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Call to scrap scrums re-ignited on game's 125th anniversary

Former Great Britain and Penrith hooker Mike Stephenson has used the 125th anniversary of rugby league to make a back to the future call for scrums to be abolished from the game.

Stephenson, who enjoyed a long and successful broadcasting career in England after his playing days with the Panthers, echoed the views of Leeds and Halifax officials after a meeting of 22 clubs at Huddersfield’s George Hotel on August 29, 1895 voted to break away from rugby union.

“We want to do away with that scrummaging, pushing and thrusting game, which is not rugby,” Leeds representative Harry Sewell said.

“The rugby public does not pay to see a lot of scrummaging.”

The proposal, which is detailed in an article by league historian Tony Collins to commemorate the 125th anniversary of league’s founding, was rejected.

But Stephenson believes COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to see how the game could be improved without scrums.

With Super League scrapping scrums and introducing the NRL’s six-again rule after the season resumed on August 2 due to health concerns, Stephenson said the changes had made the game a better spectacle. He believes they should be permanently implemented across the code.

Kangaroos halfback Steve Mortimer feeds the scrum against the Kiwis in a 1982 Test.
Kangaroos halfback Steve Mortimer feeds the scrum against the Kiwis in a 1982 Test. ©NRL Photos

“It’s a waste of time, they don’t push, they don’t shove, they just lean against each other and there is no chance of you getting the ball against the team feeding the scrum,” Stephenson told NRL.com.

“I’ve always advocated that rugby league would be a better game without the scrums and what we are witnessing over here has been a revelation. It’s fantastic.

“You are getting more breaks now because you don’t have a scrum, because you play the ball quickly and if someone is slow at getting back into position the defence is under pressure.

“I think it is wonderful that through desperation to try and get the game back on during this pandemic it has got to a point where it has helped make our game better, and it really has.”

Stephenson, who was a member of Great Britain’s 1972 World Cup-winning team and played 289 matches for Dewsbury and Penrith, has donated his large collection of memorabilia to a new National Rugby League Museum at the George Hotel, where the game was founded.

Among the most significant items are the jersey former St George captain Norm Provan wore in a loss to the touring 1962 Great Britain Lions and a gold medallion awarded to inaugural Northern Union league champions Manningham in 1895.

While Manningham switched to association football (soccer) in 1903 and became Bradford City FC, the majority of the 22 foundation clubs remain, including St Helens, Leeds, Wigan, Hull FC, Warrington, Huddersfield, Wakefield, Halifax, Widnes and Leigh.

Roosters hooker Jake Friend. The modern day rake often doesn't pack down in scrums.
Roosters hooker Jake Friend. The modern day rake often doesn't pack down in scrums. ©NRL Photos

The clubs from Lancashire and Yorkshire in England’s north had voted 21-1 during their meeting at the George Hotel to break away from the Rugby Football Union after a dispute over “broken time” payments to players who had to leave work early to play.

“I don’t think there is any other sport in the world which has a museum at the birthplace of where it all started,” Stephenson said.

“What is equally significant is that two days earlier Lancashire and Yorkshire had meetings in separate pubs to call that special meeting on August 29 at the George Hotel that led to the formation of rugby league.

“The reason they chose the George Hotel is because Huddersfield is equal distance from Lancashire and Yorkshire where they could all get on a train and meet up.”

The genesis of the museum goes back to Stephenson’s stint at Penrith from 1973 to 1978 and after displaying his collection of memorabilia at Sydney's Royal Easter Show he approached the NSWRL about a travelling road show, which became known as the “Rugby League Express”.

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“To take it to the bush and live on a train for 10 weeks was one of the best experiences of my life,” Stephenson said.

“We had five carriages, one was for accommodation, and we had a chef on board.

“The first stop was in Goulburn and it was absolutely hosing down but there were 3,000 or 4,000 people who came through that day. The second year we took it to Brisbane.

“I always had the intention of taking it back to England and putting it in the George Hotel so you can imagine how pleased I am now that the official rugby league museum will be at the place where the game started, and my collection is only about a quarter of it.”