Saturday 19 August 2017

World Rugby considering review of breakdown laws following England v Italy clash

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea and England head coach Eddie Jones shake hands before yesterday’s Six Nations game. Photo: Paul Harding/PA
Italy head coach Conor O’Shea and England head coach Eddie Jones shake hands before yesterday’s Six Nations game. Photo: Paul Harding/PA

Duncan Bech

World Rugby is considering whether to review the laws governing the breakdown in light of the tactics used by Italy against England at Twickenham on Sunday.

Eddie Jones was infuriated by the Azzurri's strategy of refusing to compete for possession after a tackle had been made, thereby ensuring no ruck was formed and there was no offside line.

It meant Italy were legitimately able to swarm over the RBS 6 Nations champions from all directions as they sought to use the ball.

England ultimately emerged conclusive 36-15 winners, but an angry Jones said of the ploy, "If that's rugby, I'm going to retire", adding that the laws must be revised or the game will "cease to be rugby".

The tackle and ruck are already being examined as part of an ongoing routine review of the laws that was initiated after the 2015 World Cup, but World Rugby may decide Sunday's events at Twickenham warrant further investigation.

Conor O'Shea's Italy acted within the laws, which were correctly officiated by referee Romain Poite, and the tactics used have been evident in other games at Test and club level, although never in such wholesale fashion.

Unions are able to submit a clarification request over laws, but it is understood that the Rugby Football Union will not be raising the issue as a matter of urgency and will instead opt to handle it via the regular discussions that already take place with World Rugby.

"World Rugby regularly issue clarifications on various laws, so they could decide to do this anyway due to the interest generated by (Sunday's) match," an RFU spokeswoman said.

One of the sport's most respected thinkers has rejected Jones' call for the laws to be changed, claiming the tactics used by Italy can be exploited.

Wayne Smith, who was a part of New Zealand's coaching team their for back-to-back World Cup wins, experimented with the approach once when at the Waikato Chiefs but never revisited it.

TWICKENHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26: Jack Nowell of England scores a try during the RBS 6 Nations match between England and Italy, at Twickenham Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Mitchell Gunn/Getty Images)
TWICKENHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26: Jack Nowell of England scores a try during the RBS 6 Nations match between England and Italy, at Twickenham Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Mitchell Gunn/Getty Images)

The clash at Twickenham is the first time they have been used for the entirety of a top-level match, and Smith believes any team employing them in a similar fashion regularly would get "cut to bits".

"It's a roll of the dice in many ways," Smith told Fairfax Media in New Zealand.

"There's an obvious weakness in that you can pull out of the tackle and put no-one else in, but it's hard to avoid them pulling you in.

"So if someone over the ball grabs hold of you, all of a sudden the ruck has been formed and the defensive line has to go back.

"I don't think it requires a law change. The law says you require one from each team over the ball bound together to create a ruck. I can't see them changing that.

February 26th 2017, Twickenham, London, England; 6 Nations International rugby, England versus Italy; England Director of Rugby Eddie Jones (Photo by Graham Wilson/Action Plus via Getty Images)
February 26th 2017, Twickenham, London, England; 6 Nations International rugby, England versus Italy; England Director of Rugby Eddie Jones (Photo by Graham Wilson/Action Plus via Getty Images)

"It's not an anomaly in the law - it's just a part of the game, a shock tactic that a team might use now and again, but certainly if you became predictable by doing it you'd be cut to bits."

Smith has sympathy with England's slow-witted response to the ploy - "If something unpredictable happens, it can often make you sluggish" - but Fiji's Olympic gold medal-winning sevens coach Ben Ryan is far less forgiving.

It was Ryan who first devised the tactic when performing the same role for England.

"I did it five years ago with England Sevens. It is another defensive strategy... easy to counter if you have some nous. It's coaching, Eddie," Ryan told The Times.

Adding an element of farce to England's 17th successive victory was the sight of their senior players seeking explanation of the rules from referee Romain Poite throughout the first half.

The most comical moment involved James Haskell, who sought clarity "on the ruck thing", adding, "I just want to know what the exact rule is", and on one occasion Poite replied "I can't say, I'm the referee, I'm not a coach".

Haskell said: "We knew Italy would come here with a different game-plan but we didn't necessarily expect it to be that - I don't think anyone in the stadium did.

"Fair play to Italy - it was clever on their part and they are very well coached. It was probably a bit of boring game and a weird one to play in.

"We will go away and tactically talk through a lot of things and work on how we can react a lot quicker, but we got the win, so let's not get too down on ourselves."

Welsh referee Nigel Owens reckons England should have been prepared for the Azzurri scheme.

"I'd be surprised if players didn't know this (Italy's tactic). James Haskell asked the question what is a ruck, and he doesn't know what it is," Owens said.

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