Wednesday 6 March 2019 5:59 pm

England beware, Italy have grown in stature since their no-tackle tactics two years ago


Sport and Business Reporter at City AM. Email: michael.searles@cityam.com

Sport and Business Reporter at City AM. Email: michael.searles@cityam.com

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“Expect the unexpected” has been defence coach Jon Mitchell's advice to England this week ahead of their Six Nations game with Italy on Saturday, two years on from the no-tackle tactics which left Eddie Jones's side perplexed.

Italy's game-plan on that day saw them refrain from competing at the ruck, meaning no offside line was created, which allowed them to surround the scrum-half.

They went into half-time with a 10-5 lead but England came out in the second-half with a plan to get around their opponent's tactics and ultimately won 36-15.

Jones described the game as “not rugby” and World Rugby subsequently introduced law changes five months later to prevent the approach being repeated.

Making gains

The unorthodox approach was Italy's best chance of beating a superior England side that day, but while the latter are still the team with more quality, Italy have certainly improved under the leadership of former Harlequins head coach Conor O'Shea.

Understandably, Italy’s 20-game losing streak means there are question marks over their on-going participation in the Six Nations; their last victory was over Scotland in March 2015.

But this year there has been a notable improvement in the performances and results of the Italian team, despite sitting bottom of the table with zero points.

For many it is a foregone conclusion that teams will pick up a bonus-point victory when playing Italy, but it was far from plain sailing for Scotland, Wales and Ireland this year.

Scotland ran riot during the first-half at Murrayfield but Italy scored three second-half tries to lose 33-20, just missing out on try and losing bonus points.


It was a similar story against Wales in Rome, with the score finely poised at 12-7 to Warren Gatland's side going into the second-half.

The Welsh looked unconvincing, given a number of changes to the starting XV, and it took the likes of Alun Wyn Jones and Gareth Anscombe to come off the bench and push their side over the line to win 26-15.

Italy v Ireland - Guinness Six Nations
Italy went in to half-time with a 16-12 lead over Ireland (Source: Getty)

Battling

Italy looked to have improved again when they led Ireland 16-12 at half-time in round three with a physical battle, particularly at the ruck, that left the Irish rattled.

But Ireland's key men like Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Jacob Stockdale all pulled through in the second-half with important contributions as Joe Schmidt's side limped to a bonus point win, 26-16.

Given the majority of bookmakers had Italy to lose those clashes by at least 20 points – and to Ireland by 30 after last year's 56-19 demolition – it was a clear sign of progress for O'Shea's men.

"We talked about trying to play with ambition and intensity which we did, but we gifted Stockdale a try,” O'Shea said after the game. “We have to create a consistency to get to where we want but hopefully people will see this is not an Italy side that is going to roll over.”

For many on Saturday it will be a question of how many England will win by rather than whether they will win at all. But despite Italy's three defeats so far in the championship the signs are that they are becoming increasingly competitive.

Two years ago O'Shea deployed those infamous tactics because his side were unable to keep the ball in play and were always looking to slow the game down. This Six Nations they have shown they can compete with the ball in play and not be embarrassed.

Although they are searching for consistency over the 80 minutes after a couple of costly mistakes against Ireland and Wales, they are more organised and more physical at the breakdown.

The improvement in the country's performance comes amid a backdrop of improvements in the Italian domestic game.

Benetton sit second in the Pro14 Conference B, ahead of Ulster, Scarlets and Edinburgh, with 10 wins from 17 games in what is perhaps the most obvious sign of improvement in Italian rugby.

On Saturday, England will not be allowed to rest on their laurels and coast through with five points into the final weekend, and so Jones and Mitchell will have to prepare the side for whatever surprises Italy may spring.

It will also present England with an opportunity to bounce back from the defeat in Cardiff and they will have to be mindful of not rotating the starting XV too heavily as Wales did.

Italy may be the least feared team in the Six Nations but their resilience to setbacks and ability to keep going in the face of defeat is likely to deliver them a win at some stage. It's up to England to make sure it isn't this weekend.

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