Italy’s national rugby team has never beaten England. The Italians have played the English 23 times and they’ve lost 23 times. This weekend, England beat Italy, 36-15, in the Six Nations Championship, just as everyone expected they would. However, the unsurprising outcome of the game belies the controversial tactics that Italy used against England, tactics that have inflamed the rugby world and may change how rugby is played.
After a rugby player is tackled, players from both sides form a ruck, which is a essentially a big mass of dudes pushing against each other and trying to pry the ball out and retain possession. Open play stops when a ruck is formed and players are not allowed to cross behind the opponent’s half of the ruck. The player who gets tackled and begins the ruck tends to be able to control the ball and pass it back to their teammates, so it’s sort of like a play from scrimmage in football.
Italy’s innovation was refusing to ruck at all. After they tackled English ball carriers, they simply got up and let their opponents continue. However, the play never reset and Italian defenders were able to camp out behind English lines. Since passing forward is illegal, that’s useful territory to populate.
The Italians nearly won, taking a 10-5 halftime lead and only losing after England for three late tries. This is essentially the equivalent of American football players being able to chill in the backfield before their opponents snap the ball. Look how mystified the English guys are when the Italians pull this off.
England got mad and coach Eddie Jones said that what Italy was doing was “not rugby.”
“If you paid for a ticket you should ask for your money back,” he said, eyes glinting, mouth spitting fire. “You haven’t seen a game of rugby.
“If that’s rugby then I’m going to retire. That’s not rugby. You’re looking to pass and all you can see is one of their players.
“I’m not critical of our side a bit because we didn’t play rugby. We practised for a game of rugby all week and we didn’t get it.”
Former England international Matt Dawson also ripped the Italians.
Unconventional as Italy’s tactics were, they were not illegal and Italy’s coach Conor O’Shea defended their no-ruck strategy:
“We’ve looked at other games and we looked at what had been done in the past, and we decided we were going to go for broke to get the ball back and win.”
“It wasn’t fair criticism. We were there to try and win a game of rugby, and we’re the underdogs in all our games. We’ve decided now enough is enough and we’re not going to lie down,” the Irishman added.
“We had to be different and we have to do things differently. And we did nothing wrong, that’s the bottom line.”
Legal or not, World Rugby is now under pressure to change the rules and close the loophole that allowed Italy to almost pull off the upset. An England player called out World Rugby and urged them to shut Italy’s clever exploitation of the rules down, warning that “it is going to kill the game quickly.” That foreboding warning seems like it stems from frustration more than anything. After all, Italy are just the most prominent team to exploit this loophole, not the first. If teams start using it en masse and it becomes a problem, then World Rugby might need to intervene. But for now, Italy can keep up their dumb subterfuge.