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I'm aware that it is allowed to contest a scrum but it is rarely done, presumably because the ball can be fed directly to the Lock at back of the pack - has it always been like this or was there a watershed moment in the tactics or rules?

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  • Allowing players who are not specifically trained for scrummage to do a scrum would be exceptionally dangerous. In rugby union, if a team is forced to play a player who is not a trained tight-five player in one of those position then the game goes to sissy-scrums because of how dangerous it is
    – Neil Meyer
    Oct 11, 2021 at 10:54

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It’s not a point in time

The scrum has always been contentious is rugby league.

But little changed and the debate became more intense in the late 1930s, when it was not uncommon again to see matches of between eighty and a hundred scrums. Indeed, rule-breaking was almost inherent in the very nature of the scrum - when former Wallaby hooker Ken Kearney arrived to play for Leeds in 1948 he asked a referee what were the best tactics to use in English scrums. ‘Cheat’ was the one-word reply he allegedly, but quite believably, received.

Cheating in scrums was so ubiquitous that the referee could legitimately choose to award a penalty to either team. And, with penalty goals allowed from scrum infringements and tries only with 3 points, the referee’s choice at the right place at the right time could determine the outcome of a game. Then, as now, fans like to feel that the match was decided by the players, not the officials.

The seemingly never-ending cycle of clampdown, dismissals and eventual reassertion of the norm continued into the 1970s when the introduction of limited tackle rugby league in 1966 meant that struggle for possession, and consequently scrums, lost much of its previous importance. Indeed, the technical problems of the scrum were gradually solved by the expedient of allowing, albeit informally, the scrum-half to feed the ball to his own forwards.

That is my earliest memory of scrums - the halfback put the ball behind the raised foot of the loose head prop right at the feet of their second row, a clear incorrect feed but one that didn’t get penalised. A strong push by the opposition at the right time might result in a win against the feed but more likely a collapsed scrum and a penalty for the feeding team. It must be remembered that the loose head and feet went by territory, not offending, so if it was in your half it was your feed.

So, the scrum was de facto no longer a contest by the end of the 1970s. Rule changes from the 1980s on made the situation de jure.

The differential penalty made scrum infringements less consequential as a shot at goal was no longer an option. The introduction and extension of the handover greatly reduced the number (and importance) of scrums. The change to give the loose head and feed to the non-offending side made errors more consequential.

Changes to scrum rules were basically complete by the 1990s and the scrum itself had basically the modern form - that is, with very few exceptions, a set piece opportunity for the feeding side rather than a contest for possession.

While it is within the laws for the defending team to contest a scrum, other changes to the rules make it a sub-optimal tactic. It is far more effective too those forwards to break from the scrum as soon as possible and rejoin the defensive line rather than risk becoming tangled up in a lost scrum or conceding a penalty.

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