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Rugby: England v Italy – The Fox Outfoxed. Coaching Masterstroke Or A Devaluing Of The Game?

During the Autumn Internationals in November last year Australian jackal-in-chief David Pocock seemingly loitered in an offside position before intercepting a pass from Ireland’s Connor Murray and nearly scoring a try. It subsequently transpired that Pocock was aware of, and exploiting, a loophole in the rules of the game created when no ruck is formed and no offside line created.

The following week Australia was due to play England and when asked about Pocock’s tactic ahead of the game, England’s defence coach Paul Gustard said:

“It is just a way of trying to manipulate the attack and make them think differently. We are aware of it, we saw it and we will have plans in place.”

Clearly those plans were forgotten during the first half of the Six Nations game against Italy at Twickenham on Sunday where England’s 17th consecutive win (the 16th under Eddie Jones) was overshadowed by the tactics used by Conor O’Shea’s side.

The tactic, dubbed “the fox” by O’Shea, saw the Azzuri similarly avoid competing at the breakdown situation instead having players stand in the channel between the England half back and his receivers.

Many of those watching the game live at Twickenham cried foul believing the Italians to be positioning themselves in a blatantly offside position. In fact this showed an ignorance of the laws; an excusable one perhaps given a number of the England players on the pitch were equally unaware that what was happening was perfectly legal.

Indeed this resulted in the line of the tournament so far when referee Romain Poite answered Dylan Hartley and James Haskell’s questions about how to deal with what was happening with:

I am a referee; I’m not a coach.”

The relevant Law of the Game is Rule 16 which relates to the ruck situation which is defined as follows:

“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.

 Players are rucking when they are in a ruck and using their feet to try to win or keep possession of the ball, without being guilty of foul play.” (emphasis added)

Rule 16.1(b) of the Law of the Game goes on to deal with how a ruck may be formed stating:

“How can a ruck form. Players are on their feet. At least one player must be in physical contact with an opponent. The ball must be on the ground. If the ball is off the ground for any reason, the ruck is not formed.” (emphasis added)

Only once a ruck is formed does the offside rule (Rule 16.5) come into play. Otherwise the more general rules set out in ‘Rule 11 – Offside and Onside in general play’ remain active.

After the match O’Shea informed the waiting media that the idea had been pitched to him by Italian defence coach Brendan Venter who understood a loophole existed in the law such that a ruck would not be formed, and therefore no offside line created, if there was no physical contact between an Italian and English player at the breakdown.

O’Shea took this proposition to referee Poite during their pre-match meeting the day before the game and Poite confirmed Venter’s understanding subject also to an interesting caveat that to be within the ‘spirit of the law’ no Italian should encroach within one metre of the halfback.

Despite leading 10-5 at half time Italy went on to lose the game to England 36-15. After the game Eddie Jones, amongst others, was less than impressed with the tactics deployed by O’Shea’s team saying:

“If you paid for a ticket you should ask for your money back, 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.”

Jones similarly compared the tactic to the infamous underarm bowling incident in 1981 when Australian captain Greg Chappell instructed younger brother Trevor Chappell to bowl the final delivery of the match underarm to ensure that New Zealand could not score the 6 runs required to draw the one day international during the final of the World Series Cup; such a tactic from Jones’s fellow countrymen being legal at that time but very much against the ‘spirit of the game’. Jones himself has suggested similar tactics in the past by reference to the ‘bodyline’ Ashes tour of 1932-33 – a series played similarly within the law but questionably not within the spirit of the game at that time.

For every pundit and former International who agreed with Jones that Italy had ruined Sunday’s match there was another lauding the ingenuity of the Italian coaching staff.

In retrospect Jones’s comments make him sound like the master fox who had himself been outfoxed. This is especially true when it is understood that the tactic had been deployed on several occasions in the past. By the Waikato Chiefs and Auckland Blues during the Super Rugby competition, by Toulouse against Wasps in this year’s European Champions Cup and, as England were well aware, by Pocock against Ireland.

In the circumstances calls to change the laws of the game at short notice may appear premature and the tactics should instead be praised as an innovative measure taken by the underdog against much stronger opposition – something that surely underpins the very ethos of sport.

Another explanation for Jones’s comments may be to deflect the fact that England again flattered to deceive and had to fight hard to overcome Italy in the second half after having squeezed past both France and Wales in the first two rounds.

With two more wins required to beat the All Blacks record number of consecutive test match wins and an in form Scotland (who have just achieved their highest ever World ranking) visiting Twickenham and a trip to Dublin to play Ireland in the last two rounds of the Six Nations, maybe Jones is still as cunning as ever.

© Copyright 2023 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 60
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