Q&A: What is the controversy surrounding Italy’s tactics?
All you need to know about the Italian strategy not to use rucks against England
James Haskell of England breaks away from the Italian defence during the Six Nations match between England and Italy at Twickenham. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
England secured a 17th successive Test victory by dispatching Italy 36-15 in the Six Nations on Sunday, but the match was overshadowed by the innovative breakdown tactics employed by the visitors that provoked a furious response from Eddie Jones.
Q: So what happened?
A: Knowing they faced an almighty challenge against the reigning champions at Twickenham, Italy’s coaching team devised a plan to unsettle England that directed their players not to compete for the ball once a tackle had been made. As a consequence no ruck was formed and there was no offside line, enabling the Azzurri to swarm over the hosts from all directions as they sought to use the ball.
Q: Is it legal?
A: Completely. Italy head coach Conor O’Shea sought clarification from referee Romain Poite in the build-up to the match and the French official informed him that while there had been a minor adjustment to the law under the ‘spirit of the game’ that meant the opposition scrum-half could not be played, they could freely occupy the space behind the tackled player. The tactic has been used before at Test and club level but only in patches, never for an entire game.
Q: Why is Jones angry?
“If that’s rugby, I’m going to retire. That’s not rugby,” said a seething Jones at the post-match press conference, adding that “in football they say park the bus. I don’t know what they had, but it was bigger than a bus”. Jones believes that by manipulating the laws in this way, it had “ceased to become rugby”. Instead of there being a contest for the ball followed by the opportunity for half-backs to run play, a chaotic mess ensued. England’s World Cup-winning scrum-half Matt Dawson agrees with Jones, declaring: “Well done Italy for ruining this international.”
Q: But surely England could have reacted better?
A: Undoubtedly, and this also explains Jones’ fury. England were flummoxed by the crafty tactics and the first half saw a succession of senior players approach Poite for answers, the first enquiry made by captain Dylan Hartley in the 22nd minute. A comical moment arrived shortly before half-time when Poite told Hartley and James Haskell: “I am very sorry, but I am a referee, I am not a coach. You will find probably the solution with your coach, who has more ability than me to tell you what to do.”
Poite even recited the relevant part of the law book to Haskell, when told “we just want to know what the exact law is”. For England to be seeking guidance from the French official was embarrassing, as was the failing in leadership that meant the champions were unable to find a solution, not least after defence coach Paul Gustard had said of the ploy last autumn: “We are aware of it, we will have plans in place.”
Q: How did Poite perform?
A: Jones criticised the referee, stating “he had a terrible day, accusing him of being ”flustered“ and adding: ”I’ve never seen a referee lose his perspective of the game.“ But Poite’s handling of events never previously seen on a rugby pitch — at least to this degree — was exemplary and a masterclass in communication with players. The 41-year-old is possibly the game’s top official and his stock has risen yet further after the calm authority he displayed at Twickenham.
Q: What happens next?
A: The law must now be examined as a matter of urgency by World Rugby. Jones’ opposition to Italy’s tactics is a minority voice amid widespread praise for the ingenuity involved, but the debate sparked by a remarkable encounter demands that the sport’s global governing body intervene knowing the issue has the potential to cause upheaval in the game.