With England all set to take on Italy this Saturday, to commence their campaign for the 2024 Six Nations, we re-wound the clock to an unforgettable encounter with the Azzurri. Flashback to February 26th, 2017 and England were in the midst of an incredibly frustrating half of rugby.
For 35 minutes, Italy had played a tactical game-plan to perfection. Italy weaved a loophole through a rarely focussed on law, for an entirely legal yet rather confusing defensive approach. The tactic would become known as ‘ruckgate’, and was one of the biggest talking points of England’s triumphant tournament.
Italy would not commit a single player to the breakdown, after making a tackle on an England player. This would cause no ruck to be formed, so the Italians were free to roam amongst the English attacking line and search for an interception, in what looked like an offside position. Under the rules of the time, the strategy was entirely legal, yet had the Twickenham faithful demand for referee Romain Poite penalise the visitors for their intelligent play.
The half-time whistle could not come soon enough for England, who received an education in gamesmanship tactics from their head coach Eddie Jones. England replied with an astute awareness in the second half, and even attempted to use the ‘ruckgate’ tactic against the Italians, which got a resounding cheer from the home fans.
England managed to get a second half stronghold on the match, and pulled away in the latter stages for a 36-15 win. Due to the bizarre circumstances of the match, the law which Italy exploited at the ruck was promptly changed later that year.
A transcript of James Haskell and Dylan Hartley’s Conversation with referee Romain Poite, 2017 Guinness Six Nations.
HASKELL: “Can I just get some clarity. On the ruck thing, what do I need to do for it to be a ruck?”
POITE: “I can’t say. I am the referee, I am not the coach”.
HASKELL: (begrudgingly) “Ok sure.”
POITE: “You will find probably the solution with your coach, who has more ability than me to tell you what to do, and what not to do.”
HARTLEY: “It was the rule…”
HASKELL: *Interrupts Hartley* “Well no, we just wanted to know what the rule was, and what the exact rule is.”
POITE: “If there is no ruck, then there is just an area around the tackle on the ground, make an offside line and that’s it.”
HARTLEY: “They have to be 2m from the ruck?”
POITE: “One metre.”
HASKELL: (confused) “So, if I clear someone out and get them in, then that’s a ruck?”
HARTLEY: (frustrated) “No!”
POITE: “During the tackle, then that’s the tackler. After”