Gerry Thornley: Hats off to Conor O’Shea for outfoxing Eddie Jones

Incidents at Twickenham and Aviva show how interpretation of law differs among referees

England captain Dylan Hartley and backrow James Haskell talk to referee Romain Poite during the Six Nations game against Italy at Twickenham. Photograph:  Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters/Livepic

England captain Dylan Hartley and backrow James Haskell talk to referee Romain Poite during the Six Nations game against Italy at Twickenham. Photograph: Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters/Livepic

 

A little precursor to the much discussed tactics employed by Italy at the breakdown happened in the 50th minute of Ireland’s game against France the day before. Johnny Sexton had just landed his drop goal and Seán O’Brien had fielded Camille Lopez’s restart, before being tackled over the 10-metre line by Baptiste Serin. Louis Picamoles went in to contest the ruck but then backed off, leaving four Irish players over O’Brien.

There was no ruck. No offside line.

Rabah Slimani came around the Irish side of the ball, attempting to block Conor Murray’s path. But Nigel Owens, incorrectly, shouted to the French tighthead: “Get back. Get back.” Murray was thus able to box kick into French territory, Ireland gaining a lineout inside the French half in the ensuing kick-tennis en route to another Sexton penalty making it 16-6. Slimani went off at the next break in play as one of a triple French substitution.

It went undetected, and the incident demonstrated that even one of the world’s best referees was caught unawares by this unusual and seldom used, if hardly innovative, tactical ploy.

Compared with Italian’s persistent use of the ploy at Twickenham the next day, this would suggest that Owens had not been forewarned by the French that they might employ the tactic.

By contrast Romain Poite’s consistent interpretation of this law, wherein by not contesting the ruck the Italians effectively rendered the hindmost foot/offside line non-existent, suggests immediately that the French referee had been notified by Conor O’Shea or one of the Italian management that they would be doing this. O’Shea duly confirmed as much afterwards.

Cue the 12th minute, when Nathan Hughes fielded a box kick by Edoardo Gori and was tackled by Sergio Parisse just inside the English 22. Italian players disengaged from contact, and Parisse and four of his team-mates came around the side.

“Tackle. Tackle. Just a tackle,” exclaimed Poite.

When an Italian player did contest a ruck in the 14th minute, by contrast, Poite said “ruck formed” and penalised Gori for being offside, but generally they picked their moments correctly and were in sync.

As Italy continually employed the tactic, so English players became as bemused as the Twickenham crowd.

When Dylan Hartley engaged Poite in the 22nd minute, the French referee said: “I understand your frustration, but this is the law. I’ll tell you when there’s a ruck, but if there’s no ruck, there’s no offside line.”

This assuredly led to one of the quotes of the tournament from Poite when the English flanker James Haskell approached the French official just before the half-hour mark and asked: “What do we need to do?”.

Poite responded: “I can’t say. I’m sorry. I am the referee, not the coach!”

When Hartley again engaged Poite in the 36th minute, the French referee said: “As I told you, I am very sorry Dylan. I am a referee. I am not the coach.” It somehow sounded all the funnier in a French accent, and especially when said to Hartley.

Up in the stand, the former England turned Italian backs coach, Mike Catt, evidently with a referee link in his right ear, could not contain his broad smile.

The home supporters and certainly an aggrieved Eddie Jones, along with both current and former players may not have agreed, but viewed from afar it was both fun to watch and somewhat ingenious by the Italians, and evidence perhaps that with Brendan Venter on board as their defence coach, they will be entertaining and unpredictable. If only they’d brought a goal-kicker and a lineout. Then things could have been really interesting.

Clearly, the Italians coming up with a clever spoiling tactic was not part of the script, wherein England were meant to score a truckload of tries to the delight of their home crowd. Well, boo-hoo. But Jones, in his post-match response, came across as churlish in the extreme.

“It’s not rugby mate.” In other words, it’s just not cricket, even if he compared it to Trevor Chappell bowling underarm when his opponents needed a six.

As for Jones’s contention that Poite became “flustered”, and “lost his perspective”, he couldn’t have been clearer. Indeed, World Rugby’s view is that the law was officiated correctly by Poite. 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”. Without that, opposing players can come around while staying outside a circumference of one and a half metres. Perhaps the law should be changed, but until it is, Italy were perfectly within their rights, as will any other team who employs the tactic, but one ventures that opposing side will be readier for it than England were.

If anybody became flustered, albeit understandably in the heat of the battle until regrouping with their coaches at half-time, it was the English players.

Yet it is not new either. Greg Feek recalled how the Cheetahs used it extensively in Super Rugby in 2010, and Ronan O’Gara noted how Clermont Auvergne use it more than most in the Top 14. As has been mentioned before, Australia used the tactic to telling effect in Ireland’s meeting with them in November when David Pocock intercepted a pass from Conor Murray.

O’Shea noted how both Toulouse and Australia had done it, and Ireland have also used a variation on the tactic, by standing off opposition lineouts for one of their forwards, usually Jack McGrath or Rory Best, to come around the side.

It’s a risky tactic, and by no means a foolproof tactic. As England discovered in the second half, there are ways of countering it, with either inside passes or by pick-and-jamming to go up the guts.

O’Shea was rightly peeved with Jones’s disrespectful comments that such tactics would kill the game. Having outfoxed Jones, O’Shea even gave the tactic a name. The Fox.

That will stick. Hats off to O’Shea, Venter and the Italians. It was fun to watch. And grazie mille, on many levels.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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