by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
The scrum has long been a source of distinction in our sport. At its core, the scrum can be described as eight players, literally bound together, attempting to exert force upon the opposition’s eight. How to gain the upper hand in this contest for superiority has mystified players, coaches and spectators for years. Although the laws of the games constantly evolve, including those around scrummaging, the intimacy of the battle still thrives.
There have been numerous advances in understanding the key components of the scrum and how players are coached to perform in this moment during matches. Expertise is now available as to how athletes are physically prepared to safely participate in the scrum. In addition to physical preparedness, a positive approach to the scrum has been encouraged by the lawmakers to assure a fair contest for the ball. Consistent application of the laws by the referee, in conjunction with clear communication to the participants in the scrum, continues to produce one of the intense moments forwards can experience during a match.
When all eight players put every ounce of physical and mental effort into the scrum, when the timing and cadence of the scrum is precise, it almost feels effortless, like hitting a ball smack in the middle of the “sweet spot”. The amount of training that is required to get eight individuals to this level of synchronization can’t be underestimated. No other moment in the match requires as much mental focus and physical effort. For example, it is common for many forwards to “take a breather” at the lineout, especially if their responsibilities are limited at the line of touch. When scrummaging however, whether in attack or defense, there cannot be a moment when the eight forwards are not fully committed, body and soul, to the scrum.
We could not further discuss the technical aspects of scrummaging without pausing to acknowledgement the work of New Zealander Mike Cron and his efforts in the development and advancement of coaching in this area.
Many of the best teams employ either an identical or hybrid version of Cron’s approach to scrummaging. The New Zealander has established an extensive array of drills and activities to develop a player’s scrummage skills, including unit tactics and individual techniques based on body profile and balance, to effectively get the most out of the scrum. Cron has looked far and wide when devising the technical systems used in his coaching. His curiosities lead him to explore the techniques in sports like Sumo and Greco-Roman wrestling and how leverage and body angles impact a player’s ability to apply force. It was Mike, I believe, who introduced the implications of a social phenomenon called “social loafing” and discussed its implications to scrummaging.
Social Loafing is a theory that states there is a tendency of individual group members to reduce their work effort as the group increases in size. Years ago, German researchers had people pull alone and in groups on a rope attached to a strain gauge to measure the pulling force exerted. What they discovered was the totals of the group result did not equal the sum of the individual scores. Three individuals pulled at only two and a half the average individual performance, and eight individuals pulled at less than four the individual average. These findings run counter to how we traditionally believe individuals perform in teams because of the notion that we will do more, pull harder, via our sense of team participation. What is more likely to occur, is that as the group size increases, the individual will work more in proportion to the pressure they feel to work and thus the bigger the group, the less the individual effort.
To construct successful scrums, a team culture must be created which places a high degree of accountability on each player within the unit. A heighten responsibility to give everything, every scrum, is the bedrock on which scrums are built. Without unconditional effort, techniques and tactics are of minimal help in the scrum.
By understanding that social loafing occurs within groups, we must challenge each player to contribute more, not less, to the scrum. Specific activities and exercises are used to prepare each forward to meet and defeat the urge to loaf. Yet another example of using sport to teach life lessons.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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