The England V. Italy Saga: Creative thinking needs to be backed up by results

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You can say this for England; there is always plenty to discuss when they play. This weekend’s crucial Six Nations game against Italy at Twickenham proved no exception to this rule after the largely unprecedented tactics deployed by the Azzurri.

Before getting into analysis of the play itself, I feel compelled to offer up a defense of England head coach Eddie Jones. Never one to be shy in coming forwards, Eddie described the Italian tactics as ‘not rugby’ and recommended that match attendees ask for their money back.

Predictably, social media took extreme offence at this, describing his words as ‘sour grapes’, ‘whinging’ and everything in-between. I, on the other hand, completely sympathise with Eddie Jones’ frustration. He will have worked with his team for two weeks on perfecting rucking, counter-rucking and keeping discipline at the breakdown. The game will have been the culmination of a lot of hard work and effort by all concerned and to see that work largely derailed in such a manner must have been deeply frustrating indeed.

It does also seem that with every victory and success the level of scrutiny (and yes, often, dislike) aimed at him from across the rugby world grows ever greater. Many of the critics are voicing their derision at what they see as his comments being merely the result of being ‘out-thought’ (debateable, more on this later) by Connor O’Shea and his defence coach. To my mind all this proves is that Eddie takes enormous pride in what he does, and genuinely cares on making his team a success. It proves he is emotionally invested in England’s fortune as a team, so of course he is going to feel wounded when it goes wrong. Frankly, I’d prefer this to be the case rather than a more passive approach that has been taken by other coaching teams both with England and other Northern hemisphere teams in the past.

Of course, perhaps I am a little biased in the sense that I largely agree with Eddie’s statement even if I do question the wisdom of making a statement like that in front of the cameras.

This leads me to the Italian tactics themselves. As you will have guessed, I am not a fan. I think that debates on the legality of the tactic itself are largely pointless. It is legal and Italy did have the right to do what they did. However, it doesn’t mean that they should.

As a tactic it pretty much makes no sense at all. Yes, you do avoid the possibility of conceding penalties at the breakdown by not getting involved in the rucks in the first place. However, by not committing men to the ruck and challenging for position, you leave yourself completely vulnerable. By having players out of position, and not competing for the ball, the attacking team can do what England eventually did, which is to simply pick and go through the gaps or use a maul to blast through what remains of the defensive line and then exploit the resultant gaps.

Using this tactic feels a little gimmicky. Sure, it might give you the element of surprise and wrong-foot your opponents, but sooner or later, your opponent will be able to take advantage of the fact that they know that no-one is going to be competing for the ball. Sparing use of this tactic by a talented side could have merits as they can fall back on other styles of play when the opponent adapts accordingly. With Italy, however, you got the feeling that they had little else to offer in this match besides this play. I mean no disrespect to Italy when I say this. I have been a huge fan of the Italians for a long time and genuinely want to see them able to compete at the highest level.

This didn’t really feel like competing, mostly just like hanging on. Italy has actually looked far more threatening in past matches (perhaps not this tournament) when they have turned up fully ready to play. It was therefore a disappointing sight for anyone who wanted to watch a fast-paced, highly competitive game. Eddie was right; beyond the bizarre spectacle, the game didn’t offer too much else.

For all the talk of ingenuity from Connor O’Shea, the fact remains that Italy still lost the match and conceded six tries. If creative thinking is not eventually backed up by results it is meaningless. As Eddie put it, England came away with five points, Italy have nothing to show as of yet for this tournament.

And now we come to England. It can’t be denied that England were slow to come into the match. The opening quarter of the game lacked intensity and was plagued with unforced errors. That being said, for all the criticism of England’s adaptability, they did eventually react and finish off a convincing win. For all the talk flying around of close encounters, England did score six tries and win the bonus point.

We also saw some outstanding individual performances for England. Launchbury, Daly, Care and Ford all had great games, displaying real flashes of brilliance at times. It was also heartening to see Mako Vunipola back from injury and making an impact in the time he was on the pitch.

The online abuse of Hartley and Haskell over their confusion over the ruck (or lack of) is completely unwarranted. They are both highly professional athletes who have been competing at the highest level for a long time. To imply they are stupid or don’t know what they are doing is ridiculous. It is entirely understandable that they would want to check with the referee on what is, and is not, legal in terms of their actions outside of the scrum. The desire to not concede penalties through wrongly reacting to a highly unusual situation, and to not let down the rest of the squad, is completely understandable. Criticism of England’s reaction time to this turn of events was rampant, but how often have we seen Wales or Ireland having a torrid time, only to react and regroup after the second half? It is also worth bearing in mind that any other team in the tournament might have reacted in the same way, or worse, to a similar situation.

This game was far, far away from England at their best, but it is worth keeping the game in perspective and remembering that even the very best teams can have a bad game (or string of bad games.) It is also worth keeping in mind just how far England have progressed in a short space of time. They do not consider themselves the finished article yet and are still very much in the process of improving.

Scotland and Ireland will be an enormous challenge, but I remain hopeful.

Hope for England yet in the RBS 6 Nations 2017

Perhaps the worst thing about watching England’s performance at the weekend against France, and there were a fair few to choose from, was imagining the comments and critique offered up by pundits and the public in the aftermath.

Before the match had even finished I could already see the wave of self-righteous anger bearing down from comments sections and forums alike bemoaning the performance of the squad. Of course, there were many aspects to the performance to be critical about. The now somewhat infamous lineout that was thrown directly into the back of the head of a player two meters away only to feebly bounce off and go loose will probably feature in my nightmares for some time to come. I imagine it will have a feel of those dreams where you can’t quite move your legs fast enough to get out the way of an oncoming storm.

In a lot of ways, this is an apt description of England’s performance. It never really got going and felt completely undercooked for at least the first half of the match. There was no energy, no attacking edge to the squad, reactive rather than proactive.

Although there was much to reflect on from the performance, and although the match really did make for an uncomfortable and tense viewing experience, I really do believe there were more positives than negatives to take away. It is difficult to come out firing all cylinders in such an intense competition, as was demonstrated by Ireland and Wales in their opening games.

It is all very well for Eddie Jones to dismiss some of the injury challenges facing England in the run up to the opening match. The fact remains however, that England were missing a significant amount of world class players from their opening 15 that are difficult to replace. Add to this mix a significant re-shuffle to the squad, players starting in untested positions, and a new mix of starting forwards and you get a potential recipe for disaster.

Yes, the overall performance was flawed, but it speaks volumes of the maturity of the squad that when faced with these difficulties, they maintained composure, dug deep and found the win. Having gone 14 games without a loss it would seem inevitable that, at some point, the level of intensity of play would drop. No team can be dazzling all the time, but they can be reliably successful. For me, this was the biggest point to take away from the opening game. Despite the poor start, injuries and lack of intensity, England still came away with the win, demonstrating the impact of a quality bench and depth of character of each player involved.

Eddie Jones is far too shrewd a coach to have learned nothing from this encounter and will take appropriate steps to help improve performance before the squad takes on Wales in Cardiff at the weekend. His comments in the media regarding Wales and the past performance of England in Cardiff have been seen by many as stupid and provocative. However, the more perceptive among us know that he doesn’t really believe in the statement, but that it has served a purpose in keeping the attention and ire of the media on himself rather than on the players.