Yes Nine is no more

In Wednesday’s Irish Times I wrote the following snippet about the replacement of rugby’s “Yes Nine” call:

The “Yes Nine” call is no more. The call, used by the referee after “crouch, bind, set” to indicate to the scum half that the scrum is ready for put-in, will be replaced with a “non-verbal communication”. The change will take place with immediate effect and will be in place for this weekend’s Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup fixtures.

Following an initial review, including consultation with national coaches and referee managers, the IRB announced on Tuesday a “minor revision to the current protocol” surrounding the year-long scrum engagement trial. The new signal to replace “Yes Nine” will be non-verbal. It is understood that the non-verbal signal will be pre-agreed by the referee and scrum halves prior to the start of each game. The signal could be, for example, a tap on the scrum half’s back; for a referee standing on the opposite side of the scrum to the feed it could be a nod or a subtle hand signal.

The new scrum engagement trial has been generally regarded as being successful. The insistence on the pre-bind has certainly reduced the impact of the “hit” along with a reduction in the number of instant collapses that had blighted the game. However, the Yes Nine call had been used by some defensive scrums as a cue to destabilise the scrum as the scrum half fed the ball. Removing the verbal aspect of the signal is almost certainly an effort by the IRB to fix this.

Although it had not yet been officially introduced, Welsh international referee Nigel Owens actually used non-verbal signals for part of last weekend’s Rabodirect Pro 12 match between Ospreys and Scarlets. “I think getting rid of the verbal Yes Nine is a positive step forward” said Owens. As the new engagement laws settled in, Owens had noticed a distinct improvement over the preceding six to eight weeks. “Refs, players and coaches have all bought in to the stability aspect in order to get the scrums right”, said Owens. His first impression of the new change was that some of the advantage was being given back to the side with the ball.

The “Yes Nine” call had been introduced as part of the IRB’s scrum engagement trial in an effort to both ensure a stable scrum and prevent the hit and chase. From early in the season, however, it was recognised that there were potential issues with the referee issuing a verbal signal in that it could give an advantage to the defending team.

The replacement of the Yes Nine call, first reported on Monday by Jamie Lyall for Planet Rugby, was confirmed when the IRB issued a media release on Tuesday afternoon.

A good time to make the change

Although it might still seem odd to make this move “mid-season”, the IRB had taken feedback on board from across the game and decided to make the adjustment now rather than waiting until the end of the trial. When one thinks of the global game and the southern hemisphere season in particular there is certainly logic in making the move now before the alternate season begins.

Another reason for making the move now is to get a trial of the new “non-verbal” signal in an international tournament, i.e. the Six Nations. The Yes Nine call had a good run through both the Rugby Championship and the Autumn Internationals so in terms of giving the replacement signal a go at the top level in order to gauge its effectiveness it’s again logical to do so now.

What will the new signals look like?

With the change to the protocol introduced to top-level competition* with immediate effect, this week’s slate of games in the Amlin Challenge Cup and Heineken Cup are the first guinea-pigs. Thursday night saw Newcastle face Brive in the Amlin and in the video below referee Ian Davies provides an early view of what the new signals might look like:

The video shows three scrums; the first two with Davies on the same side as the scrum half (shown from two different angles) and the third where he is on the opposite side of the put-in. As you can see, referee Davies taps the halfback or uses a clear, visual signal depending on which side he is standing.

The signals Davies used are not explicitly mandated by the IRB, rather the game’s governing body has made suggestions. The important thing is that the signals must be pre-agreed with the day’s scrum halves before play.

Potential Issues?

A number of issues would seem to have the potential to arise. That’s not necessarily a problem; after all, finding and fixing issues is one aspect of what trials are for and the original Yes Nine call was a prime example.

– Females and Junior Players

Some male referees might be apprehensive about touching a female scrum half (or vice versa), or one from a junior team perhaps at the younger age grades. While the “tap” should be seen as nothing more than part of the game’s restart protocol we unfortunately live in an age where it’s reasonable to state that somebody, somewhere, will make a fuss about inappropriate contact between official and player where there was absolutely none intended. Mind you, when one thinks of the old principle of having no physical contact between players and officials this move would seem to fly in the face of that.

– Inconsistency of Signals

If every match can in theory have a different set of signals depending on what that day’s referee and halfbacks decide they want to do, then it has potential for one party to forget what the signal was or perhaps another party to chance their arm and say that the official had used the incorrect signal. After all, they might think, who’s to know? Referees themselves could mitigate this by getting together as a body to agree on some sort of standard. Achieving such agreement when the change was brought in at such short notice, however, would be understandably difficult.

– Opposition Scrum Half Making a Call After Ref’s Signal

The important principle is that this doesn’t really matter unless either side pushes before the ball enters the scrum, in which case the referee should penalise them. Of course, if the defending scrum half shouts and the defending scrum seem to get an extremely well-timed shove, one could imagine a canny referee having a quiet word in the ear of said scrum-half asking them to stop acting the maggot.

– Opposition Scrum Half Tapping the Attacking Scrum Half

We all know how scrum halves are wired. This will happen; it is a cast-iron, 100% guaranteed mortal lock. It will be up to the referee to keep an eye out for it and to issue a penalty on the spot, perhaps with a fairly stern warning that any repeat would lead to time on the sideline.

Overall – A Positive Move

This change should be viewed positively. It seems a sensible move  to improve what had already been a generally successful scrum engagement trial. The fact that the Yes Nine call had never been written into the wording of the amended law being trialled might perhaps tells us in hindsight that the game’s lawmakers knew that they hadn’t got it quite right, but it was good enough to be getting on with. They’ve viewed the results, decided they were overwhelming in their unanimity, and acted accordingly.

So happy trails, Yes Nine. Hopefully this change will be another small step towards setting the game’s scrummaging back on a square and stable course.


* The IRB has not mandated that the change be made immediately throughout all levels of the game. Each individual member union can make the decision for itself. For example, USA Rugby made a fairly speedy announcement that the Yes Nine call would remain in use until further notice.


Credit: all match footage in the educational video above is property of Sky Sports and ERC Rugby.

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