A friend was at Twickenham on Sunday sitting not far from the Italian coaching top brass, Conor O’Shea and Mike Catt. After an early tackle, and no ruck being formed, the Italian players ran to take up space in front of the England backs, blocking their attacking options. ‘That’s offside,’ shouted my friend. Catt, who knew her, glanced up. ‘No it’s not,’ he smiled gleefully. And it wasn’t. As the world now knows, the Italians had found a loophole — there couldn’t be an offside after a tackle once neither side formed a ruck. There cannot be many people who care for rugby and applaud the underdog who didn’t secretly admire the ruse, which neutered most of England’s running back play.
Of course, England’s coach Eddie Jones went ballistic, comparing it to the Trevor Chappell underarm bowling furore of 1981. It was, in fact, the sainted Greg Chappell who ordered his brother to bowl along the ground to stop the Kiwi No. 10 hitting a six to tie the 50-over game. The New Zealanders were incensed. The Prime Minister said it was ‘an act of true cowardice’. But that is what sport does for you. The Italians have been getting tonked for so long in the Six Nations — how marvellous seeing them flummox and out-think the big bad English. Earlier, Eddie Jones had said England would take Italy ‘to the cleaners’. Good for O’Shea for coming up with a counter. For a while there in the first half, Italy were the Leicester City of rugby.
England skipper Dylan Hartley approached the referee to ask: ‘What should we do?’ Frenchman Romain Poite (magnificent, by the way) told them: ‘Don’t ask me; I’m the referee not a coach.’ Well, England did event-ually win but a few, like me, would have been happy for it to go the other way: not least for the Italian captain Sergio Parisse, one of the best players in the world. He can barely remember what it’s like to win an international. But he still goes home to one of the most beautiful women in Europe.
You can’t go wrong overestimating how much the English are disliked. A splendid letter in the Daily Mail from 76-year-old Peter Leeves of Redhill put it perfectly: ‘I’m dismayed by the current coach’s apparent policy of trying to inflict on opposing players as much damage as possible. Eddie Jones seems to want to inflict fear of English rugby round the world: he referred to our game against France as “war”. This is ridiculous: rugby is a sport not a battlefield.’ Well said, though I am not sure how many people in Scotland will agree with that last sentence.
The Calcutta Cup at Twickenham should be bracing. Scotland have been the team of the Six Nations by a long chalk. Even without skipper Greg Laidlaw, they are brilliantly mobile, aggressive, full of flair — and they don’t like the English. After losing a tight semi-final against England in 1991, they turned up at in the final against Australia in Aussie scarves and hats. Point taken. In this Six Nations they have already beaten Ireland and Wales in free-flowing fashion. Victory at Twickenham would be their first triple crown since 1990: but I wouldn’t begrudge it them one bit.
You could call it Monty Panesar’s revenge. The much-loved if troubled (divorce, drunkenness, peeing in public) left-arm spinner has been elusive of late. But he’s popped up in grade cricket in Australia, drafted in to coach the left–armer Steven O’Keefe. Heaven knows what Monty said — ‘Spin the ball and bowl at the stumps’ perhaps — but it has had miraculous results. In their first Test against India, Australia slaughtered the home side by 333 runs, with O’Keefe taking 12 wickets for 70. India hadn’t been beaten at home since 2012. Monty is as happy as Larry and would like to have his coaching extended. Me too.