Conor O’Shea has managed to change his reputation with a single 80 minute performance after England scrum-half Danny Care claimed Italy’s ‘no–ruck’ tactics had seen him go “from being the most attacking man in rugby to the most negative”.
O’Shea and his defence coach, Brendan Venter, ordered their Italy squad not to compete for the ball on the floor during Sunday’s 36-15 defeat by England and instead avoid rucks to enable their defensive line to stand legally in an offside position.
The tactic drew the wrath of England head coach Eddie Jones, his players and the Twickenham fans, but O’Shea was simply making the most of a World Rugby loophole to legally stem the number of attacks that his side faced. The former Harlequins coach, O’Shea, issued a stunning defence of the tactics after the match, in which he accused England and the other top nations of disrespecting Italy and insisted the country “needs to change” to be taken seriously.
Care admitted afterwards that he wants to speak with his former coach to understand why he took such an approach.
“I’m going to pick his brains over a beer. He’s gone from being the most attacking man in rugby to the most negative in one game” Harlequins scrum-half Care said. “They felt they had to do it to try to get a result but they didn’t.”
O’Shea developed a reputation for favouring attractive running rugby during his time in the Premiership with London Irish and Quins, but the ploy caught Care – starting his first international in a year – by surprise, and he admitted that the Irishman had never thought about removing the ruck during his time at the Twickenham Stoop.
“No, no. We never tried to do that” Care added. “Why the law is like that I don’t know, but it’s within the laws to do it. We’ve experienced it against us a couple of times, but only once or twice in certain games.
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“To have it in every breakdown is something new. It’s another thing this team has experienced. We got through it and managed to find a way, it probably took us a bit longer to adapt than we wanted to but we did and we got five points. We’d have taken that at the start of the game.”
At the start of the game there were very few who knew what Italy would unleash. Beyond the squad and coaching staff, it appears that only O’Shea’s brother knew of the move, and the head coach even kept it quiet when former Harlequins wing turned rugby pundit Ugo Monye called him on Friday. Had O’Shea told the ITV commentator, England may well have known exactly what Italy were planning, because Care was sitting with Monye at the time of his phone call with O’Shea.
“I was with Ugo having a haircut on Friday and I didn’t realise he was on the phone to Conor. I think Ugo wanted some help with his commentary, on the sort of things they were trying to do,” Care explained.
“Ugo asked him and Conor obviously said no, so I said to him ‘you’re a liar, but a good liar’. Ever the politician, Conor!”
But removing the positive relationship Care clearly still holds with his former coach, he did echo the calls by Jones and his England teammate, George Ford, for something to be done by World Rugby to prevent the same happening again, given that every time he looked up to pass to Ford, he found Italian scrum-half Edoardo Gori in the way.
He said: “I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what was going on with the first couple. I thought he’d [Gori] seen a penalty or something. They obviously came with a very strict game plan which they had been working on all week and they put it into play for a good part of the day but our class showed in the end.
“I think Eddie has said everything that needs to be said about it. We all echo his thoughts. It’s a pretty ridiculous rule. If teams feel they need to do that to make it a level playing field it’s very negative.”
Any rule change is unlikely to come though, with World Rugby backing referee Romain Poite for his interpretation over Law 16.1b that rules the formation of a ruck, and the Rugby Football Union have confirmed that they will not take any extraordinary measures other than the usual channels to force a change in the regulations before England face Scotland a week on Saturday.
An RFU spokesman said: “This type of issue is discussed ‘in the round’ with World Rugby, through the normal structures and meetings. World Rugby regularly issue clarifications on various laws so could decide to do this anyway due to the interest generated by yesterday’s match.”