By Ollie Godden
There is simply no doubt about it. Italy’s game plan baffled England, to the point where it left one of England’s most experienced and in-form players James Haskell asking Referee Roman Poite how to deal with it, and the coach spitting bitter remarks post-match.
Rugby will always be a game of physicality. This has been the case since its establishment and increased as a result of the sport’s professionalisation. However, Italy’s tactic to not contest the breakdown, voiding it as a ruck and eliminating the offside line proved that brainpower is equally as important in the game often recognised for brawn. The law states that a ruck is formed “when one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, close around the ball on the ground.” If no ruck is formed, then there is no offside line. This loophole was brilliantly exploited for 80 minutes by Italy. It legitimately disrupted the English game plan and forced them to work hard for their seventeenth consecutive win against a far less fancied side.
It is the reaction to this tactic that has been most interesting, however. On Twitter, Matt Dawson was an outspoken critique of ‘The Azzuri’, describing their tactics as a “farce”, whilst scolding Italy for ruining the test due to their “inability to compete” at international level. Eddie Jones also came out after the game and spoke ill of the adopted game plan: he labelled it a “joke” and told fans to ask for their money back, a move I’m sure the RFU ticket office thanked him for.
The whiners were in the minority, however, and rightly so. As Robert Kitson points out while writing for The Guardian, Italy’s move was effectively rugby’s version of Bodyline, “the English tactic invented to counter Australian cricket supremacy in the 1930s.” In this, England used the laws of the game to their advantage, by consistently bowling bouncers to Aussie batsmen and placing three or more men behind square on the leg side to catch the attempted pull shots.
As a result of the overwhelming success, the laws were changed in cricket, so that fewer bouncers could be bowled in over (determined on match format), and only two men could be placed behind square on the leg side.
Similarly, the possibility of subsequent law changes in Rugby was recognised by O’Shea in his post-match press conference, but the Irishman stuck to his guns and praised the discipline and ability of his side to stick to the plan. “Will the law change? Of course it will.” He remarked. “But we were legal and we played to the law.”
Moreover, there is no doubting that England’s inability to deal with the tactic influenced Dawson and Jones in their argument. Jonathan Davies rightly pointed out that a true world class side, namely New Zealand, would have “worked it out” far quicker than England did, and punished Italy for it. The tactic just isn’t fool proof. Come up with a game plan to respond to the opposition and England could have put an embarrassing number past Italy, but they were too bamboozled to do so. Truck and trailer the ball through the vacant fringes, get the ball away before Italy encroach, or box kick. There were a number of options at the disposal of Jones’ men; they simply failed to recognise this and turned, instead, to complaining.
Davies was not the only former player to side with O’Shea and Italy’s coaching staff. Martin Bayfield commented that Italy were “sharp”, while England were simply “slow to respond.” Saracens full-back Alex Goode also got in on the act, arguing that Venter and O’Shea “came up with a brilliant plan” which was “well executed”.
It was, in all honestly, this execution which led to England’s downfall. Whilst England took the points and moved onto the Scotland game, hoping to equal New Zealand’s tier 1 record of 18 wins, they must learn that they need to be able to adapt to the opposition in order to become the world class side they are beginning to build a reputation as. Yes, they found a way to win, but not a particularly convincing one.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons