On the 26th of February, Eddie Jones’s England team took on underdogs Italy in the Six Nations.
In Rugby Union, it is the equivalent of Port Vale taking on Bayern Munich. Italy had face themight of England 23 times, and had lost all 23. So it proved, as England ran out comfortable victors in the end. At half time in the game though, Italy were in the acendancy, as they were leading when the referee blew his whistle to signal the halfway point in the game.
The reason for this tiny shift in supremacy? A gamplan that was at odds with the routine. A ruse that was meant to put these gargantuan favourites off-kilter. Something so unexpected that the first step to react to this surprise is lost, thus handing the initiative to their opponents.
Italy chose to not engage in the rucks. those very rucks they were expected to lose and then be on the back foot. So instead, they opted to utilise their men in another way and disrupt the possession.
England player James Haskell led protests toward the referee, who saw no reason to halt proceedings. It was within the confines of the sport, but such was the unheralded approach, it meant Italy had their illustrious foe’s exactly where they wanted them. Their plan was working.
Eventually England managed to wrestle back into the game and Italy’s approach was countered successfully, but the backlash for their ‘nefarious’ hatching and ruination of the game was plenty. England coach Eddie Jones was vociferous in his complaints. He commended Italy and their coach Conor O’Shea for their implementation, but he also questioned whether it was rugby.
Jones also likened it to an incident in cricket in the ’80’s, when Australian bowler Trevor Chappell’s underarm ball to a New Zealand batsman meant that a match winning six for the Kiwi’s could not be hit.
Italy chief O’Shea ran his gameplan by the match referee the day before the game, as it flies close to the boundaries, but in essence, it meant Italy could flood the England lines and it worked for a little while.
Innovations such as this are so important to any sport. Without these forward-thinkers looking around the curve, then incarnations of all sports would have remained as they were from their inception. And this would be a very bad thing.
Imagine football without Johan Cruyff and the offside rule. Tennis without Hawkeye technology. Athletics without Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Dick Fosbury.
All great changes which were at first, viewed as alien. Change is hard to accept for anyone, but for engrained institutions such as sport, anything which does not match the regulations and pattern which was in place at the time is not acceptable.
Change must be pushed through. It is important, nay vital, that rules must be scrutinised constantly for loopholes and chinks in the armour. If we do not embrace these visionaries and alterations to the norm, then we stand still. While many fans may think the version they enjoyed ten or twenty years ago was superior, change must occur. It may bring with it some negative elements, but as we change, our proclivities must follow.
Otherwise, the sports we enjoy would be akin to a museum we visit to look back on halcyon days. It would not be relevant and it would eventually die. Imagine if you will the next time we go to a match and the players take to a mudbath of a pitch, with boots like bricks. The ball is soaked and heavy, the players supping on pints and smoking at half time.The play is linear, and there are no passing symphonies, no artistic movement. Whilst cash has corrupted the soul of the game we adore, it does bring the finest artisans with it.
When we are privy to a change in the script, we should applaud it, rather than attack it like a foreign body in the face of our immune system. Without these trailblazers, we would have a sport that would have died a death a long time ago.