TOP 14 MATCHDAY ONE REVIEW: Scrum rules not okay?

Rugby union’s new scrummaging laws had their first serious workout this weekend as the Top 14 season kicked off in France.

For years, it has been widely accepted that the scrum is a mess. That lengthy instruction: ‘Crouch. Touch. Hold. Engage,’ was almost inevitably followed by a raised arm and the shrill sound of a whistle as as referees penalised players apparently at random for one or other or all of the props not binding with their opposite number, to someone collapsing the melee, or a host of other infringements that few people could see and even fewer could understand.

Instead of restarting a game, the scrum had become a penalty lottery. Depending on where it was on the pitch, the scrum had become either more points in the bag or a get out of jail free card.

It was hoped that the new, slightly shorter, instruction: ‘Crouch. Bind. Engage’ would go a long way to solving the problem.

It means the props have to bind properly, and the ball cannot not be put into the scrum until the referee is happy it is properly set. It is intended to cut down on the number of penalties conceded, reduce the pressure generated by 16 big men piling into one another like rutting stags and thus cut down on injuries.

It’s early days for the new rules, so it’s unfair to call them a failure – but if the opening round of Top 14 matches is anything to go by, no one still knows exactly what’s going on. Either that, or the players and the referees still have a very different idea of how the rules should be interpreted.

Toulon conceded six penalties at the scrum in the opening match on Friday, August 16 – and they were hardly the worst offenders on another weekend of scrums turning into penalties faster than Toulon coach Bernard Laporte replaced Andy Sheridan when Nicholas Mas made his bow for Montpellier on Friday.

Somehow – and thanks mainly to the enchanted boot of the magical Jonny Wilkinson – the European champions got away with an ill-discipline performance against Montpellier. But The Amazing Wilko needed help in the form of an interception try from Maxime Mermoz to level the scores and for Toulon to escape Stade Yves du Manoir with an undeserved 22-22 draw.

A first competitive match for Racing Metro’s shiny new signing Jonny Sexton, guided by shiny new bootroom boy Ronan O’Gara, was also a long way from magical. The Top 14’s new great kicking pretender missed three out of six attempts at goal, but did at least help his side to a 19-14 win over newly promoted Brive.

The Top 14’s other new boys, Oyonnax, have some serious thinking to do – not least whether a rather ostentatious gold kit was really a good idea. Bayonne quickly taught them that winning the Pro D2 title is no guarantee of success in the premier division. They did well to concede just four tries and keep the scoreline to a mere 39-11.

Toulouse, too, learned a harsh lesson – namely that their reputation counts for nothing any more. In seasons gone by, they would have expected to have to do little more than turn up at a place like Bordeaux to pick up a suitably big win. Not any more. Bordeaux refused to accept the inevitable and pulled themselves back from behind twice to win 31-25… Maybe signing the so-mercurial-he’s-Marmite Pierre Barnard from Castres was not such a bonkers idea. After all, he landed eight penalties and a conversion. Not a bad first day.

But the same couldn’t be said  for a new-look Stade Francais. They came a cropper against a workmanlike Grenoble, who stuffed them in the scrum, the lineout, the maul, worked harder in defence, kicked better and ended up winning 19-16.

He may be something of a secret rugby player in the mould of England’s dark arts legend Richard Hill, but Perpignan’s almost-but-not-quite-as-tall as Castres’ Richie Gray lock Sebastien Vahaamahna (do-doo-do-do-do) did his job pretty well, as USAP came back from 10-0 down inside the opening 10 minutes to win their opener against Top 14 champions Castres 26-23.

And finally, Clermont began their campaign with a widely expected win at Biarritz. The Basque side did their best, bless ‘em, but what with their financial problems, they just don’t have the resources to handle the likes of Forfana, Parra and Sivivatu. And they didn’t. Yachvili kept them in the hunt rather longer than Scotland’s next coach Vern Cotter would probably have liked, but the 18-22 scoreline was all a bit inevitable, if a little flattering for the hosts.