Alastair Hignell: New rugby season gets under way with welcome changes to the scrum
The Aviva Premiership giveth and the Aviva Premiership taketh away.
We are about to receive, as the new season kicks off tomorrow, a concussion bin – to which players suspected of being concussed are removed for five minutes and assessed properly by the medics, and a beefed-up TMO – who can now offer the referee guidance on events leading up to a try rather than solely on the act of scoring.
We are about to lose a couple of words from the referee's instructions as a set scrum packs down. Crouch-Touch-Pause -Engage is to be replaced by Crouch-Touch-Set.
The first two tweaks to the regulations – prompted by commendable concerns for safety and fairness – will probably slow the game down. The third should speed it up, but don't bet on it.
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At least it's a recognition that the set scrum is a mess. Confusing, time-consuming and largely inconclusive, the constant setting and resetting of scrums has been a source of irritation for rugby fans for some time now.
For players – especially the modern breed of front-row forward – and referees it has been an increasing source of frustration. For broadcasters and sponsors the lack of action for long periods of a match has been increasingly difficult to "sell". For law-makers and administrators the solution has been increasingly difficult to find.
This may not be the definitive answer but in simplifying the instructions it may remove some uncertainty. Interpretation of the Pause command has allegedly been the cause of most misunderstanding between referee and front rows and removing it altogether should be a big help.
In the end, though, it may need a complete change of mindset to make it work. God forbid that the set-scrum in rugby union should be reduced to the status of its counterpart in rugby league – as a means to the end of restarting play as quickly as possible. Common sense forbid that players be encouraged to cheat or waste time by their coaches or allowed to do so by fearful referees.
Especially at the start of a new domestic season the prevailing mood should not be one of negativity or fear, but of optimism. From tomorrow's double-header at Twickenham – featuring reigning champions Harlequins and their immediate predecessors Saracens – to Sunday afternoon's first ever match at the Kassam Stadium between London Welsh and its most successful side, Leicester Tigers, the opening weekend should provide the perfect start to the new campaign.
There's an awful lot of rugby to be played before the season reaches its climax at Twickenham at the end of May. Even before a ball is kicked in anger, it's relatively easy to predict that the likes of Leicester, Saracens and Harlequins will be heavily involved. Although all three have, to a greater or lesser extent, dipped into the summer transfer market, all three have strong squads, established coaches, firm financial foundations and a winning mentality.
London Welsh have plenty of that last quality – worthy winners of the Championship play-offs, they also had to win a legal battle to secure the right to play in the Premiership – but not much else. The protracted court case hampered their ability to recruit in the close season and although the Kassam Stadium will enable them to look the Premiership part, and although summer signing Gavin Henson will provide a strong set of rugby skills, as well as glamour and unpredictability, the Exiles are still favourites to return whence they came.
Mind you, the same was said about both Worcester, who were promoted last year, and Exeter, who joined the top flight the season before. While Worcester finished comfortably clear of last season's relegation dog-fight between Wasps and Newcastle, Exeter exceeded all but their own expectations to gain fifth place and automatic entry to this season's Heineken Cup.
London Welsh are entitled to dream of something similar, especially if they acknowledge something that Exeter are reluctant to admit. The Chiefs made such headway last season largely by default. Traditional powerhouses like Gloucester and Sale went into something like meltdown as the season reached its climax while others like Bath, London Irish and Northampton allowed themselves to be distracted by rumours surrounding their playing and coaching staff.
All of them look to be in far better shape after a summer of reflection, rehabilitation and regrouping. All of them are making the right sort of noises about their pre-season preparations but then, they would, wouldn't they? For that we should all be truly grateful.