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James Baxter and the Demise of 2-3-2

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  practice.


He 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.

By 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.  In 1931[1] 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 McMillan (1984)

“… James ‘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 forward position.

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?

The 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 Ron Palenski)

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 Football by

Ivor D Difford.

Then 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 the game.


Sound 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.

The 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 front row.”

After losing the first Test, New Zealand devised a counter.

For 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.

Realising 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.”[2]

The sides drew the four game Test series, and Mark Nicholls later summarised the scrums:

In 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.

PS.  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.

[1] It is worth noting that up to 1930 the rubric at the front of the laws said

“Laws of the game of football as played by the RFU “

but from 1931 it read

“Laws of the game of rugby football as framed by the IRFB”

It is therefore clear that internationally these laws also applied to New Zealand from 1931 at least.

[2] It was not until 1935 that a Note in the IRFB Laws said: “a scrum half having chosen a side on which he wishes to put the ball in cannot alter his decision”

© P Shortell, 2009
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