As England prepare to welcome Italy at Twickenham in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations this weekend it presents us with the opportunity to look back on one of the stranger matches in recent times.
The Azzurri lost in this fixture two years ago – 36-15 – but they were in it right until the final 10 minutes, and the full tale of the match is rather more curious than just a scoreline.
In February 2017, the build-up to the Twickenham Stadium fixture was much the same as it will be this week, but little did we know Conor O’Shea and Italian defence coach Brendan Venter were in the midst of hatching a cunning plan.
England had grabbed two tight and intense wins, over France and Wales, while Italy had lost out to Wales and Ireland in Rome, and were looking to change things up in Round Three.
O’Shea’s men had beaten two-time world champions South Africa just a few months prior, and welcomed Michele Campagnaro, Tommaso Allan and Abraham Steyn back into their side.
The scoreline of course indicates one thing but this game will always be remembered for Italy’s refusal to commit players to the ruck, allowing them to rush up in defence and seriously test England’s resolve.
The home side scored first through Dan Cole but the Azzurri tactic frustrated their hosts right from the off and Allan slotted a drop goal before Giovanbattista Venditti was first to react to the fly-half’s post-hitting penalty, grabbhing the ball and scoring a surprise try – a further display of razor-sharp thinking.
Italy led 10-5 at half-time at a bemused Twickenham, with England time and time again unsure what to do at the breakdown to ensure a ruck was formed and even asking referee Romain Poite for advice.
Poite gave the England players – most notably back-rower James Haskell – a briefing that has gone down in rugby lore, memorably saying: “I’m a referee, not a coach.”
After a half-time chat from Eddie Jones, England improved and Danny Care brought them level before Elliot Daly made it 17-10. But there was more to come from Italy; Campagnaro scored a stunning second for the visitors just before the hour.
In the 68th minute the Azzurri remarkably only trailed 17-15 but from there on in England accelerated, putting Italy’s ‘fox’ tactics behind them to score through Jack Nowell’s double and Ben Teo’s late score.
England head coach Jones was left frustrated on the day as the Azzurri tactics effectively enabled them to stand in the way of home scrum-halves Danny Care and Ben Youngs to disrupt their rhythm.
He said: “Congratulations to Italy, strategically they were smart today, but it’s not rugby so let’s be serious about it, it’s not rugby today.
“I’m not happy with what happened today, I don’t think that’s rugby. I played rugby a long time ago, I’ve coached rugby. I understand what Italy did and I’m not angry with what they did, but I just don’t think it’s rugby.
“If your half‑back can’t pass the ball, then there’s something wrong with the game.
“You’re looking to pass and all you see is one of their players. Could we have adjusted even quicker? Possibly, but it’s difficult.”
We now know of course that Italy’s brilliant tactics were cleverly plotted by O’Shea and Venter in the run-up to the game – turning it into a fascinating encounter.
We also know that the Azzurri coaches met Poite before the game to check the tactic was legal, whereas World Rugby have now changed the laws so that we won’t see ‘The Fox’ again.
After the game, O’Shea was understandably delighted with his team’s sharp-witted performance: “I think people should have been saying fair play Italy, they didn’t come and just do the normal.
“Italian rugby has to think outside the norm. People talk about David versus Goliath, well it wasn’t in a normal fist fight that David won.
“I really enjoyed the whole week and we really didn’t know how it was going to work but the players took real ownership. They were brilliant.”
Although frustrated at the time, England ultimately had the last laugh in that year’s Championship as they made it back-to-back titles with four wins from five.