OPINION: In the first test between New Zealand and France, 18 minutes and 29 seconds elapsed with absolutely nothing going on. That's how long Wayne Barnes waited to set the game's 17 scrums. Of course, Barnes talked a lot, but he didn't have a clue what he was talking about. It was like watching Winston Peters trying to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic.
Of course, there is a long queue ready to testify to Barnes's cluelessness, currently headed by Dylan Hartley. The hooker completely lost his rag with Barnes, calling him a "f…ing cheat", after Barnes awarded two absurd penalties against the Northampton scrum in the English Premiership final. Hartley's outburst cost him his Lions place.
Former England hooker, Brian Moore, wrote: "This fractiousness was caused, in major part, by yet more inadequate refereeing of the scrum, and if Barnes and his elite brethren did not ignore laws and/or selectively apply them, reducing the scrum to a lottery, this tension would not exist."
But the tension does exist. You only had to look at the body language of French captain Thierry Dusautoir last weekend. Wyatt Crockett, as Graham Henry might observe, got away with murder. Crockett was angling in on the French tighthead, who kept getting pinged for turning in. But when Crockett did his usual impersonation of a tripod, hand on ground, Barnes looked the other way.
Barnes was not going to leave New Zealand a villain, and he manifestly favoured the home team in the first test. The All Blacks were awarded five penalties and two free kicks at the scrummage. France were given two penalties, one of which was called by the assistant referee, the other given when the All Blacks scrum was running backwards.
Barnes kept getting it wrong. He penalised France, quite mistakenly, at an attacking scrum, when the All Blacks anticipated the "set" call like 70s sprinters on the blocks. He refused to give a penalty against Crockett, as he was obliged to, when the loosehead, yet again was scrummaging with one hand on the ground. Nyanga, the French replacement flanker, was banging the turf in frustration, trying to show Barnes the error of his ways.
Crockett is a considerable forward around the pitch, but he can't scrummage. Graham Henry knows it. Dave Rennie knows it. Indeed most of the coaches in New Zealand know it. One said he was like an owl with its head tucked under its wing against France.
So maybe it is time to set Crockett free from the tyranny of referees. One moment the big man is a villain because he can't stand up to Martin Castrogiovanni. The next moment he is a hero because Mr Barnes has no innate understanding of the scrummage.
We cannot be sure, but it is a fair leap to suggest that the first test of this series was decided by inadequate reffing of the scrum. It is something that happens far, far too often. The Premiership final went the same way. So may the Lions series. Maybe last night's test was similarly affected, although Alain Rolland is a good deal more savvy than most.
There will certainly be opinions on the subject. Even Lyndon Bray, the referee's supervisor for last night's match, says: "Who is at fault is a never-ending debate."
So why are refs awarding penalties for what amounts to a guessing game? A trio of former props, Fran Cotton, Mike Burton and Ray McLoughlin, called the current laws "unjust, illogical and inoperable".
They wrote a paper on the subject. It pointed out that a loosehead generates horizontal and upwards forces. The only way for the tighthead to keep the scrum steady is to push down, yet that is illegal. But if the tighthead doesn't bear down, he risks being popped out and could get penalised for standing up. He may also get hurt, as happened to Stags prop Tuki Raimona last weekend. Raimona ended up in intensive care with a bruised heart after being lifted out of a scrum.
The tighthead has to bear down just to survive, but if the loosehead is not strong enough to resist, then he will end up on the floor, as has happened over Crockett's career. He then gives away a potentially match-winning penalty. As Burton and co point out, it is akin to penalising a centre for not being fast enough.
So let's set Crockett, and many props, free and get rid of this guessing nonsense. Most rugby people love the scrum. We love its trial of strength. For the likes of France and Argentina it's part of their culture, part of their soul.
But please let's stop the clock between scrummage award and set. And let's award free kicks for perceived scrummage offences, and make the only option from a free kick the tap and go. Otherwise, we risk the sort of French farce that Wayne Barnes played out last weekend. And we have already had quite enough of those.
- © Fairfax NZ News