In the three rounds of the 6 nations so far, England have been far from convincing, yet they sit 3 points clear at the head of the table.
I think Eddie Jones will have his hands full getting the team ready, both physically and mentally for the two big games against a resurgent Scotland and an Ireland team who are on fire.
The big talking point of course from the weekend is the constant “just a tackle” cry from referee at Twickenham yesterday.
Italy successfully disrupted and confused the England team by exploiting the use of a ‘little known’ law that legitimises standing in an effectively off-side position. A bit like using a dodgy tax avoidance scheme – it’s legal, but it just feels wrong somehow.
This of course led to immense schadenfreude in the press and on social media about the English confusion – unsurprisingly and predictably from the Celtic nations – many of whom professed to know all about this loophole in the law.
Don’t let anybody kid you. If this was anyone except maybe the All Blacks, I bet supporters of any side would have been just as baffled as England, their Twickenham fans and the watching TV viewers.
Connor O’Shea was undoubtedly smart in using this tactic – to my knowledge it has never been used at international level, although there is a suggestion it was used inadvertently in a match last year between Australia and Ireland. A player found himself in an apparent off-side position and intercepted the pass – without sanction.
As far as I can determine it has been used deliberately in club rugby only by Toulouse and the Waikato Chiefs – with mixed results.
My own view is that this ploy is not innovative in the same way that Ireland’s ‘choke’ tackle was, but is exploiting a loophole – I would argue that the law was never intended to make this legal.
It almost worked for Italy too and you have to applaud O’Shea and his coaching team. Brendan Venter has been credited with coming up with the plan – and it may have worked for him too, last night it was rumoured that he was joining the Springbok coaching team.
Italy were still in the lead or within touching distance for more than an hour – 60 minutes that reduced my life span by several years.
Obviously the plan for this strategy was discussed with Romain Poite at the Italy pre-game meeting with the ref, to ensure that Romaine was watching the tackle area. There’s nothing wrong with that and he was ready with his “just a tackle” cry every time Italy stayed out of forming a ruck.
England were confused and this resulted in the Nigel Owens type response from Romain “I’m the referee not your coach”
As disruptive as the tactic became, it wasn’t the cause of the two tries that kept Italy in the hunt.
One was from being slow to react to the ball hitting the post and the second a result of some uncharacteristic poor defence.
Despite the guffaws and the general hailing of the Italy tactic as being ‘brilliant’, it did make for a pretty dull game.
The law doesn’t state that you can stand between the scrum half and fly half if a ruck hasn’t formed – it is only legal by omission –
Law 16 Definitions
A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground. Open play has ended.
If no Italian players on their feet made contact with England players on their feet in this way, there is no ruck. There is “just a tackle”, and a tackle does not create offside lines.
World Rugby currently review changes to laws with two basic aims in mind – 1) player welfare and reducing injuries and 2) to speed up the game and increase the appeal to a wider audience by creating space.
The tactic used yesterday quite simply closed down space – it was a right rucking mess!
I believe that WR have a responsibility to close the loophole before more games are ruined as a spectacle.
Despite letting Michele Campagnaro wander over the line largely untouched, England found their way in the last quarter and ended up with 6 tries and a bonus point.
Both Scotland and Ireland will fancy their chances of turning over England
But there is a truism about a side on a run of 17 undefeated games – they are hard to beat!