His side’s surprise tactics caused anger and confusion throughout the rugby world, sparking chaos on the pitch and heated debate off it.
But Italy head coach Conor O’Shea says his team did “nothing wrong” during its Six Nations clash against England after employing strategies that effectively removed an integral element of the game.
“We’ve looked at other games and we looked at what had been done in the past, and we decided we were going to go for broke to get the ball back and win,” O’Shea told CNN’s World Sport show on Monday.
“We just played to the law. We’re different and people like different, otherwise we wouldn’t be here to talk about the England vs. Italy game at Twickenham.”
The controversy started when Italian players deliberately avoided competing for the ball after making a tackle, meaning rucks were not formed. This meant there was no offside line, so the blue shirts of the Azzurri could stand among the opposition backline and prevent the ball being passed.
Initially, the England players were baffled. Flanker James Haskell asked referee Romaine Poite to clarify what he wanted to see for a ruck to be formed, to which the Frenchman responded: “I’m not a coach, I’m a referee.”
England went on to win the match 36-15 despite trailing at halftime, but coach Eddie Jones said Italy’s strategy “wasn’t rugby,” quipping that fans who had paid to see the game should ask for their money back.
Former England scrumhalf Matt Dawson also criticized the tactic, saying Italy “ruined” the game and that World Rugby would “have to change the laws.”
While O’Shea cautioned against altering the law as a “knee-jerk reaction” to the game, he admitted “it will be changed at some stage, but laws always are.”
“It wasn’t fair criticism. We were there to try and win a game of rugby, and we’re the underdogs in all our games. We’ve decided now enough is enough and we’re not going to lie down,” the Irishman added.
“We had to be different and we have to do things differently. And we did nothing wrong, that’s the bottom line.”
O’Shea cited previous instances of teams using the tactic: Australia against Ireland in November, Wasps against Toulouse in the European Cup, and New Zealand provincial side Waikato Chiefs in the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition.
“When they do it, it’s brilliant, it’s tactical genius; when Italy do it, it’s ‘why are they doing that?'”
O’Shea added: “We’re disappointed to lose because after 70 minutes we had given ourselves a chance of history. But we weren’t able to see that out in the last 10 minutes. We didn’t fit what the plan was for a few people yesterday: (to lose by) 70, 80 points.”
Italy’s ‘long, hard road’
O’Shea, who won 35 caps for Ireland as a fullback before embarking on a coaching career, was appointed by Italy in March last year.
He’s had mixed success so far. After leading the nation to its first ever victory over two-time world champion South Africa in November, his side suffered a surprise loss to Tonga the following week, its first against the Pacific Islanders since 1999.
Italy started the 2017 Six Nations with crushing defeats at home to Wales (33-7) and Ireland (63-10) but led 10-5 against defending champion England and was still in the game at 17-15 down before conceding three late tries at Twickenham.
It has finished last 11 times since joining Europe’s elite international rugby competition in 2000, but the tournament’s CEO John Feehan said last week there’s “no vacancy” for another team, either as a seventh participant or via a promotion-relegation system.
Georgia has won Europe’s second-tier competition six years in a row and, at 12th, is two places ahead of Italy in the World Rugby rankings. The country’s head coach Milton Haig told CNN his side would “add value” to the Six Nations on and off the field, and would be obvious candidates to join the tournament’s format.
O’Shea confesses he has a “long, hard road ahead,” but is also frustrated that his side isn’t given the respect it deserves on the international stage.
“We beat South Africa in November, England beat South Africa in November — England was brilliant and we played a bad South African side? It’s one of those things that people want us to fit a uniform thought process in their heads.
“We want to try to instil in our players a mind-set that’s not fixed, and that is a mind-set of growth because we have a hard, hard, hard job ahead to change perception and also to change Italian rugby.
“We know that there’s going to be a road to play at the very highest level — it’s going to take time. Doing things like (Italy did against England) will show a lot of people that Italian rugby is about change. Thinking differently, you can actually change the status quo.”
Divide and conquer?
Italy has a mountain to climb in order to avoid another winless Six Nations campaign, and another dreaded “wooden spoon” as bottom team.
The next game will be a tough home encounter against France on March 11, followed by a trip to Scotland.
One thing will be on everyone’s minds: Will O’Shea’s side deploy the same divisive strategy that was so effective against England?
“We’ll have to wait and see,” he says.