The New Zealand 2-3-2
scrum formation caused controversy from the moment it was first seen in the
Northern Hemisphere in 1905. Matters
came to a head with the Lions tour to New Zealand in 1930, which, according to
the tour agreement, was to be played under International Board laws.
“..... manager James
Baxter's crusade against the hosts’ habit of fielding a two-man front row and
a wing-forward deployed outside the confines of the scrum led ultimately to a
change in the laws and the outlawing of this
also ensured he had the final word, courtesy of the trump card of his position
as England's representative on the International Board, the law-making body of
which New Zealand had not been allowed to become a member.
coincidence or otherwise, within a year, the board had adopted new regulations
requiring teams to field three men in the front row of the scrum. At a stroke,
the 2-3-2 formation and the wing-forward was consigned to history. Baxter's
mission was accomplished”
(The Lions. The Complete
History of the British and Irish Rugby Union team
by David Walmsley)
This is pretty well what
all the histories say, though some phrase it less aggressively – which is
apparently more than you can say for Baxter.
However when I was in the RFU Reference Library at Twickenham a while
back I decided to look at the laws in question.
Before 1930, there was
no mention of the number of players in the front row.
there was indeed a change, but it merely specified “no more than three”.
That certainly does not outlaw a two man front row.
Indeed the minute books of the RFU (which also included the minutes of
the IB meetings) make it clear that this phrasing was deliberately designed to
accommodate the New Zealand formation.
In 1933 the RFU proposed
changing this to requiring precisely three on the basis that New Zealand had now
adopted this formation as well, but the IB decided not to make any changes at
that time. In fact it was not until
1950 that the law demanded a three man front row.
One of the more cautious
histories has a subtler version:
Centenary – 100 years
of All Black Rugby
RH Chester and N A C
‘Bim’ Baxter …. obviously had great influence in the halls of rugby power
and it was speculated that while in New Zealand he would lay the groundwork for
the outlawing of the wing-forward position. This came about indirectly with
changes to the scrummage off-side and hooking laws.
New Zealand was disadvantaged to such an extent that in 1932 the NZRFU
annual meeting decided to adopt a three-man front row and abolish the wing
So I looked at the
offside and hooking laws as well.
The 1926 law said a
player was offside: ”If whilst he ball
is in a scrummage he, not being in a scrummage, remain in front of the
ball or attempt to hook the ball out, neither foot being behind it.”
In 1931 this became: “If while the ball is in a scrummage he, not being in the scrummage, remain
with either foot in front of the ball.”
It is hard to see this
change as outlawing the rover, particularly since in New Zealand he was not
allowed to move past the centre line of the scrum..
The hooking law was
changed. There had been continuing difficulties for some years in getting the
ball fairly into the scrummage, and there was constant tinkering with the law.
In his History of the Laws, which covers up to 1947, Royds devotes 50 pages to
the scrum and no more than a dozen to any other law.
In 1930 the requirement
was for the ball to pass the first two feet on each side before it was played.
For the three man front row, with a hooker in the centre, this meant
near-foot hooking was legal; but unfortunately this too often meant the ball
being kicked back out of the scrum. The
law was changed to far-foot hooking, ie it had to pass three feet on each side.
A two man front row has four feet, so this change in itself would not
make the formation illegal.
It should be pointed out
that in New Zealand, where both front row men were hookers, both were allowed to
strike to for the ball - a habit that had caused argument when they toured South
Africa in 1928.
New Zealand was also
used to playing other variations to the internationally agreed laws,
such as their offside law for the rover and scrum half: they were not
allowed past the mid-line of the scrum until the ball was out. This prevented
them from interfering with the opposition scrum half.
In the Lions’ case, insisting on playing to international laws worked
against them, since the rover could now harry the scrum half from one side while
the scrum half did the same from the other.
This problem was not
tackled in any law changes. Indeed
there is no indication in the official minutes that there was any effort to
outlaw the New Zealand 2-3-2. The only comments on it relate to the need to
allow for it.
So why did the NZRFU
decide to give it up in 1932?
wing-forward's days were probably numbered anyway because for all the success
the position had brought New Zealand rugby, there were also New Zealand critics,
most notably referees.”
(All Blacks v Lions by
There is also a comment
by Mark Nicholls, the captain of the All
Blacks team that toured South Africa in 1928, in History of South African Rugby
Ivor D Difford.
consider for a moment the formation of the New Zealand scrum, which had only two
men in the front row against the three played by other countries. In spite of
the fact that we had been consistently beaten for possession from set scrums by
every other country, we had clung slavishly to our scrum formation. For six
years we had been slowly but surely sacrificing the very heart and foundation of
forward play is the basis of all Rugby Football and our particular style of play
had in my opinion been for the past six years built on an unsound foundation.”
In the first match, New
Zealand were soundly beaten in the scrums.
inferiority of the All Blacks ‘diamond’ 2-3-2 scrum, with George Scrimshaw
in the role of wing forward, was exposed in this game, Western Province pack
winning 30 scrums to 16 through having the advantage of the loosehead in the
After losing the first
Test, New Zealand devised a counter.
about a week prior to the second Test we trained seriously and hard. We evolved
the loose head and practised it secretly. Our idea was to have the loose head on
every possible scrum; for having a loose head meant that we were certain to get
a great deal more of the ball from set scrums than we did at Durban.”
(Mark Nichols op cit)
What happened is
described by AC Parker in The Springboks 1891 – 1970.
the futility of their two-man front row they came up with a clever counter in
the second test at Johannesburg. As
soon as a scrummage was formed, the rover, Ron Stewart (who had replaced
Scrimshaw), packed down as a third hooker on the side on which the ball was
being put in. Eventually Daunce
Pretorius, the South African scrum half, waited for Stewart to pack down before
throwing the ball to Nic Pretorius, the flanker on the opposite side, to put in.”
The sides drew the four
game Test series, and Mark Nicholls later summarised the scrums:
the first Test we won 16 scrums to their 36, in the second 16 to their 29, in
the third 17-28 and in this one [the 4th] we were almost on terms with them.”
It looks as though the
South Africans were a more significant agent for All Black change than James
‘Bim’ Baxter, however unpopular he made himself with his regular diatribes.
What remains unexplained is why the history books make claims about law changes
that I have been unable to substantiate.
I should point out that I have not had the opportunity to look at the
minutes of the NZRFU or other antipodean resources, so there is surely more
information available to those with access.
“Laws of the game
of football as played by the RFU “
but from 1931 it