“Yes Nine!”

It’s not hard to find an opinion on the IRB’s new scrum engagement sequence. Leicester coach Richard Cockerill is dead against it; ex-England hooker Brian Moore is all for it. But are teams making the most of it?

For all the fuss about the IRB’s latest trial not much has changed in rugby law apart from the pre-engagement bind. The welcome re-emphasis on the straight feed restores the timing of the ball’s entrance to the scrum to being a key attacking advantage, allowing the attacking pack to prepare for a well-timed hook ahead of an opposition shove.

The NFL scrimmage has certain parallels with its cousin, the rugby scrum. At the core of both is a method of restarting play featuring a pushing contest between large and angry gentlemen with the defending side trying to disrupt the attacking platform by any means possible.

The timing of the “snap” is crucial; the defence cannot start their assault on the quarterback and his protectors until that ball moves. The center crouches with his hand on the ball; the quarterback prepares to bark a coded signal with the center primed to first snap the ball through his legs then immediately block one or more defenders trying to do his quarterback physical harm.

If the ferocious blitzing defenders of the NFL could be told by an official exactly when they could mount their assault, taking advantage of a center’s momentary distraction when snapping the ball to his quarterback, it would be a huge tactical advantage.

Amended Law 20.1 Forming a Scrum

(g) The referee will call “crouch” and then “bind”. The front rows crouch and using their outside arm each prop must bind. A loose head prop must bind on the opposing tight head prop by placing the left arm inside the right arm of the tight head and gripping the tight head prop’s jersey on the back or side. A tight head prop must bind on the opposing loosehead prop by placing the right arm outside the left upper arm of the opposing loose head prop and gripping the loose head prop’s jersey with the right hand only on the back or side. The props must not grip the opponent’s chest, arm, sleeve or collar. Following a pause, the referee will then call “set” when the front rows are ready. The front rows may then engage. The “set” call is not a command but an indication that the front rows may come together when ready. The sanction for any infringement will be a free kick.

(i) Charging. A front row must not form at a distance from its opponents and rush against them or pull them.

In rugby union the precise timing of the feed has traditionally been controlled by the attacking hooker and scrum half. The new engagement sequence has diluted that control somewhat. After the referee calls “Crouch…Bind…Set” there is a fourth call – “Yes nine!” – issued when the referee considers the scrum to be both square and steady, ready for the scrum half to put the ball in.

If referees are very insistent on the feed going in immediately, the crucial timing advantage is taken away from the attacking team and handed to their opponents as the referee is essentially telling them exactly when to push, and against seven men.

Why Eight Against Seven?

It’s a matter of physics. Assuming two forward packs of reasonably equal weight, strength and technique, a side with eight men pushing will beat seven, the missing party being the attacking hooker who must first hook the ball, then push.

Is “Yes nine!” a formal instruction to the scrum half and, by extension, a signal to the defending pack? Or is it simply a polite invitation?


The ability to ensure a common interpretation is perhaps not helped by the fact that there is no reference to the term in the wording of the new amended law, unlike its brethren Crouch, Bind and Set.

The IRB’s position is that the scrum half does not have to feed the ball immediately but rather “without delay“. There is no definition of what constitutes a “delay” and certainly no mention of the “3.2 seconds” that has been quoted on BT Sport’s rugby coverage. Referees are instead to use common sense as to what constitutes a delay by the halfback.

Law 20.5 Throwing The Ball Into The Scrum

No Delay. As soon as the front rows have come together, the scrumhalf must throw in the ball without delay. The scrum half must throw in the ball when told to do so by the referee. The scrumhalf must throw in the ball from the side of the scrum first chosen.

Sanction: Free Kick

With “without delay” being undefined, a player attempting to gain extra time for the feed risks incurring a referee’s wrath. However, some in the game have already tumbled to a simple way to safely gain that extra time. It comes down to whether the scrum half is crouching or standing.

What Is The Referee Looking At?

After the two packs engage the referee is looking at the scrum half with a technical eye and will judge whether the number nine is in either the “presenting position” (crouched) or the “non-presenting position” (standing with the ball at his chest).

When the referee says “Yes nine!”, he will give a scrum half who is still standing more time for the feed than one who is crouching.

How much time?

Perhaps an extra second and a half, depending on the referee.

Clever Coaches

Some coaches who are aware of this technicality have gone as far to instruct all their club scrum halves to be in a standing position when the referee says “Yes nine!”, prising open that window of opportunity for the feed and increasing their team’s element of surprise.

In contrast, any halfback who consistently interprets “Yes nine” as an instruction rather than an invitation will put their pack at a distinct disadvantage.

When any new law moves from the sterile world of supervised trial matches into the professional game, inconsistencies and loopholes will always emerge. It’s then up to the lawmakers to review the trial, keep the good bits in and figure out how to improve the rest.

As these wrinkles are ironed out, clever coaches will take advantage.

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