Yes, Italy should be praised for their smart anti-ruck tactic. But now World Rugby needs to change the game’s laws so they can never do it again, writes James Harrington.
The laughter that followed England’s struggle to counter Italy’s ‘fox’ anti-ruck policy in the third round of the 2017 Six Nations was soon drowned out by anger and disbelief as Eddie Jones suggested the laws should be changed.
Critics pointed out that Italy broke none of rugby’s laws – which they didn’t. Their tactic was both smart and legal. Jones the Fox was outfoxed for once, they said – which he was, for 40 minutes at least. Conor O’Shea deserves all the praise in the world for daring to be different. Jones should put up and shut up, they insisted. No, he shouldn’t.
Many have also argued that the England players should have been more aware of the laws of the game they play, quicker to react to Italian tactics, and generally more streetwise about the whole thing. There is no doubt that those wearing white shirts at Twickenham on that day were culpable of what could be termed, in this jargon-packed world, as Sensible Reaction Inertia.
But, make no mistake, what Italy did against England has never been done before. Yes, the no-ruck-no-offside ploy is well known, and a rugby smartarse near you will no doubt be listing all the times it has been used: David Pocock did it against Ireland, they’ll say; as did the Chiefs; it’s been around the sevens circuit since 2012; Wasps also used it against Toulouse in the European Champions Cup … then, in an aside, they may even argue that fact alone really means that James Haskell and Nathan Hughes should have recognised it much earlier.
Tell them to stop. Maybe even remind them that they were screaming ‘OFFSIDE!’ at the TV like almost everyone else before an even bigger smartarse pointed out the sheer cunning of ‘The Fox’. The tactic has been used before, but no side before Italy had employed it so intensively, so often, and so brazenly. Pocock did it once, Chiefs used it sporadically, and usually at restarts, and Wasps’ Hughes was as surprised as anyone when he tried it against Toulouse.
Italy, on the other hand, did it time and time and time again. For more than half the match. That’s an extreme use of a loophole – and that alone is why World Rugby should seriously consider changing the relevant law.
There is a precedent for this.
The kick to touch has been an accepted and standard tactic since forever. But, in 1963, Welsh scrum-half Clive Rowlands belted the ball out of play so often that there were more than 100 lineouts in an otherwise unmemorable Five Nations encounter between Scotland and Wales at Murrayfield.
At the time, kicks could go out on the full from anywhere on the pitch, and the lineout would be taken from the point the ball crossed the touchline. But, following that match, the law was reviewed and – eventually (rugby’s powers that be always were a conservative bunch) – modified to the one known and accepted today, in which players can only kick a ball out on the full if they are inside their own 22, otherwise the lineout will be taken in line with the point from which the ball was kicked.
Even that law has been modified to stop teams taking the ball into their own 22 before passing it to the player with the biggest howitzer boot … But that’s by-the-by.
The point is the Welsh hoof-and-hoof again ploy in that one game in 1963, though entirely within the laws of rugby, was so extreme and affected play to such an extent that it prompted a change in rugby’s laws.
The same is true of Italy’s anti-ruck tactics at Twickenham in 2017. Conor O’Shea and Brendan Venter should be applauded for their smarts – and for giving England a tactical shoeing for the better part of an hour. Then the law should be changed so it cannot be repeated.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.