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The brilliant Italian ruck tactics that baffled Eddie Jones’ England and were entirely legal

It was supposed to be a straightforward Six Nations victory for England over Italy, with pundits even predicting their record 80-23 victory over the Azzurri back in 2001 would come under threat.

However, they bargained without Conor O’Shea. The wily Italian coach and his lieutenant, former England World Cup winner Mike Catt, devised some canny tactics which completely threw Eddie Jones’ 2016 Grand Slam winners off track.

The Italians became the talk of social media, and ensured eyebrows were raised on the field of play and amongst TV viewers, as they consistently stood in between Danny Care and George Ford in seemingly offside positions.

They held out their arms to disrupt further, but referee Roman Poite did not penalise them.

Why? Here our refereeing expert explains…

The Italians were NOT offside

What Italy were doing clearly mystified many, but it was actually very clever tactics within the laws of the game. Basically, because Italy were not committing anyone else to the tackle area, Poite could not call a ruck.

A ruck is formed when at least one player from either team compete at the breakdown above the ball after a tackle. The moment that happens there is an invisible offside line created right across the width of the pitch.

In that situation any opposition player has to come from the correct side of the ruck and through an imaginary one metre gate. Hence players being penalised for coming in from the side, or not through the gate.

If there is no ruck formed, the only offside line is directly around the tackle area. Imagine an England and Italian player collide and a spotlight is shining on them in a darkened stadium, for argument’s sake. That is the tackle area and the only offside line is directly around them.

The other Italians can stand where they want, and did.

Once one or more players from either side come through the gate correctly from their own try-line side of the pitch, that then becomes a ruck as they compete for the ball.

That is when the width of the pitch offside rule comes in. In that scenario the Italians could not stand on the England side as they would be offside.

Is this a new law that Italy took advantage of?

Absolutely not. It has been around for years, but clearly the Italians came up with a masterplan that threw everyone. Including the England players, who looked bewildered and even asked Poite for an explanation.

James Haskell and Dylan Hartley went up to him and asked what the law was.

Poite, who had a fantastic match, by the way, came up with a hilarious response. “I’m not your coach, I’m the referee. It’s not for me to work out your strategies,’ he told them. Brilliant, truly brilliant.

O’Shea and his players clearly knew exactly what the law permitted. Provided the Italians didn’t commit to the tackle area, they could stand where they wished.

Yes, they were holding out their arms and greatly disrupting England’s moves. Danny Care didn’t seem to know what to do, because at least one Italian was standing between himself and George Ford.

But I repeat, it was entirely legal.

So why didn’t England know the law?

Listen, don’t let anybody fool you. If this was Wales, Scotland, France whoever, I bet supporters of any of those sides would have been just as baffled as England, their Twickenham fans and the watching TV viewers.

The exception to the rule, I’d venture to suggest, would be New Zealand. Their players seem to know every single nuance of the laws of the game.

This tactic has been used by the Chiefs in Super Rugby.

Was it not against the spirit of the game?

Knowing how World Rugby work, my guess is they may well hold a meeting at some point in the coming days to ensure this Italian tactic was the exception, rather than the rule.

Why? Because it goes against the very ethos of the game. You can’t have players standing right next to the opposition fly-half, or directly in between the sight of him and his scrum half.

Rugby is like a game of chess. At any breakdown position a side will have six moves they can choose from, but seeing a member of the opposition stand right between nine and ten disrupts that.

World Rugby won’t want that to happen because it affects the flow of the game. Hence they may act.

They may have to, otherwise this could be copied at grassroots level and cause chaos.

Could Poite have handled it differently?

No. He was 100 per cent spot on in law. The fact that England came off at half-time to boos was more down to the poor performance of the side and perhaps fans not understanding the law, than anything Poite did wrong.

Italy were clearly fearing a hammering and needed to do something revolutionary to stem the England Six Nations tide.

Credit to O’Shea for the clever tactics, his players for executing them well… and Poite for knowing the law!






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