A rugby scrum is very different to a gridiron scrimmage. Instead of being arranged in two parallel lines, the big guys are in two tightly bound wedges. There are three rows: three men, then four, then one. The section on player positions explains the names of each position and roughly what they do.
Unlike a gridiron center, a rugby hooker does not start in possession of the ball. The two front rows of forwards crouch down, come together and lock heads. That creates a tunnel between the two packs. The attacking scrum half feeds the ball into that tunnel, and the two hookers try to secure the ball by hooking it back with their feet (which is where the name comes from). The scrum half is obliged to feed the ball fairly between the two packs, but he may use pre-arranged signals to let his hooker know when it is coming. Because the hooker is busy with his feet, he relies on the two guys either side of him to hold him up, which is why they are called props.
Once the ball has entered the scrum, both sides are allowed to push, and push they do. Firstly, it is easier to get the ball out on your side if your guys are moving forward over it. Second, you make ground. And third, your opponents will find it harder to defend if they are moving backwards. This is a sort of blocking, because the ball is on the ground and the two packs are trying to push each other away from it. If a scrum takes place close to a goal line the attackers may attempt a “push over” try. That is, you just hold the ball in the scrum, generally with the number eight kicking it along in front of him, until such time as it is over the goal line, at which point the number eight falls on it to secure the score.
A recently introduced rule states that if the defending team at a scrum manages to wheel it around through 90° then the scrum is stopped and their scrum half is given possession for the next scrum. This makes for more interesting tactical options within the scrum.
The scrum is an area of rugby where lots of deviousness goes on. It is hard for the referee to see what is happening inside that pile of flesh. It is supposedly illegal for the front rows to bite each others’ ears, but take a careful look at any rugby front row forward’s head and you will see that such niceties are not always observed. Many forwards now wear a headband to protect their ears, or a skullcap like those that were worn in gridiron in the days before helmets.
But wait a minute, this is all a bit complicated. Does one of these scrum things have to happen every time a player gets tackled? Won’t that take time? I thought rugby never stopped. And indeed it doesn’t. A formal scrum only happens after the game has stopped because of a minor penalty. After a tackle the forwards just have to get there as quickly as they can and make things up as they go along. This impromptu scrimmage is known as a ruck.
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