Saturday 24 February 2018

Italy tactic that foxed England almost never happened due to recent law tweak

Conor O'Shea's Italy gave England plenty of problems with their unusual tactics
Conor O'Shea's Italy gave England plenty of problems with their unusual tactics

Italy's tactic of refusing to ruck that so unsettled England at Twickenham on Sunday almost bit the dust 24 hours before the RBS 6 Nations encounter.

The Azzurri frustrated England's players and coaches with the brainchild of defence coach Brendan Venter, a ploy that boss Conor O'Shea later dubbed 'The Fox'.

That cunning plan was to refuse to engage in rucks, leaving no offside line after a tackle. Italy's half-backs then crowded England's backline, stunting the hosts' approach.

England eventually turned a 10-5 half-time deficit into a bonus-point, 36-15 victory - but a recent tweak to rugby's laws meant the visitors' unusual strategy for the match almost never came to pass.

"When we spoke to (referee) Romain (Poite) and told him what we were doing, he said there had been a change in the laws in the week, which we weren't told about," said Italy head coach O'Shea.

"It meant we couldn't play the number nine. So we had to adapt even between Saturday's meeting and the match."

Italy's original ruse would have been to target England scrum-half Danny Care directly after rejecting any notion of forming a ruck.

O'Shea's side even practised the pretence all week in the build-up to the clash, only to be told at Saturday's meeting with Poite that they could no longer legally challenge the scrum-half.

While the lack of offside line remained, lawmakers World Rugby had already amended the rule book, deeming a move to take out a scrum-half in that situation to be outside the spirit of the game.

Italy's coaches left that meeting with Poite fearing their plan to be dead in the water, only to realise they could still harass England - without making any contact.

So instead of chasing the nine, Italy's scrum-half Edoardo Gori simply blocked Care's running and passing lines by standing in what would have been offside positions had any rucks been formed.

"There was an offside in our game against Ireland that was clarified as being onside," said O'Shea, explaining that the origin of the tactic came from Italy's 63-10 home loss to Ireland earlier this month.

"Brendan (Venter) came to me and said 'please listen and don't think I'm mad'.

"We talked as a group of coaches and said 'ok, will we go for this?'

"A lot of thought has gone into it and we have a few other animals up our sleeves as well, not just 'The Fox'."

Italy's ingenious ploy has yielded equal parts praise and damnation, with England boss Eddie Jones decrying its negativity.

"We still haven't played a game of rugby," said Jones after Sunday's encounter.

But an unflinching O'Shea insisted Italy deserve credit not criticism.

"We didn't come up with this overnight," said O'Shea.

"It's funny, when Wasps score a try to beat Toulouse in the European Cup and when David Pocock intercepts a ball against Ireland in the autumn internationals it is brilliant; when Italy do something it is not allowed.

"I am incredibly proud of my players. We did not come here to lose and we are gutted to lose. We beat South Africa in November and people say it is a terrible South Africa side; we do something different, they say you can't do that.

"We have to change in Italy and I am sick and tired of people having a pop and having a go. We came to win."

Italy's effective loophole exploitation raised immediate calls for World Rugby to revise the game's regulations and outlaw the tactic. And O'Shea admitted he now expects an alteration.

"Will the law change? Of course it will," said O'Shea.

"But we were legal and we played to the law.

"We challenged people's minds and a lot of credit must go to Brendan Venter for doing what he did."

Press Association

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