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Sunday 28 May 2017

Creativity should be applauded

Italy head coach Conor O’Shea (right) and England head coach Eddie Jones shake hands before the Six Nations match at Twickenham.
Italy head coach Conor O’Shea (right) and England head coach Eddie Jones shake hands before the Six Nations match at Twickenham.

In Australian rugby, as it is in New Zealand, the annual Country v City (Sydney) games are a big occasions. Teak tough farmers taking on city slickers. Thousands would attend, with supporters arriving in sports cars or tractors. In 1975, Sydney played Country, who were coached at the time by the unorthodox Daryl Haberecht.

Haberacht, later to coach the Australian national team, devised his legendary "Tap 5" move, which he had the Country players comfortable with by the week of the game.

From a tap penalty close to the City line, the ball would be concealed from view by the Country players all having their backs turned to the opposition. The ball would be passed along the line to future Wallaby flanker Greg Cornelsen, who would quickly stuff the ball up his jumper. All the Country players would then break off in all directions, their hands up their jumpers imitating Cornelsen.

Come match day and the ideal situation arose to try "Tap 5 " Everything went as Haberacht had planned it, none of the Sydney players knew exactly who to tackle or even what Country player had the ball, and before they realised it, Country had scored and won the match 22-20.

Over the years I have seen George Hook implement the three-man scrum in St Mary's, tries scored by head-butting the ball over the line (and therefore not constituting a knock-on), mauls where the opposition did not engage, and even a 14-man lineout orchesteted by former Irish coach Warren Gatland.

Country players line up for the famous ‘Up The Jumper’ move back in 1975.
Country players line up for the famous ‘Up The Jumper’ move back in 1975.

Innovative, out of the box thinking should be applauded and not criticised. Last week, my former RTE colleague and current coach of Italy Conor O'Shea produced a coaching masterclass against England. And although the subtle massaging of rugby's tackle law had been used before by the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand, it had never been tried to this extent.

Rather than a one-off, spasmodic play, O'Shea had this as his set game plan, and it nearly worked. The ploy so confused the English team that at one stage early in the second half, Italy had a possibility of creating one of the greatest upsets in world rugby.

Attack

While Eddie Jones went on the immediate attack, claiming "it was not a game of rugby", one can only assume that if the English team beat the All Blacks the very same way, Jones would be hailed as a tactical genius.

O' Shea and his backs coach Brendan Ventor had approached referee Romaine Poite the day before the match, and got his approval. For most of last Sunday's game Poite was busy explaining to the English players that "I am the referee and not your coach".

What O'Shea and his Italian team had done was create a situation where there was no offside line. Once his players were not engaged with the English opposition, or the Italian tackler had rolled away the required distance as O'Shea had instructed, then under the current laws it was no longer deemed a ruck as no Italian player was involved.

No ruck, outside the radius and with no offside line the Italians were entitled to stand in the way of the English halfbacks or shoot up out of the line, to such an extent that they often actually stood next to an English player.

The English were rattled.But rather than have their captain Dylan Hartley show some calm and call an immediate meeting by having one of his players fake an injury, they just kept playing into the Italians' hands.

Back in the studio we saw this happening after just a few minutes and could not believe England's lack of reaction. They were like rabbits caught in the headlights, and had they just thought about it they could have used it to their advantage.

Had an English player thought to engage or even grab an Italian player at the ruck, then that would have constituted a ruck and therefore an offside line, but they didn't. England needed to realise sooner that the space was not out wide but rather in close. And up the middle of the park, a soft centre in rugby-speak.

The Italians did have a three-player wall to combat and discourage the immediate English pick and go drive but all the English had to do was develop one decent pick and go with some of their dynamic ball carriers, and follow that up with an effective clean-out. The flimsy Italian wall would have parted like the Red Sea, and the Italians, scattered across the English line could not have reacted quickly enough.

The other option was to simply pick the ball up, set up a rolling maul and commit six or seven English forwards to it and maul the Italians.

Once again, the Italians could not have got numbers back quickly enough to stop it, and would have probably have had to resort to dropping the maul.

But England didn't react so the Italians just kept doing it. Eddie Jones had plenty of chances to get the change of tactics to his team on the field, and even when he sent on his replacement players they should have been told to get the message to the players on the field as how to address this and turn it from confusion into an advantage.

Confused

But that never really happened and even after the game Hartley was still confused. It is rumoured that former All Black captain Ritchie McGaw sat the referees' exam each year, and it is rumoured that knew more about the laws than most referees.

O'Shea exploited a loophole and was right to respond to Jones' criticism, especially after Jones had publicly stated a week earlier that "England wanted to take Italy to the cleaners".

O Shea was there to try and win the match within the laws of the game, and more importantly with a team that 99% of the time would lose.

Like the famous Aussie 'up the jumper' trick of 1975, I really don't think this will ever happen again to such an extent or at international level. In all honesty it would be a pity if it did. But we have to celebrate the innovative, creative and modern thinkers of the game, and this won't be the last time a future coach or player comes up with a new way to push the laws of sport.

I just wonder what Joe Schmidt might have in his vast box of tricks.

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