Uncontested Scrums: The Law Clarified

The 2018 version of the Rugby Law Book might have been edited and simplified but. In truth, those simplifications are merely cosmetic and/or grammatical. The Laws might be easier to read, but that does not make them easier to understand! They remain a mishmash of complication and confusion, often to the complete mystification of the interested reader, never mind the individual who has to apply the Law – The much-maligned referee.

And then there are the fans, those who have never picked up a Law Book and flipped through the 135 pages of the 2018 version (or the 206 pages of last year’s publication) and only have a basic understanding of the Laws. They have even less chance of understanding some of the referee’s rulings and the complexity of the Laws.

Of course, the fans are not helped by their primary source of knowledge, our TV commentators, who often make up their own interpretations of the Laws as they fill the airwaves with their constant drivel. Some even make up their own Laws as they go along. (As do a number of the referees, but that is the subject of a different discussion.)

The complexity of the Laws has resulted in World Rugby having to issue a constant stream of Law Clarifications, telling us what the printed Laws actually mean, and how they should be applied.

I will not bore you with details of all the Law Clarifications issued by World Rugby. If you are a true insomniac and have excessive masochistic tendencies, you will find them on the World Rugby website. (laws.worldrugby.org) Suffice to say that there are lots and lots of them!

Here is an example:

Law 3 – Number of Players – The Team.

A Law that you would probably consider to be fairly simple – 15 on the field, and some reserves. Period.

No! This Law has had all of 24 Law Clarifications issued between 2002 and 2016!

And we kick off the 2018 Law Clarifications with yet another weighty tome from World Rugby clarifying……..

Wait for it…….

Yep, you got it! Law 3 – Number of Players – The Team.

You see, Law 3 tells us how many players are allowed on the field at any one time, and how many reserves are allowed at different levels of the game. (23 replacement for Tests and 1st-Class matches) The Law also dictates how many of the reserves must be front row forwards, being props and hookers. At first-class level, where the starting 15 are supported by a bench of 8 replacements, the minimum requirement is for a designated Loosehead Prop, a designated Tighthead Prop, and a designated Hooker to be amongst the 8 replacements.

But the Law-makers have thought of everything!

In Law Three they also include the bits of the Law that apply to Uncontested Scrums.

(Logic says you should find this in Law 19, The Scrum, but World Rugby has never been very big on logic!)

This is the bit of Law Three that is important to our discussion:


  1. Scrums will become uncontested if either team cannot field a suitably trained front row or if the referee so orders.
  2. A match organiser may stipulate the conditions under which a game may start with uncontested scrums.
  3. When a front-row player leaves the playing area, whether through injury or temporary or permanent suspension, the referee enquires at that time whether the team can continue with contested scrums. If the referee is informed that the team will not be able to contest the scrum, then the referee orders uncontested scrums. If the player returns or another front-row player comes on, then contested scrums may resume.
  4. In a squad of 23 players or at the discretion of the match organiser, a player whose departure has caused the referee to order uncontested scrums cannot be replaced.
  5. Only when no replacement front-row player is available is any other player permitted to play in the front row.
  6. If a front-row player is temporarily suspended, and the team cannot continue with contested scrums with players already on the field, then the team nominates another player to leave the playing area to enable an available front-row player to come on. The nominated player may not return until the period of suspension ends, or to act as a replacement.
  7. If a front-row player is sent off, and the team cannot continue with contested scrums with players already on the field, then the team nominates another player to leave the playing area to enable an available front-row player to come on. The nominated player may act as a replacement.

At first reading this whole section seems to be quite clear.

Law 3.13 tells us that uncontested scrums will take place if a team cannot field a suitably trained front row.

Law 3.14 even tells us that a game can start without a suitably trained front row. I am not sure when or why this would happen. If a team pitches up for a game without a front row, they should probably go and find some other sport to play.

Law 3.15, 16, and 17 clarify when and how these uncontested scrums will work.

Law 3.17 does, however, open a door for some manipulation –

An example? Let’s say that Team A is being monstered in the scrums by Team B. Things are going so badly that they will lose the game unless they do something drastic.  The coach sends a message on to Prop 1 – “Go down, clutch your leg in agony!”

Prop 1 complies with the instruction. The Team Medics rush on, whisper in his ear that he is going off. They carry him off between them, limping in agony. Prop 16 trots on as a replacement. Everything in terms of the Law, so far.

Prop 16 has been briefed. At the next scrum he collapses, a sore neck…. And off he goes! Loose-forward Replacement 22 is sent on to take his place in the uncontested scrums that will now be the norm for the rest of the game.

Team A now has the advantage. They have an extra loose-forward on the field, and they will no longer be monstered in the scrums!

I am sure that you will agree that this is simple manipulation of the Law, and tantamount to cheating!

Law 3.18 and 3.19 come along, and throw a curve ball at all those who think that they can also manipulate the Law when a player is given a yellow card, and use uncontested scrums to their tactical advantage.

If a front rower is sin-binned or sent off, it is a requirement that he be temporarily or permanently replaced by a qualified substitute (another prop or hooker) so that contested scrums can continue. However, the temporary substitute cannot simply replace the player who has gone off – the team has to suffer the consequence of having a player suspended or sent off, so the team has to nominate another player to leave the playing field to make way for the substitute. We often see a flanker sent to join his offending team mate on the naughty chairs, while a replacement prop goes on to keep the scrums going.

(Just such a situation occurred last weekend in the Stormers game against the Jaguares. Hooker Samuels was sent off for 10 minutes, and was joined by flanker Cobus Wiese so that replacement hooker Dean Muir could replace Samuels.)

This, of course, does not prevent attempts to manipulate the Law by having no suitable substitute!

If a suspended player cannot be substituted by a suitably qualified prop or hooker, then Uncontested Scrums will take place, and that is not really detrimental to the team who have had a player sent off. They can use the uncontested scrum to negate the strength of the opposing scrum and play tactically to limit the impact of being reduced to 14 men.

Makes sense then, that they be further penalised, by having an extra man sent off because they are unable to contest the scrums fairly.

Or does it?

World Rugby were asked by the English Rugby Football Union to clarify the situation, and they have issued their first Law Clarification of 2018.

I could give you their entire document to read, but that is a soporific exercise, so I will summarize:

If a team is unable to play on with contested scrums because they have had a front row player yellow-carded or red-carded, that team will have their on-field playing numbers reduced by TWO:


– The player who has been issued with the yellow or red card.
– Another nominated player must also leave the field as a sanction for the team being unable to contest scrums.

And then World Rugby add the rider:

Uncontested scrums MUST be made up of 8 players versus 8 players!

This results in the offending team being forced to play with 5 backline players at every scrum situation.

That is quite simple……… Why did they not just say so when they wrote the Law?

I cannot wait for the first time this sequence of events presents itself on the rugby field! It will be very interesting to hear the views of some of the commentators!

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