Italy’s no-ruck tactic against England: Was it clever coaching or a disgrace to the sport?
England against Italy wasn’t the free-flowing feast of rugby that many viewers had hoped for, thanks in the main to Italy’s tactics at the tackle area. But the reaction to the Azzurri’s controversial no-rucking approach has produced almost as much entertainment as the two teams mustered in 80 minutes at Twickenham - writes Tom Bennett.
The technical loophole that Italy exploited has been well documented: by not committing to a ruck after making a tackle, Italy removed the offside line that protects receivers of traditionally recycled possession, allowing their defenders to move into England’s attacking line and disrupt the next phase of play.
It wasn’t an entirely new approach (club teams have occasionally played this way in Super Rugby and the Champions Cup over the last year), but it was a tactic that drew a chorus of boos from the Twickenham faithful, prompted James Haskell to embarrassingly ask the referee for clarification on “the ruck thing”, and helped Italy into a shock 10-5 lead at half-time.
England worked out their riposte eventually and ran in 31 points in a second-half display that earned them a bonus point win. But the moment Eddie Jones marched into his press conference in the bowels of Twickenham and likened Italy’s tactics to Trevor Chappell bowling underarm against New Zealand in 1981 it was clear what would dominate the reaction to the Six Nations weekend.
Jones struggled to contain his disappointment when faced with the assembled media after the match, saying: “If that’s rugby, I’m going to retire. That’s not rugby. If you paid for your ticket, ask for your money back. If you think that’s smart, fantastic. I don’t think it’s smart rugby. In football they say park the bus. I don’t know what they had, but it was bigger than a bus. The whole game became a joke.”
And, interestingly, Jones also revealed that he had rejected the idea of playing tactic in his previous job, saying:
" We were going to try it [once] with Japan and we decided no because we thought it was against the spirit of the game."
Did Jones have support for his view?
There were plenty who criticised Italy's tactics, both inside Twickenham and amongst the group of watching experts.
“Well done Italy on ruining this international,” raged former England international Matt Dawson on Twitter, while fly-half George Ford also lashed out at the Italian tactics, saying:
" If teams do that it is going to kill the game quickly. There’s no rugby going to be played."
However, the overriding reaction in the British media and from former players was that Italy’s disruptive tactic was an example of clever coaching rather than a blight on the game.
Which argument is right?
Both arguments sparked the expected complaints of “typical English arrogance” or “usual anti-English bias”.
Yet both sides are correct.
Of course Italy were within their rights to play in such a way. But similarly, it was a tactic that ruined the spectacle and could have damaging implications for the future of the sport if regularly adopted.
Did it ACTUALLY work for Italy?
Italy avoided an absolute hammering and threatened an upset for a while. Yet, as Jones himself put it:
" We got five points, they got zero. If that is genius, OK."
Whether it worked or not probably depends on whether Italy ever intended to get something from the game. Conor O’Shea and Brendan Venter (the mastermind behind Sunday’s tactic) claimed that their team didn't arrive in England with simply damage limitation in mind. Yet it doesn’t take a great deal of reading between the lines to take the opposite from some of O’Shea’s other post-game remarks.
" We wanted to give them [the players] hope that they weren't just going to fill a pitch and be here like the old gladiators with the crowd wanting the hundred. If we had said to our players 'fellas, charge over the trenches again and do the same thing' then we'd get the same result."
Is this a long-term solution for Italy?
England-Italy - Six Nations 2017Eurosport
Can Italy prove consistently successful using such a tactic in future? The answer is simple. No.
England took a while to work out how to cope with the curveball, yet were still able to adjust and run in six tries and rack up a 21-point winning margin. As the Chiefs found out in Super Rugby, once teams have developed a pick-and-go counter tactic then the no-ruck approach becomes relatively easy to beat.
Should the law change?
Jones urged the world’s governing body to look at the rule change, while even O’Shea admitted that World Rugby will eventually take action:
" Will the law change? Of course it will."
The initial reaction from World Rugby suggested that there would be no immediate reaction. But that was as much a defence of the referee Romain Poite as an expression of support for non-rucking teams, and a spokesperson from the Rugby Football Union was probably closest to the truth when they said:
“This type of issue is discussed ‘in the round’ with World Rugby, through the normal structures and meetings. World Rugby regularly issue clarifications on various laws so could decide to do this anyway due to the interest generated by yesterday’s match.”
The reaction will rumble on, but England will have already moved on. After all, they will face far greater challenges when Scotland come to town in a fortnight's time.
-- Tom Bennett