When a rugby team has fifteen players on the field, then they must put eight players into the scrum in a specific formation.
When a forward has been sent off for foul play, the referee can allow fewer players in the scrum. The minimum number is five: three in the front row and two locks.
In rare cases, a team can pick up so many injuries during a match that they can’t field fifteen fit players. This also allows them to have less than eight players in the scrum.
This article explains all the different scenarios clearly.
Number Of Players In A Standard Rugby Scrum
A rugby scrum usually involves eight players from each team who pack down in formation.
There are three rows of players.
The front row has two props on either side of the hooker.
The second row has two locks who connect or “bind on” to the players in front of them.
The back row has two flankers on either side of the number eight.
Illustrations Of Eight Players In A Scrum
This picture shows the formation as a diagram.
Of course, this looks a lot messier in real life than in a nice diagram.
Here is an overhead shot of the England scrum. I’m just showing the front row of the opposition (Scotland).
It may look as if the two flankers are alongside the second rows but their formation is valid as long as they keep binding (connecting) to the locks.
In this scrum, England is defending.
The openside flanker (number seven) is anticipating having to break away and defend. So, he’s pushed forward a little.
If you want to know more about the different roles, check out our article that explains scrum positions in detail.
Can A Rugby Team Choose To Put Fewer Players In The Scrum?
You may be wondering if a coach could gamble and put seven players into the scrum and have eight players in the open field.
This is not allowed. The laws say that there must be eight players if the team has fifteen players on the field.
The referee can permit fewer players in the scrum when a forward has been sent off the field. However, there are strict rules around the front row when this happens.
We’ll look at this aspect next.
Foul Play Causing Less Than Eight Players In A Rugby Scrum?
When a lock or flanker has been sent off for foul play, then teams are allowed to put seven players into the scrum.
In this scenario, the team will keep the formation of the first and second row. The laws say that scrums must pack down with three players in the front row and two in the second row.
This means that the back row drops from three to two players.
Teams can put a back in as the eighth player
Just because a team only has fourteen players on the field, this doesn’t mean that they must scrummage with seven players.
Sometimes a team will put a back into the flanker position. When this happens, you’ll usually see the stronger of the two wingers pack down at the back of the scrum.
You can be sure that professional wingers practice for this rare occasion!
The disadvantage now is that there is one less defender or attacker in open play.
Why do teams choose to put a back into the scrum?
Teams are most likely to do this when they are defending on their line and their scrum has been in trouble.
Remember, if their scrum collapses repeatedly due to being weakened by numbers, the referee will simply award a penalty try.
Now that penalty tries don’t need to be converted, it can make sense to gamble with having one less player defending the open field.
The hope is that if the opposition runs in a try, the defense will have pushed them wide. The outhalf still has to kick the conversion. If the kick is missed, then the defending team has saved two points.
What Is The Minimum Number Of Players In A Scrum?
A scrum must be played with three qualified players in the front row and two players in the second row.
This means that a scrum must have a minimum of five players.
I’ve never seen this happen. However, the referee will allow it if:
- the entire back row is sent off for foul play, and
- there are no fit substitutes on the bench that can replace them
England’s six-man scrum
In England’s rugby history, 2003 is famed as the year they won the World Cup.
However, there was another notable event earlier that year. England went to New Zealand to play the All Blacks and laid down a marker with a win on Kiwi soil.
Two of England’s back row were given yellow cards in the same period.
Laurence Dallaglio and Neil Back were big men to lose. Neil Back tops our list of the greatest England flankers of all time.
The All Blacks had an attacking scrum on the England five-meter line.
England packed down four times with six men in the scrum. They held out until finally conceding a penalty. This time, the All Blacks chose to tap and go but they coughed up a penalty.
It was a seminal moment that front-rower Phil Vickery recalled years later. The interview asked him what the forwards said to each other after holding out.
You look at the guys around you, and you don’t need to say anything, sunshine.
You’ve just held out an All Black pack, five metres from your own line…wow.
You don’t need to say anything because you’re going to be talking about it in 20 years time.Phil Vickery interviewed by Sky Sports
Injuries Causing Less Than Eight Players In A Scrum
This scenario is far rarer than foul play resulting in a reduced scrum.
It happens when the coach runs out of replacements for injured forwards.
As there are usually four or five forward subs, this is unusual.
However, throw in a few yellow cards and the coaches may be pulling their hair out.
Mandatory Numbers In The Front Row
I mentioned that there must be three players in the front row and two locks behind them.
However, there are strict safety rules around the front row.
The coach can’t simply throw in the substitute scrumhalf to the number three position. There are legitimate safety concerns around neck and head injuries.
Teams must be able to replace the starting front row with a player who is qualified to play in that position. In other words, the sub must be registered as having the ability to play at prop or hooker.
This usually means that the bench has a hooker, a loosehead, and a tighthead prop.
However, there are some props who can play both sides of the scrum. This means that one sub prop can cover two positions, and it gives more options to the coach.
These rare unicorns are affectionately known as ambiproperous.
More About Scrums
Now that referees wear microphones, we get to hear far more of the conversations and yelling that goes on around the scrum. But sometimes it’s hard to make out what exactly is being said.
Check these articles out:
And these articles cover different aspects of scrums: