Conor O’Shea can expect a flurry of grateful messages on St Patrick’s weekend if Ireland account for England in Dublin and, in the process, claim the Six Nations title on points difference.
England stand three points ahead of Ireland at the Six Nations summit after as many rounds thanks to their bonus-point defeat of Italy on Sunday but the unusual tactics employed by O’Shea’s Azzurri cut deep into the expected scoreline.
The 21-point win leaves England with a points difference of +29. Ireland’s is double that and, though there are numerous boxes to be ticked before that maths even begins to matter, it could be that the Italians’ ‘no rucking’ policy in Twickenham proves decisive.
“Yeah,” said Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek, “there will be a few messages going his way if it works out like that.”
It’s rare that a game captures the wider imagination in the manner of Sunday’s at Twickenham but Feek, Sean O’Brien, and Peter O’Mahony were all quizzed at length yesterday for their take on Italy’s clever approach, as well as the rather sour English reaction.
Most of the responses were predictably diplomatic but O’Brien was up front when asked if he might have responded to the unorthodox situation quicker than an England side that needed a dummy’s guide to the game’s laws and the half-time break to find a response.
“Yeah, absolutely,” O’Brien said. “Up the jumpers stuff.”
The surprise is that England were so surprised.
Feek first came across the tactic when the Cheetahs utilised it six or seven years ago. The Chiefs were a keen proponent under Dave Rennie much more recently, the Champions Cup has even thrown up the odd example and it has been fairly widespread in Sevens rugby as well.
Ireland experienced a more isolated version of it last November when Australia stood off a ruck and David Pocock, stationing himself between Conor Murray and the Irish back line, intercepted the scrum-half’s pass and started a move that should have ended with a Wallaby try.
All of which makes the English reaction so risible. Eddie Jones said it was “not rugby”, George Ford warned that it could “kill the game” and the RFU went into some sort of emergency confab, such was the alarm at the sight of Italians flooding the England backline instead of rucks.
As a coach, and a neutral one, Feek could appreciate the sheer cheek.
“Exactly. We’re just sitting back watching it and thinking ‘fair play to them’. Unluckily for Italy, it worked out in the end (for England). England were able to get it going, play the game again and restart. They obviously worked on it in the break and came out with a plan.
“In some ways, I can see what Eddie’s saying because people want to come and watch a game of rugby, watch England do their thing and score tries. I just think it’s great for rugby. Whether it’s weather or crowd noise or playing the rules in a different way; it creates a little bit of interest and it’s good for the game.”
Rucking ructions: Donal Lenihan on Italy’s breakdown tactic
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