How Italy's ruckless masterplan came together -- and nearly fell apart

TWICKENHAM -- When Italy coach Conor O'Shea spoke to his brother, Diarmuid, earlier in the week about the ruckless tactic they were going to deploy against England, the response was on point: "It looks so wrong, it has to be right."

The tactic -- nicknamed by O'Shea as "The Fox" -- was suggested by defence coach Brendan Venter and was born from an incident in Italy's heavy defeat to Ireland in round two of the Six Nations and from similar tactics used against Wasps by Toulouse earlier in the season.

"There was an offside in the Ireland game that was clarified as being onside," O'Shea explained. "We thought it was a missed penalty but we got the reason why and thought 'oh, that's interesting'.

"Brendan said 'please listen and don't think I'm mad'. We talked last Sunday as a group of coaches and said 'ok, will we go for this?'"

They decided the answer was yes, and the players practiced it to perfection throughout last week. But then, 24 hours before kick-off, came a setback.

When Italy's coaches had their routine pre-match meeting with the match referee, Roman Poite. Naturally, they told Poite what they were plotting. The Frenchman had some bad news -- the little-known rule had actually been tweaked just that week.

The issue was this: the lack of an offside line behind the breakdown remained, but they could no longer take out the opposition scrum-half as it had been deemed not to be in 'the spirit of the game'.

Back to the tactics chalkboard they went. What now? Rather than directly impeding the scrum-half, it was hatched that Edoardo Gori would hover annoyingly to fluster Danny Care. It worked a treat, with England utterly befuddled throughout the first half.

Publically, England coach Eddie Jones was unimpressed by the tactic, saying it was not rugby, comparing it to Trevor Chappell infamously bowling underarm to prevent New Zealand hitting a six off the final ball in 1981.

Privately, though, you can imagine he would have had a wry smile at the plan Italy had dreamt up to disrupt their bulldozing chariot. It was rugby's version of 'parking the bus' in football and O'Shea said it would be a "sad reflection of what they think that group of players did out there" if they were criticised for it.

"We are not inventing anything," O'Shea said. "If there's a tackle there's no offside. We can go there. We never played the nine. We just occupied space.

"We didn't just dream this up on Friday night. A lot of planning went into it. We wanted the ball. The purpose of defence is to get the ball.

"We came here to play. Just remember, we attacked off scrums, we kicked into the corner, we did not come here to roll over.

"We challenged people's minds and a lot of credit to Brendan Venter for doing what he did. Look at the number of turnovers we got today."

It was more than just a tactic for O'Shea. It was a way of refocusing his side after their 53-point defeat in Rome to Ireland, and was designed to give his players a mental boost. "We wanted to give them hope that they weren't just going to fill a pitch and be here like the old gladiators with the crowd wanting the hundred.

"If we had said to our players 'fellas, charge over the trenches again and do the same thing' then we'd get the same result."

Italy remain rooted to the foot of the championship, with no wins from three, or points to their name. But on Sunday at Twickenham they shook up rugby a little. And after utilising their cunning plan, O'Shea has a message for those teams lying in wait.

"We have a few other animals up our sleeves as well, not just The Fox."