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The Set Scrum

"More sevens matches are lost at the base of the scrummage than is realized" --Mike Williams

Possession is vital in sevens, and the set scrum is one of the major first phase situations at which the ball is contested; only the kickoff ranks with it in terms of frequency. "More sevens matches are lost at the base of the scrummage," writes Mike Williams correctly, "than is realized."

As with any situation at which possession is contested, there are techniques to winning our ball, and either winning or spoiling theirs, and they should be practiced regularly.

Power Scrummaging vs. Scrum as Restart

The general trend in top level sevens has been to move away from traditional 15s' scrummaging techniques. New Zealand and Australia both concentrate on using the scrum simply to restart the game: just win the ball and "get on with it," sentiments both New Zealand's Bill Freeman and Australia's Bob Dwyer have expressed.

Interestingly, however, in the 1988 Sydney Sevens, Scotland, using more conservative power scrummaging techniques, won several tight heads against Australia and New Zealand, and gave them no easy scrummages.

I firmly believe that all sevens forwards should be aware of the techniques of power scrummaging as well as quick restart scrummaging: just as in 15s, if our forwards can dominate theirs, taking away their ball and getting them moving backward at both our scrum and theirs, they can set the stage for total domination.

Our ball

Overbind or underbind?

Hookers in sevens have the option of binding over or under the arms of their props; at the top level both options are used. The overbind, universally used in 15s, is still used by traditionalists such as most teams in the Scottish Borders.

Coaches in most other countries have gone to underbinding for the reason expressed by Bill Freeman: "we underbind because it allows us to very quickly get another player into the attack or to support the defense," although some, like Fiji's Kitione Tuibua, leave that decision to the hooker:

I always tell whoever is playing at hooker, whatever is good for him, do it. If he has been doing it over the arm, and for me to tell him to do it under the arm, that is not good, that is negative.

Dick Best doesn't see any significant difference in scrummaging ability:

I don't think there's any relevance whatsoever in terms of binding, whether anybody pushes anybody or outscrummages anybody.

I disagree. Although I prefer the underbind, it does come with its baggage: it puts the hooker further from the ball than the overbind, and also under pressure from strong packs, particularly those with "regular" (15-a-side) hookers that overbind and pressure. Thus there may be times when a hooker that prefers to underbind is forced to use the overbind just to win the ball.

This happened to the US Cougars in the 1987 Melrose Sevens: after a scrimmage on Thursday night in which we won virtually no ball using the underbind, we switched to the overbind and won every scrum in the tournament itself.

Our hosts not only felt there was a difference in scrummaging strength between the two binds, they were amazed that we actually would try such an "inferior" technique.

In fact, the Scottish team that pushed around both Australia and New Zealand at the 1988 Sydney Sevens was overbinding defensively against two Antipodean teams that were underbinding offensively.

Having expressed all the above reservations about the underbind, I should note that Will Brewington, Eagle sevens hooker since 1986 (and a 175-pound 15s' wing), underbinds at every scrum, regardless of opponent. And rarely loses a strike.

I try to use the hooker as an explosive offensive player, and believe strongly in using the underbind as long as we can comfortably win the ball: using the underbind, the hooker can get out of the scrum as quickly as the ball and be in a position to immediately support the attack.

To summarize, overbinding is a more powerful option, underbinding will put your hooker into open play more often. Unless it makes the difference between winning or losing the ball, underbinding is probably the better option.


The quickest way for the underbound hooker to get out of the scrum is for the props to bind on each other just under the arms. But, you may ask, is it legal? Will they be penalized?

It seems clear that, according to the letter of the law, prop-on-prop binding is illegal (Law 20 (6)(b)). Nevertheless, sides are rarely penalized for employing it, either domestically or at international tournaments such as Hong Kong. Referees seem to understand that a) front row binding is not the critical safety issue in sevens that it is in 15s, and b) prop-on-prop binding helps promote constructive, open rugby.

If the ref doesn't allow prop-on-prop binding, and your game plan calls for the hooker to get out immediately, the props need to release their bind the instant the ball is out.

Contact put-in vs. "controlled" put-in

At the contact put-in, the ball is put in by the scrum half at the same time as the two packs are engaging. At a controlled put in the scrum half will wait until the hooker is comfortable and then put the ball in at a prearranged cadence or signal.

The 1990 Hong Kong final saw two teams with different tendencies: Fiji, who prefer to wait to put the ball in, and New Zealand, leading exponents of the contact put-in: "The ball must," says Freeman, "repeat, must, be put in the moment the two front rows engage."

If one set of forwards is dominant, they have the luxury of choosing: they may decide to put the ball in on contact, driving their opponents backwards at the same time, or to take their time in the scrummage wrestling around a little and applying pressure to them while waiting for the ball to come in. However it's done, if you can get your opponents moving backwards and keep them from getting out quickly you provide a substantial advantage to your team.

If your team is being dominated by its opponents, then a contact put in, where the ball is heeled out as the packs meet, will avoid prolonged wrestling and should produce the ball.

The problem with the contact put-in in this situation is that if you use it every time, the opponents will know it's coming and react accordingly: they can come in either driving, striking, or wheeling. Or, as did Fiji in the 1990 Hong Kong final, kicking through.

The key is variety: even if you prefer the contact put-in, don't use it every time. Hong Kong's Jim Rowark explains his strategy:

Our basic tactic in sevens scrummaging is to put the ball in as we're hit. But if we're in under pressure, then it could be that when we hit we go backwards, and we don't want that, so we then have to readjust . . . We let them push us; hopefully the referee will raise the scrummage, and then we'll let them push us again and the referee will then readjust the scrummage and [finally] we'll put it in as we're coming forward.

Front row technique: the props' legs should be planted wide, with the loose-head giving the hooker a wide space into which to hook the ball.

If the ball has not been hooked all the way into the channel, there may be times when the loose head's right foot will need to lifted as the ball is struck to let it out: although this certainly violates all the rules of power scrummaging, being pushed backwards may not be a concern if the ball is already on its way to the backs.

The hooker should have hips turned (slightly) counter-clockwise, and get (slightly) in front of the loose-head prop, to be positioned close to the ball. The hooker's feet should not be between those of the loose head, however, because that will make it difficult to get out quickly enough when the ball is struck. The tight head should lead the forwards in, turning the scrum slightly counterclockwise, adding to the hooker's advantageous position, and opening the right side of the scrum for the scrum half break.

According to traditionalists, all three forwards -- as in 15s -- should get as low as possible and engage with the opponents as deeply as possible while driving upwards; this will help them maintain shoulders above hips as well as get them an advantage over their opponents.

There are those, however, in opposition to the 15-a-side technique -- where the loose-head tries to get as deep into the tight-head's chest as possible -- who believe that the loose head prop's head should be kept to the outside. Dick Best explains:

On our ball, I will always ask the loose head to pack underneath the armpit (I call it hugging the armpit), to get the right height so as it does not drain him of physical strength, with all the muscling and pulling down and shoving that's going on. All I want is a clear tunnel so that my hooker can see the ball.

I would ask my tight head, who is normally the stronger of the two, to pack down as low as possible, basically put the man who is not normally a prop forward, in a position so that he can not gain the leverage in order to push us back.

One reason that the loose-head often binds to the outside is that, as opposed to the shorter, squat props in the fifteens game, loose-head props in sevens often come from the ranks of jumping back-row or even second-row forwards. Tight-head props are normally shorter, and the traditional 15-a-side technique of getting the loose-head's head into the tight-head's sternum just doesn't work as well.

The All-Blacks are among those whose loose-head props bind to the outside: "too much," says Bill Freeman, "is made of 15-a- side scrummaging technique."

Nevertheless, it is the Scots, the most traditional and closest to 15-a-side rugby in their technique, who are arguably the best scrummagers in the sevens world.

Timing at the put in

Good timing among the three forwards and the scrum half can ensure not only a good put in and strike, but control by the attacking forwards, and the team should work on perfecting its timing, both at the contact and the controlled put-in.

The strike

A quick, controlled strike a foot or two behind the scrum and directly into "channel 1" (i.e. behind the loose head) will generally allow the scrum half to control the emerging ball, especially if the scrum is turning counter-clockwise; against a pesky defensive scrum half, a deeper strike (perhaps all the way to the fly half) may be more effective, although once the defending scrum half realizes what you're doing, it may allow that scrum half to take off and tee off on whichever halfback is fielding the ball.

Forward support

Assuming the ball is struck and won by our side, the hooker gets out as quickly as legally possible, and supports the scrum half; situations will actually arise (sometimes semi-planned), where the hooker will be able to pick the ball, much like a number 8; this sometimes occurs when the scrum is wheeling, and hooker and ball pop out almost simultaneously. If they are wheeling us, and the defensive scrum half overcommits against our scrum half, the hooker may be able to break to the left with no opposition at all.

The props of the side winning the ball will naturally try to hold their opponents in as long as possible, allowing them to break out no sooner than the laws require.

Defensive responsibility at lost ball

If we lose our own ball, we need to have an agreement as to whose responsibility it is to stop the scrum half break to our right (attackers' left).

It may be our hooker that gets out and breaks immediately to the right to stop the scrum half; if we are wheeled, however, as they take the hook, we are in trouble because our hooker is wheeled away from the direction which needs to be covered. In this case it will be easier for our scrum half to go around the scrum to stop the attacking scrum half.

Whatever we decide, this is a critical situation which is difficult to stop: we must have good communication if we're to have a chance. Better yet, we must never lose our own put in: as John Maxwell puts it, "if you lose your own ball, you're in trouble."

Their ball

Overbind vs. underbind

Almost everyone subscribes to the defensive underbind; underbound, your hooker can get out of the scrum quickly, and many teams assign the hooker the responsibility of stopping the scrum half break at the scrum:

The overbinding hooker may be able to get out soon enough to get the breaking scrum half, but it's more difficult: the underbinding hooker definitely gets out of the scrum more quickly than the overbinding hooker.

What the overbinding hooker can do better, however, is exert pressure on the opponents, and get in a position to help shove the opponents backwards. Furthermore, the hooker will be closer to the tunnel, and thus in a position to steal a hook against the head. Scotland's upset of Australia in the 1988 Sydney Sevens -- in which they overbound defensively -- was made possible in large part by their dominance of the scrummaging.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, I believe the pluses for the underbind on defense outnumber the minuses.

Prop-on-prop binding?

The earlier discussion on this subject applies equally here (perhaps more equally: offensively, it may be a luxury for the hooker to break out immediately; defensively, it's absolutely essential, and prop-on-prop binding is the best way to assure it).

Contesting possession.

Several techniques are used to try to win and/or disrupt the opponents' ball. These include striking against the head, driving the opponents over the ball, wheeling the scrum, kicking the ball through, or actually pulling the scrum backwards.

Striking against the head against equal opponents is generally a low percentage play, as in 15s, but worth trying on that "special occasion," or when your position is so much better than your opponent's that it's virtually a gift.

Driving the opponents off the ball can be very effective if you work together as a team and drive the opponents up and back simultaneously: timed perfectly, the ball will be on a platter for your scrum half; a split second too late, and they win the ball cleanly (although, if you have them moving backwards, you may still be able to exert pressure on the halfbacks).

The drive works better when the defensive team is conscious of utilizing power scrummaging techniques, including the overbind. If you can regularly drive them backwards on their ball, you may be able to afford the luxury of the overbind in this situation.

When experienced forwards get to scrummage against forwards that are backs in 15s, they may even be able to keep the opposing pack from striking at all. Jim Telfer recalls

I can remember the first time we played Loughborough, years ago; they played a scrum half at hooker; we had 3 forwards playing. When we realized he wasn't a forward, we put tremendous pressure on him. We scrummed down low, made them hold us up and shoved them as much as we could. He couldn't lift his foot simply because we worked on him because he wasn't a forward.

As in 15s, a defensive cadence may help the forwards drive together and therefore more effectively.

Wheeling. Defensive wheels are invariably to the left (i.e. clockwise). The ball can pop up anywhere; most often this works to the disadvantage of the team putting in the ball, but it takes a conscious effort on the part of the defensive team to assure that that is always the case.

The scrum half needs to guard the right (the defenders' right) of the scrum, against either the scrum half or the hooker: if the defending scrum half has overcommitted to the attacking scrum half, the hooker can make a break and possibly score a try, which is exactly what happened to the Eagles in a 1988 match vs. Fiji at the Sydney Sevens.

Both the hooker and the loose head prop will exert pressure at the left of the wheeled scrum; often the loose-head prop will be able to stop the attack before the hooker.

Dick Best prefers, as a general rule, the wheel to the drive:

I think you can destroy other people's ball simply by wheeling, you don't necessarily have to go for the three man shove, [which] I find a great deal of waste of strength and energy (unless you're playing against a much lighter side).

Kicking the ball through the scrum can also be an effective weapon, especially if the defending scrum half knows it's coming. Anticipating the kick-through, the defending scrum half can either win the race to the ball or at least severely pressure the defense. Although this is traditionally done by the defending hooker, Fiji's tight head prop did this against New Zealand in the 1990 Hong Kong finals. New Zealand was putting the ball in on contact, and the Fiji prop just came into the scrum with his foot flying. One of these kick throughs produced defensive pressure that led directly to Fiji's last try.

When the attacking fly half stands directly behind the scrum, however, this ploy may simply delivers the fly half the ball unmolested.

The "pull through". Against teams whose scrum half always moves quickly behind the scrum immediately after the put-in, the "pull-through" is often effective: the defending team actually pulls the defenders backwards (it may actually look to the casual observer as though they're getting pushed); the attacking scrum half runs back to where the ball normally appears; it is now, however, lying on the ground between the two scrum halves, and available to the defending scrum half, who has stepped into the area from which the attacking forwards have been pulled.

Defensive responsibility at lost ball

Although we'd like to pressure the defenders at the set scrum, there may be times when that's not possible. Dick Best notes that

I would not waste my time scrummaging with teams if we were on a parity with one another. I would basically let them win the ball from the scrummage, and get up and put pressure on them from there.

One of the first decisions you'll have to make is how to stop the scrum half's break around the scrum.

There are several patterns that can be run; the three key players in executing them are the hooker, scrum half, and fly half.

A traditional defense has been for the defensive scrum half to come back around the scrum from the defending side, often assisted by the loose head prop, who tries to explode outwards from the scrum; this is the defense used even today by Randwick: John Maxwell explains:

The halfback's got to take the halfback. We can't rely on a forward [because we're relying on them to scrummage].

Although this can certainly work, it removes an element of pressure from the scrum half's defense.

One defense that many teams have been using during the last few years is for the hooker to explode out of the scrum and step to the left as the opponents' win their ball, to prevent the scrum half from breaking around the scrum.

This gives our defensive scrum half more options (such as going directly for the ball, or pressuring the fly half), and lessens the pressure on the loose-head prop to get out and stop the scrum half, especially as the loose-head is often being held in by the tight-head prop.

If teams realize that the opposition hooker is always given the responsibility of stopping the scrum half, they may be tempted to illegally hold the hooker in the scrum. While one would hope that the referee would sort this out, this is a difficult infringement to spot.

Some teams will alternate the responsibility for the attacking scrum half between the defending scrum half and hooker. Bob Dwyer explains:

We talk about it at each scrum, who's going to break right, who's going to break left: we survey the situation -left hand side of the field, right hand side of the field.

The scrum half will size it up, he'll decide where he wants to go, and he'll [make the call for the hooker]. The 5/8 [fly half] will hear the scrum half's call and he'll fit in, depending on where his opposite number goes.

Those are the three [the hooker and the half backs] that have got to cover there, that have got to keep their wits about them.

If the ball is struck directly to the fly half standing behind the scrum, the defending scrum half can often apply pressure by going right for the fly half, who is then prevented from getting good ball. When this happens, the defending flyhalf needs to read the defending scrum half's decision and cover the defensive responsibility the scrum half has vacated (usually this means the defending fly half must cover the attacking scrum half).

More complex defenses at set scrum

The set scrum provides a good platform from which to show the attackers different defensive "looks": the situation is fixed and we know where both the attackers and defenders are, and good communications will lessen the risks that these different defenses might produce.

Pressure defenses

There are several patterns of pressure defense that incorporate the use of the forwards to help the backs pressure their opponents. Dick Best describes a Harlequin pressure ploy:

Using your basketball terminology, I call it a full court press, where we would go down, let them win the ball, and all three of the forwards plus the scrum half would get up and explode, and put pressure on the backs who have just received the ball.

Eagles' "Georgetown" pressure defense

The defensive patterns described below were developed for the US Eagles' team at the 1989 Sydney Sevens under the code name "Georgetown," where they worked very well.

There are three options, depending on whether the ball is at the left, right or center of the field. These are shown in Figure B5-1 and described in detail below. In all cases, the assumption is that the scrum half passes the ball immediately to the fly half; if this is not the case, our "default" defense is employed.

Back line to the (defenders') left. With the backs to the defenders' left, the defense works as follows: the defensive fly half comes up very hard on the attacking fly half, slightly to the outside, forcing the attacking fly half inside. The hooker comes out of the scrum quickly and hard to the left and heads for the fly half's inside. The scrum half is guarding the blind side, preventing the fly half from going there. The option of the kick is covered by a) the wing standing slightly back at the open side and b) the touchline (in this case, tight head) prop who drops slightly back at the blind side (although if executed correctly the defensive pressure will make it very difficult for the fly half to get off a kick).

Backs line to the (defenders') right. With the backs to our right, the defense is basically the same except that the scrum half and hooker's roles are reversed (the scrum half is pressuring the fly half's inside and the hooker -- who has gone left -- is watching the blind side) and the loose-head prop is now the touchline prop.

Backs split; fly half behind scrum. With the ball at the center and the backs split, both the scrum half (from the right) and the hooker (from the left) attack the fly half. The defensive fly half "stays home" to read and fill where needed; this may include dropping back to cover for a kick, depending on the options taken by the attackers.

We may in fact use this variation any time the attacking fly half stands directly behind the scrum.

One potential weakness of this defense is that as the hooker attacks to the left and the scrum half to the right, if the two props split wide as they break, there may be a gap in the center of the defense for the attacking fly half to exploit; the props need to be aware of this as they come out of the scrum.

A cover double team defense

The defense described below was effectively employed by the East in the 1988 US All-Star Sevens against the Pacific, whose winger was Barry Williams, one of the best one-on-one runners in the world, a man with a sidestep too effective for one defender to cover. It is given as simply one example from an almost infinite number of possibilities. The message is that one shouldn't be afraid to be innovative.

The East assigned its hooker, Terrence Titus, to double team Williams on the inside from set scrums originating at the defensive right of the field, and from lineouts, and scrum half Chris Petrakes from scrums originating at the left. East winger Dare Studevant was given the assignment of marking Barry straight up and to the outside. The East assumed that Williams would use his famous sidestep, and was willing to gamble that he wouldn't be concerned about redistribution at the tackle.

Early in the first half, a scrum was won at the defensive right of the field, and the ball moved out to Williams at wing. Williams side-stepped Studevant, for what would ordinarily have been a try, was tackled inside by Titus, and lost the ball in the tackle.

To the casual observer, the set scrum in sevens has often appeared to be less structured than the scrum in 15s; hopefully this chapter has shown that it is every bit as important to have proper technique and planning at the scrummage in sevens as there is in fifteens.

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