Italy's offside tactic was invented by English rugby coach
Eddie Jones has been accused of being 'rude' over the ruck strategy that left England with egg on their face
Italy's innovative and controversial tactic of refusing to commit to the ruck against England in the Six Nations on Sunday has infuriated Eddie Jones and prompted calls for changes to the rules But the technique was actually pioneered by an Englishman, Ben Ryan, when he was in charge of the England sevens team.
Jones accused Italy of gamesmanship after they almost produced one of the greatest shocks in rugby history by refusing to compete for the ball on the ground. By not committing any men to the breakdown, Italy effectively eliminated the offside rule – as no ruck had been formed – leaving defenders free to move up and disrupt the England back line.
The strategy left the England team unsure of how to react. Match official Roman Poite was even caught on microphone telling the befuddled players: "I'm a referee not a coach."
Jones described the tactic as a "joke" and has led calls for a rule change.
However, the idea was developed by former England sevens coach Ben Ryan, who has a reputation as one of the game's up-and-coming coaches after leading the Fiji sevens side to gold at the Rio Olympics.
"Ryan spotted the opportunity contained within the offside law five years ago when he was England Sevens coach and used it in a game against Fiji at a World Series tournament in Japan in 2012," reports The Times. "Since then, it has crept into Super Rugby and now the RBS Six Nations Championship."
Italy were the first team to use the no-ruck strategy as an 80-minute game plan, notes the paper, and England's failure to work out how to respond played into their hands.
Ryan told the Times that he was surprised by Jones's "rude" response to being outwitted.
"I am flabbergasted with Eddie Jones's reaction to it. It is called coaching," he told the paper. "I did it five years ago with England and it is another defensive strategy. It is easy enough to counter if you have some nous. I was amazed at his comments. He is being quite rude to people, fellow coaches who outmanoeuvred him.
"There is a lack of innovation because if you are big and powerful you can keep the ball for long periods without having to do anything particularly creative,” he said. "For a current international coach to bemoan a team that has tried something different is disappointing."
Controversy as Italy ruck tactic almost derails England
England 36 Italy 15
England coach Eddie Jones accused Italy of gamesmanship after seeing his side struggle to adjust to a bizarre interpretation of rugby's rules at Twickenham on Sunday.
In not committing any men to the breakdown beyond the player who made the initial tackle, Italy made the offside line irrelevant because no ruck had been formed, thus allowing their players to swarm around the ball and disrupt England's quick passing game.
Confused? England certainly were, so much so that that their entire game fell apart in one of the most extraordinary first-halves of rugby witnessed in the Six Nations.
The visitors, whose Six Nations status has been under intense scrutiny following their 63-10 humiliation at home to Ireland a fortnight ago, actually went in 10-5 ahead at the break after a try from wing Giovanbattista Venditti, who gathered the rebound after Tomasso Allan's penalty had hit the post.
That moment encapsulated England's chaotic first-half, but to their credit they rose to the challenge after the interval, adjusting to Italy's tactics and running in five tries to secure a bonus point and move three points clear of Ireland (who beat France on Saturday) at the top of the Six Nations table.
The win, their 17the consecutive victory, takes them to within one of New Zealand's record and they'll draw level with the All Blacks should they beat Scotland on Saturday week, the Scots having defeated Wales in Edinburgh on Saturday.
But the 36-15 scoreline masked a truly astonishing encounter that split opinion, even among the English. Former England fly-half turned pundit Andy Goode praised the Italian coaching staff for their "tactical brains". But Matt Dawson, a World Cup winner in 2003, launched a furious attack, calling Italy's tactics "a farce", and raging: "Well done Italy on ruining this international. Now World Rugby have to change the laws because of your inability to compete at this level."
The Australia-born Jones echoed those comments in his post-match interview, says the BBC, drawing a parallel with an infamous incident from the world of cricket.
"I was remembering Trevor Chappell bowling underarm along the ground, making sure you can't hit a six," he said. "Similar rules today... congratulations to Italy, strategically it was smart, so well done to them. Let's be serious about it, it wasn't rugby today. I'm not happy with what happened today. That's not rugby. I'm not angry, I understand what they [Italy] did. But that's not rugby."
England captain Dylan Hartley was more restrained in his assessment of Italy's approach, which has been seen once or twice in the southern hemisphere, notes Irish website The 42. However, it's never been adopted with such concerted determination, and Hartley preferred to praise his team for the way they managed a difficult situation. "I was confused by it [but] the guys adapted well. We took the game line. We found a way."
Asked for his opinion of Italy, Hartley said: "We're full of respect for them today and they proved very difficult to break down."
It's unlikely England, or indeed any team, will be caught unaware again in the same way, but the question will continue to rage as to whether Italy were simply streetwise or downright cynical. Their coach, Conor O'Shea, had no doubt which it was.
"We are playing absolutely legally," he said. "We played to the laws and I thought we were fantastic. I'm very proud of the players today. We have to think differently as a country and play our own game. We have to be horrible to play against. We're here to win and not make up the numbers... hopefully we've earned a bit of respect here today."
England to put Italy to the sword and extend winning run
Should Italy beat England on Sunday at Twickenham it will be up there with the biggest upsets in rugby union. Bigger even than Japan stunning South Africa in the 2015 World Cup because as we now know that was a Springboks side already rotting from within.
There is nothing rotten about Eddie Jones England squad but there is plenty wrong with Italy who, when they played Ireland in Rome a fortnight ago, were humiliated 63-10.
England could rack up an even greater number of points on Sunday afternoon although what will be of more concern to Jones is how the team plays after two matches where they've struggled to recapture the rhythm of 2016.
That's the reason Jonathan Joseph has been dropped from Sunday's squad, the Bath centre likely to be replaced by Elliot Daly, the try-scoring hero against Wales 13 days ago who is tipped to move in from the wing.
There will be other changes, too, when Jones announces his starting line-up on Friday and expected to be included on the bench are two of last season's squad, recently returned from injury. Saracens prop Mako Vunipola and Bath wing Anthony Watson are welcome additions to the squad, particularly the former, in one of the few positions in which England's resources are a little thin.
Owen Farrell will win his 50th cap on Sunday and there are suggestions he will revert to his club position of fly-half, displacing George Ford, and allowing his place in the centre to be taken by Ben Te'o.
"I've not thought about winning the 50th cap too much," Farrell said earlier in the week. "The thing here is that it's all about getting better and I go on about it, but that's all I concentrate on."
A bonus-point victory against Italy, who have made four changes to the side annihilated by Ireland, will take England one step nearer repeating their Grand Slam triumph of last season, as well as extending their winning streak to 17, one shy of New Zealand's world record of 18 consecutive victories.
One of the keys to England's success in the last year has been the innovation of Eddie Jones, and the Australian was at it again this week, inviting Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and first team assistant Steve Holland to witness a squad session.
Afterwards the two coaches picked each other's brains, and Conte said: "Eddie is a winner and he is transferring that mentality onto the team. For me it was very interesting to observe another sport and the differences between the two such as the physical aspect to their training as well as speak with Eddie Jones about the analysis side to the game. It is important for me to compare my work and experience with another sport to gain inspiration and tactical ideas for the future."