England-Italy 2017 – Tackle Only
This weekend saw Italy employ unusual tactics relatively successfully. Everyone expected a whitewash for England. These games often go the same way, two or three scores difference at half-time, a bonus point secured in the second half and an unopposed training session in the last quarter.
Instead, the Italians started by holding on to the ball for the first 20 minutes (we don’t hear the infamous “tackle only” for at least 15 minutes of the game) and England just defended and committed basic errors. When they finally get their hands on the ball, the Italians don’t commit men to the breakdown: no rucks are formed and no offside line is formed.
Instead of going over why and how the Italians did it, or whether or not it’s within the spirit of the game, I want to look at the following:
How did the Italians manage the referee?
What could England have done to counter the Italians tactic?
What does this mean for players and coaches?
How did the Italians manage the referee?
Firstly, I don’t know how much the Italians spoke to Romain Poite prior to the game but one thing is sure: unlike the English players, Poite had seen this before. Not only has it been employed by the Chiefs in Super Rugby, it more famously happened in the Autumn internationals. After a kick-off, an Irish player went to ground and while Irish players went over him to protect the ball, no Australian competed for it. David Pocock ventured between the Irish halves and easily intercepted the ball.
During this England-Italy game it became a tactical weapon and therefore Romain Poite had to make sure that the players knew when rucks were formed and when they were not. He used the phrases “tackle only”, “ruck” and even hand gestures for rucks when England were in possession, and should’ve done it more often when Italy were as well. With his now famous “I’m not your coach” line, he let England know that they had to come up with a solution by themselves. However, despite phrasing the question badly James Haskell was intelligent to ask Romain Poite his interpretation. By doing so he will at best, get some information and at worst show a bit of good faith to the referee.
Referee management is crucial. At any level, especially for back row players, the first 10 minutes of the game are used to gauge the referee on the breakdown and basically ask yourself the question: how much can I get away with? How long do I need to compete on my feet to get a “holding on” penalty against the tackled player? How much weight can I put on my forearms before going for the ball without the ref calling “off your feet”? Do I always need to release the tackled player before going for the ball, or how obvious should I make it that I’ve released before going for the ball?
England didn’t really seem to confer on this and that can be seen as a lack of leadership from Dylan Hartley and the other senior players. Danny Care should’ve been instrumental in this role, guiding the forwards. On the other side, Parisse was talking to Poite every now and then, in French. That’s the sort of details that’ll also help his team. On one instance you can hear Poite telling Parisse not to step into the tunnel of the lineout and we can’t hear Parisse asking the question, so Poite makes the effort to tell him why he was pinged.
What could have England done?
Adaptation is key to rugby. I’ve heard coaches and even O’Shea post-game call rugby a “chaotic game”. Adapting to the referee’s interpretation of the laws is a weekly problem for players and captains.
A quick list of solutions:
Pick and go: this one was actually successfully used by England, especially in the second half. Any form of Linebreak would leave the defence scrambling and unable to capatalise on the lack of offside line.
Offload from the ground: If no one is above the tackled player, it’s easy to make an offload from the ground. And if the tackler takes too long to get out, trying to play immediately highlights the defensive laziness to the referee.
Kicking behind the defenders: grubber kick, chip over the top.
Inside and outside passes: playing what’s in front of you. The tactic of not forming rucks have many exploitable flaws: it creates a small gap near the tackle area, if the pillars get too close they will be considered as competing. Defenders in the attacking back line create potential dog legs. Sideways runs from the scrum-half, inside and outside pop-passes can deadlock these situations and put the defence on the backfoot.
It’s much easier to come up with solutions from the sofa than on the pitch but one would expect a successful side like England to try and figure things out by themselves. Some of these would have worked, some would’ve backfired. I’m sure there are many more solutions to unlock the situation, the important thing is to try them out!