What a fuss about nothing. As all hell breaks loose because of what Italy did not do, and what England could not answer, the Italian non-committal at the ruck in last Sunday’s game has led to an abundance of negative comments of how it spoiled the game – but personally I don’t think it did. In fact, it probably made the game a little more exciting than the one-way procession that Eddie Jones had asked for in his prediction of a 70-point massacre.
For me, the interesting thing about the game was the lack of ability of the England players to adapt to what was in front of them and apply themselves to answering the questions that Italy had asked.
The offside laws are quite complex, and rightly so, as infringement will lead to penalties and penalties cost points but they are quite clear.
Italy are not the first and will not be the last team to adopt tactics to stop a more physical side from dominating the breakdowns.
We have seen the non-committal of players at the catch and drive line-out allowing opposition players to enter from the wrong side because of a lack of an offside line. The fact is, stopping those players would be classed as obstruction if the ball were moved from the catcher to the back and none of the opposition bound on to create a maul.
While watching, I thought it strange that the England players didn’t know or seem to understand the offside Law and were asking the referee, Roman Poite, to tell them what to do which quite rightly drew the response, ‘I am the referee not your coach!’
England had spent so much time in assuming they would dominate the breakdowns, gaining quick ball to fire out along the backline to allow the fast boys to run riot over a retreating Italian defence, they obviously forgot the first rule of the game. Respect.
Even when playing the weakest of teams you must show respect (one of the RFU’s core values) and earn the right to score points. You cannot assume anything and should approach each game as if the opposition are the best in the world.
Eddie’s ‘70-point’ insult came back to haunt him, despite the win, because it showed a lack of respect for the opposition and as a result, proved his England team are a not as close to the All Blacks as he thought.
The simple answer to the problem posed by the non-rucking Italians was to pick and go; suck in the fringe defenders while advancing down the field, then pass when the opportunities opened up.
The strange thing is that a non-rucking game is probably what World Rugby and the viewing public would want to see in an ideal world.
Think of it, no messy breakdowns for referees to interpret, the ball in constant view and offloads at every tackle, instead of the confused picture we have now. It’s actually pretty much how we think the All Blacks play and what has led to their dominance.
Jones commented: “It is a contest game. We have rucks to have a contest, we have scrums to have a contest, we have line-outs to have a contest. When you take contests out of the game, it ceases to be rugby.”
This would have some weight were he to make the same noise about the crooked feed in the scrum.
More people would have been upset by the de-valuing of the scrum by allowing crooked feeds to go unpunished, than by Italy’s non-rucking.
Arguably, Wales could have beaten Scotland were the scrums allowed to be a competition for the ball rather than being permitted slowly to slip into ‘just another way to restart the game’ with the ball fed into the second row while the referee looked on.
World Rugby said in their statistical report on the 2016 Six Nations: “For some teams, the ultimate objective of the scrum is seen as a source of penalties that can produce points and territory. Possession is not the priority with more than a third of all scrums resulting in a penalty.”
In my view if more than a third of scrums are ending in a penalty and that doesn’t include any for crooked feeds, there is something dramatically wrong with either the coaching and education of young props, or the referees.
The international game is supposed to be the highest level of the sport. If elite players are not capable of performing one of the fundamentals of the game, or referees are unable to referee it as the laws are written, World Rugby has a duty to act.
Questions must be asked as to what has changed to make the scrum unworkable and how we can make the necessary changes to maintain safety while reducing the number of reformed and penalised scrums?
My view is, by increasing the referee’s involvement in the formation of a scrum, we have tasked people who may have never played in that position with something they have no experience of.
The engagement of the scrum should revert to how it was without referee interference. Once engaged, the referee checks binds, checks the scrum is stationary and that the ball goes in straight. It would make the whole process easier and also take pressure off the referees and make the game fairer for all.