Conor O’Shea launched a stern defence of Italy’s tactics in the 36-16 defeat by England in Sunday and accused not just Eddie Jones but the top tier of English rugby of disrespecting his side for too long, insisting that now is the moment that they will take no more of it.
The Italy head coach sent his side out to try and stem England’s possession by not committing to the breakdown, meaning that no ruck was formed and, as a result, no offside line was in play.
“We didn’t come up with this overnight,” said O’Shea, starting his press conference. “It is funny. When Wasps score a try to beat Toulouse in the European Cup and when David Pocock intercepts a ball against Ireland in the autumn internationals it is brilliant; when Italy do something it is not allowed.
“We beat South Africa and it is a terrible South Africa side; we do something different, you can’t do that. We have to change in Italy and I am sick and tired of people having a pop and having a go. We came here to win. We kicked to corners, we missed a few kicks at goal, we attacked off scrums and we showed some unbelievable defence so stop having a go. We are going to change.
“Will the law change? Of course it will, but the law was there against Wales and no one looked at how badly we were treated against Wales. That was illegal. Today we were legal and we played to the law. They actually changed midweek. We are not going to roll over and we are going to fight. If you show that sort of commitment start praising it. Just because we took people by surprise what do they want us to do? Be normal? We can’t be normal. We have to be Italy.”
It was a tactic devised by defence coach Brendan Venter following the defeat by Ireland two weeks ago, in which the Italian coaching set-up queried why their scrum-half Eduardo Gori was allowed to be tackled when the ruck appeared to have been formed.
In response, they were informed that a World Rugby rule change this week would mean that players would not tackle the scrum-half by giving them a one-metre area of safety, but this then opened the door to standing in the scrum-half and fly-half channel to prevent ball coming out of the breakdown.
What took England – and pretty much everyone else watching the match – by surprise was that the ploy was completely legal and essentially written into World Rugby Law 16.1b, stating that unless a standing opponent physically contacts the opposite team over the ball, there is no ruck and no offside line.
“It’s a tackle. We are not inventing anything,” the former Harlequins head coach O’Shea added. “If there’s a tackle there’s no offside. We can go there. We never played the nine. We just occupied space. They deserve support. They don’t get half the stuff that the opposition get. They don’t get the support they need and when they do we will become a really good side. If we continue doing the same things in Italy we will never dig our way out of this hole and we will dig our way out of this hole by thinking differently.”
The Irishman also drew on something that England’s Rugby World Cup-winning coach told him when he first arrived in the Premiership 22 years ago, using the expression to stress that unless Italy continue to use tricks up their sleeve, they will continue to languish on the brink of the second tier of world rugby.
“I remember the great Clive Woodward bringing me over here in 1995 and he said ‘Conor, the problem with you guys, in Ireland, is you never think differently’,” O’Shea recalled.
“He got me chasing kick-offs and catching kick-offs and he got me wearing a different number on my back because rugby is there to do things different and to challenge people’s minds. That’s what we did today, we challenged people’s minds and a lot of credit to Brendan Venter for doing what he did.”
However, he also hit back at opposite number Jones and anyone else who was ready to criticise his players for their efforts on Sunday afternoon, which led to Italy leading 10-5 at half-time and threatening their first ever victory over England.
“If that is peoples take after today, then that is a very sad reflection of what they think that group of players did out there,” he added. “I keep on saying: when we beat South Africa, they were terrible, England beat South Africa here for the first time in 10 years, ‘well done, brilliant’. We do something that’s been done by Toulouse and Australia, and [when] we do it and its wrong. Why always us?”
When informed that Jones displayed a sheer anger with the Italian tactics, O’Shea responded: “Well of course he did because he wanted 70 [points] so he wanted to take us to the cleaners. Is that respect?
“I actually loved it when they kicked for goal as that was a bit of respect and I’m gutted that we finished the game of the way we did. But if people think that we’re just going to lie back, I’m not there to take a salary for four years and not make a difference. If people think we’re just going to lie down and take it, they’re wrong.
“So you’re going to see us fight and do things differently, and we’ll have bad days, we’ll have dark days, we know that. I mean there’s so much to do, but we’ll do it and I think today you could almost say we’ve had enough and we’re going to fight.”