Full marks to Italy. 10 out of 10 to Brendan Venter and Conor O’Shea. They came up with a master stroke to disrupt England and give themselves a chance of toppling the grand Slam champions. It did deny the Twickenham faithful the free-flowing rout that seemed inevitable after Ireland had run in 60 points against them a fortnight earlier, but surely that was Italy’s aim. Eddie Jones, so often the wily operator, was outthought by his opposite number and his players had no answer.
England were baffled and bemused, questioning the referee on what they were meant to do about the ‘ruck thing’. Having spent two weeks listening to the press debating whether they should even be in the Six Nations, Italy threw an innovative curveball that left pundits, players and supporters confused, and will surely make many try to track down a law book to check the fine details of rugby.
Jones was not impressed, suggesting the game was “not rugby” and comparing Italy’s tactics to those of Trevor Chappell bowling an underarm delivery in the Cricket World Cup in 1981. But, instead of taking these comments as an insult, the Italians should see them as a compliment. They managed to rattle a man who, for the last year, has been unshakeable. They got under the skin of an England team who turned up at Twickenham to decide their winning margin rather than first win the match.
The comparison to Chappell is an apt one, although Italy’s plan was much less unsporting than the Australian’s and less likely to cause an international argument. Yet both exploited flaws in the laws of their game to their own advantage. They put winning before trying to entertain, and won fans among neutrals; surely that is the aim of professional sport. In both cases, the criminal is not the perpetrator but rather the lawmakers who left a loophole for them to exploit. Conor O’Shea said that his side came to win, Lawrence Dallaglio suggested they were focused on “damage limitation”; either way, is this not just rugby’s version of parking the bus, a tactic which many football managers, notably Jose Mourinho, have made a career out of exercising?
In fact, those left complaining about Italy’s approach to the game were rather expressing a frustration that the Italians had not shown up and played the role of perennial whipping boys: a role that has come to be expected of them. As many in the press were predicting, if Italy had turned up with the same game plan they used against Ireland they would have been thumped by England; condemned to the kind of thrashing which has become the norm in this fixture.
Instead, they performed an extremely difficult and disciplined tactic, which depended upon every player knowing their role and executing it with precision, led superbly by the outstanding Edoardo Gori and Sergio Parisse. In surprising the English by reading up on their laws, Italy restricted their losing margin to 21 points and would have been closer still if they had not missed so many kicks at goal. At 60 minutes they were only trailing by two and must have dreamed of a supreme upset.
It was not to be, to the relief of the England set-up and its supporters, but in attempting it, Italy created a debate that is bound to go on until World Rugby fix their laws to make this kind of rugby impossible. It would not be good for the game for this nullifying tactic to take place every week but, while it is still legal, who would not consider it? Jones will grumble on about the ridiculousness of the game, and he has a point, but one senses that his frustration should be directed at his team’s inability to deal with the tactic than at O’Shea and his team.
They did exactly what they turned up to do: they upset England and, in so doing, restored pride in their own game. Upon reflection, Jones may even offer himself a wry smile and notice the similarities to his Japanese team’s famous victory over the South Africans, with the inferior team refusing to play in the style their opponents wanted and, in doing so, embarrassing the stronger team.
Italy still have a long way to go: it should not be forgotten that they lost this game and, once England had finally awoken from their shock, still conceded six tries. But O’Shea will be encouraged by how his players pulled off a very disciplined game plan in which one error would have proved fatal, suggesting that their coach has not inherited a lost cause but rather a team with passion and talent that, given time, he may be able to sculpt into a competitive unit.
England, on the other hand, came through another tricky test with another victory, taking their impressive unbeaten run to 17 matches despite failing to truly convince. Next up they face an inspired Scotland, who will offer a different challenge altogether, with fast-paced attacking rugby and dreams of achieving their first win at Twickenham in over 30 years.
Italy, meanwhile, come up against their continental rivals, France, who will be keen to come back strongly from defeat in Dublin, but wary of any other tricks the Italians hold up their sleeves.
Image courtesy of Denise Puca