Gareth Dyer's rugby column

All the talk in the build-up to last Sunday's Six Nation's game between England and Italy was a simple question of how many.

Thursday, 2nd March 2017, 9:12 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:42 am
England's James Haskell hands off Italy's Giulio Bisegni during the Six Nations match at Twickenham

The bookies had the home side huge favourites to win with the handicap an almost insufficient 42 points. Many a “weekend investor” would’ve looked at the odds and still not fancied an Italian ‘win’ even with such a head start.

In fact, many pundits expected England to better their previous highest win of 80-23 over the Azzurri.

But if sport was predictable then it would have probably died out a long time ago. What we got was an international match that produced perhaps the most discussion ever amongst rugby fans – be they avid watchers or occasional viewers.

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The Italian tactic of only putting one player into contact situations was designed to stop England from playing to their regular patterns and break the game up into an almost organised chaos.

To the uninitiated –- or some members of the England starting XV – the no ruck strategy ensured no offside line was formed and Italian defenders could stand around the tackle area stopping the home side from playing phase rugby. The “no ruck, no offside” tactic is actually nothing new and the examples of previous use flooded out in the aftermath of Sunday’s game.

The utter look of confusion on the faces of home players, their loss of composure and the almost embarrassing interactions with the referee in an attempt to gain clarity, only served to confirm what many rugby observers have known for a long time. Modern players are over coached and the ability to think for oneself has been systematically removed.

And before anyone accuses me of English bashing then they shouldn’t get too defensive. I have no doubt that any other of the Six Nations sides would ha’ve also been completely flummoxed in the face of having to deal with something out of the ordinary.

It has always been a bugbear of mine that despite the complexity of the laws in rugby, players spend what appears to be a disproportionately small length of time getting to know them.

I have spoken to referees who officiate at all levels and the answer is the same. Their job would be easier if players actually knew the law book.

I have in the past asked a dressing room to explain to me their understanding of a particular law. Whilst a couple of players may have a decent grasp, there were far more blank faces who shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

If anybody wanted to know what sets the All Blacks apart from other international teams and why New Zealand rugby always stays that step ahead of the rest – like it has done for over a century – then the events of Sunday’s game at Twickenham told you why.

New Zealanders understand the laws of the game better than anyone else. If you don’t understand the laws, then how can you play the game? If you need the laws explaining to you then how can you be thinking for yourself? Quite simply the New Zealanders are the biggest students of the game and think deeply about what is possible.

Having listened back to the interaction between James Haskell and Roman Poite, the England back rower was actually showing that he was a student of the game.

Initially he appeared to be asking what created a ruck but Haskell was rightly trying to find out what the official would constitute as Italian engagement in a breakdown if they were pulled into the tackle situation. This was a result of debate in Super Rugby last year where a similar tactic was being used and the ever quick thinking David Pocock dragged opposition players to a tackle to give the view there were sufficient bodies from each side to give the appearance of a ruck.

In the strictest letter of the law this probably didn’t satisfy the true definition of what constitutes a ruck but it did put enough doubt in the referee’s mind to start calling formed rucks. Fair play to Haskell for thinking on his feet.

The debate has already started about whether this tactic should be outlawed in the interests of ensuring a better spectacle.

Eddie Jones was quick on to this subject post-match. The indecent haste at which he started his “whingeing pom” routine belied the fact that deep down he knew he had been outthought by his Italian counterpart Conor O’Shea and that his team had struggled to think for itself.

The powerful unions will now look at how to change the law. Doing so will again mean that process overcomes innovation and players further become automatons. A better spectacle as a result? Hmm, be careful what you wish for.