DONAL LENIHAN: England caught between a ruck and a hard place

This Six Nations championship had already provided some engaging contests but, with six fixtures remaining, none is likely to divide opinion more than that rather bizarre game in Twickenham last Sunday.

Italy arrived determined not to be the whipping boys once again as England continued their relentless march for glory and a place in rugby’s history books. 

Rarely has a team chasing immortality — with another three wins required to mark them out as the only side to win 19 test matches in a row — looked as rattled and vulnerable against a side coach Eddie Jones had demanded should be “taken to the cleaners”.

New Italian coach Conor O’Shea needed a cause to rally and galvanise his troops after the humiliation of conceding nine tries and 63 points against Ireland last time out and he seized on the comments of Jones as his starting point. 

Understandably, O’Shea felt his team was being disrespected.

All well and good rallying the troops with stirring words but you also have to give them some ammunition to counter the threat of a side that has swept all before them since the lippy Aussie assumed control of England after the 2015 World Cup. 

That’s where O’Shea’s former London Irish team-mate and South African World Cup winner Brendan Venter came into the picture.

Appointed by O’Shea as his defence coach, Venter was the one who first suggested that Italy had to bring something totally unexpected to proceedings to see if the English chariot could be derailed somewhat.

Not in their wildest dreams could the Italian management have anticipated that a side who had beaten all before them, including a 3-0 series win in Australia last summer, could be discommoded in such a fashion on their home patch.

By deciding in advance not to form a ruck — to do so requires one or more players from each side to be on their feet in a contest over the ball — Italy immediately got rid of the offside line which led to the strange spectacle of having one or two Italian players positioned between England’s scrum-half Danny Care and his half-back partner George Ford.

The Twickenham crowd were apoplectic and failed to grasp that what the Italians were doing was perfectly legal as they roared their disapproval at French referee Romain Poite. 

While it did nothing for the fans, it was fascinating to observe from my vantage point high up in the TV commentary box.

The manner with which the supposed leaders in the England side failed so miserably to adjust and deal with the situation they found themselves in was really telling. 

For a side that sees itself as the best in class, their lack of rugby intelligence was strange. Would it have taken New Zealand over half the game to come to terms with such a tactic? I very much doubt it.

Unfortunately, some modern rugby players are spoon fed to such a degree that when anything slightly out of the ordinary presents itself, they have no way of sorting it out themselves. 

Even more ridiculous was the sight of England captain Dylan Hartley and one of his trusted lieutenants James Haskell repeatedly asking Poite what was going on as the French official offered them a crash course in the laws of the game.

It was also slightly embarrassing when they were overheard asking him for a potential solution. 

Poite’s response ‘I am not a coach’ said it all. From my earliest days playing rugby you became aware that, if the opposition weren’t putting big numbers into the ruck, you immediately picked and drove through the middle. 

Putting nobody into it should have made that decision all the easier for England. Yet to see their forwards flapping around, unable to compute their situation, was quite revealing.

Having restricted England to a single try and a measly five points, the Italian players sprinted off to the dressing room at half-time leading their hosts at the ‘home of rugby’ by double scores.

Twickenham was in meltdown.

With 15 minutes to recalibrate, it was no shock that England readjusted with the intervention of their management at the break and, surprise, surprise, the first thing we see is England second row Joe Launchbury pick and drive through a non-existent ruck to gobble up the metres and finally put England on the front foot. 

Within minutes Danny Care picked at the base and ran straight to score England’s second try. A third followed from Elliot Daly soon after.

The entire incident will have done nothing to forward the candidature of Hartley for the Lions captaincy. On the basis of his current form, he will be extremely fortunate to make the cut as one of the three hookers selected.

While the game would descend into farce if every side decided to exploit the loophole in relation to the offside line — others including the Waikato Chiefs, Australia, and Toulouse employ the tactic every now and again — I have no issue whatsoever in O’Shea seeking to find a way for his side to prevent the opposition from ripping them apart with their superior power and skill levels. Innovative coaching is all about finding a way to master a superior opponent.

Eddie Jones may well have slammed the entire facade as “a joke” in his post-match press conference but he had no such issue when, as Australian coach, he attempted to camouflage the Wallaby deficiencies at the scrum by getting his tight head Al Baxter to constantly collapse at engagement and force a series of re-sets putting pressure on the referee to just get the scrum over. At least what Italy did on Sunday was within the laws of the game as they currently stand.

The thing about introducing something like Italy did last weekend is that every side facing them from here on in will have catered for the possibility and will be ready to negate it. 

In that case what transpired to be a strength for long periods against England would become a weakness.

Amazingly England are three from three in the championship to date, the only side left capable of achieving a Grand Slam, yet have played nowhere near their best in any of the games against France, Wales and Italy.

Scotland are next to attempt to halt the England juggernaut but they haven’t won at Twickenham since 1983. 

With two wins from three in the championship to date, Scotland’s confidence is sky high and they are more than capable of creating serious problems for England in what promises to be another fascinating encounter.

Quite what Ireland can expect when they meet a chastened Welsh side in Cardiff remains to be seen. 

Wales were very poor in victory in their opening game in Rome, outstanding in defeat against England at the Principality Stadium and lost their way in the second half on Saturday — losing 20-0 in that period — having looked the better side in the opening half.

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