.
Australian pundit Williams says that the central focus on the setpiece – and a bid by teams to win penalties from it – is becoming the centrepiece of the sport rather than a means by which to restart the game.
“What are you incentivising?” Williams told the Virgin Media Sport panel after the game. “By giving a penalty where you can take three points or kick for touch and start a maul, you are incentivising scrummaging to get the penalty. If you take that incentive away, well then what’s the incentive?
“You get the ball to the backs, you have 16 forwards tied up so there is all this space. All through the 90s and early 00s, we had wonderful back row moves and wonderful back line plays coming off scrums, it was entertaining and it was great.
“The scrums were still there and they were a contest, you could still get a pushover try, but the referee wasn’t going to give you a penalty unless you did foul play or were offside. The game was much better for it…
“South Africa and England are like great tax accountants, they find every loophole and exploit it brilliantly. I admire the intellect, but that is not good for the global game.
“It is not good for the other sides in the game like France, New Zealand, and Ireland, who are trying to play a more positive, ball in hand, entertaining game. We are in the business of entertainment…
“Is it a 15-man game or an 8-man game? Right now, it has become so biased towards scrummaging and mauling. The game is totally out of balance.”
Williams received a lot of flak for his take, with many viewing it as outdated.
Outgoing Fiji head coach Simon Raiwalui appeared to disagree, writing on X: “One week the chat is the need to de-power the scrum, next week it’s the maul, next week it’s the ruck, key fundamentals that makes our game truly unique…do we change to suit a style/some or do we embrace what is uniquely rugby union? I vote the later, loved tonight’s match [South Africa vs England].”
The debate around scrums is one tends to raise its head every other year or, and no doubt it won’t be the last we hear from it.