Our Six Nations clash against England at Twickenham proved to be an interesting afternoon of rugby. In spite of criticism from some quarters, the object of our ruckless plan was to defeat England. We consider it an insult if people suggest that we turned up to keep the score down in round three.
I reckon that if Eddie Jones looks at the fixture again in the cold light of day he will feel differently about it after stating post-match that employing the tactics we did “wasn’t rugby”. He was initially frustrated and irritated as I too would have been as an opposing coach. However, he’d now probably take a different view as our strategy was well-thought-out and something we’d worked on at length.
Italy head coach Conor O’Shea is a very open-minded individual and the credit goes to him and the organisation who were prepared to embrace the plan we conceptualised. As a coaching group, we brainstormed and came up with some great ideas ahead of the English Test. A plan is always created because of a need and in itself means nothing. The ability to execute a plan is the most difficult part.
There are many factors that have to be in place that few people know about if you want to employ ruckless rugby. It’s far more complex than saying: ‘Let’s leave the breakdown alone and run around.’
We started working on the plan during the week and in the beginning it was very difficult because it’s not natural. But as the week progressed, we got better and better in terms of our execution.
If you look at our intent, from the start we didn’t kick everything at goal and went for the corner. We wanted to gain victory against England and our aim was to disrupt them.
In the first stanza, we were really effective but then we lost our starting scrumhalf Edoardo Gori and flyhalf Tommaso Allan to injury. That was a big setback for us. Even though the two substitutes are very good players in their own right, they are not as experienced at executing the plan as the majority of training in the week was done by the other two players.
The idea that England simply solved the problem in the second half is not completely true and the notion that they changed their plan at half-time isn’t the point.
With 11 minutes remaining in the match, we were still firmly in the contest with the scoreline 17-15 in the hosts’ favour. The idea to pick-and-go was not the reason England broke us down. It was rather a case of us fatiguing as a collective in the final quarter, which has proved a common factor in our first three matches of the 2017 Six Nations campaign.
The problem with Italian rugby at the moment is that we are not professional enough to be sufficiently conditioned so as to contest a fixture for the full 80 minutes. If we were better conditioned, we could have beaten England. The reality is that we ran out of gas. We are a young team that will grow, and need to be given time.
Whoever thinks that we employed ruckless rugby to keep the score down is sadly mistaken – we had an absolute plan to get the ball back. We created and won turnovers in another way because we had already compromised ourselves by not contesting the breakdown. Our line of thinking was that if we are not contesting the breakdown it would benefit our defensive shape.
Rugby is a funny sport in the sense that in almost all departments when you load one area you lose traction in another. We went with the aforementioned plan because even though we boast plenty of fight and vigour, one of our fundamental weaknesses is that we make poor decisions defensively.
While we ultimately fell short, the players were brilliant and, for me, the fun is not always found in winning but in the process itself.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup-winner has enjoyed an illustrious playing and coaching career. He proved highly successful during his time as Saracens’ director of rugby and guided the Sharks to Currie Cup triumph in 2013. Venter now practises as a medical doctor and is currently serving as Italy’s defence coach in the Six Nations. Follow him on Twitter: @BrendanVenter