It can’t be easy to lift players from such a convincing home loss and there are many tactics coaches can use. But Italy fully embracing the ‘no-ruck’ defensive strategy, to an extent never seen before, was the perfect way to do it. The life of a professional rugby player can sometimes be mundane, albeit focused and competitive. Preparing for the England game would have been FUN. Almost like the Italy squad was on a secret mission that nobody else knew about. They would come to Twickenham and ambush England with tactical innovation rather than just ‘line speed’ or ‘passion’ alone. The critics will say that, ultimately, it didn’t do any good – Italy still conceded six tries. But from an Italy perspective, it will have been crucial. For the first half they confused and humiliated one of the best sides in world rugby, whilst remaining very competitive until the hour mark. Two weeks on from the Ireland game, they are able to pick out positives and build their confidence back up.
The outrage at the tactic has become the perfect tool for the Italy coaching staff to have a real impact upon the mentality of the Italy squad. O’Shea and Venter came out fighting in the press with strong, positive statements that will be as much for their own players as for the eyes of the rugby world. On twitter, Venter highlights conditioning as the key thing that prevented Italy from winning the game. Make no mistake, this is for his players to read, not least because this is something that is within their control. He went on to highlight that Italy tried to play positive rugby, kicking for the corners. This, again, provides a basis for the identity they want to form. Lastly, he says he is insulted that people have accused them of just trying to keep the score down. They have the means now to build a siege mentality that can be so effective when trying to motivate and elevate players beyond their average. O’Shea has been equally strong in his statements to the media, at least twice finishing the interview “it will take time, but we will get there”. A strong, positive statement focusing minds on the long-term project. O'Shea even hinted in one interview that he expected the backlash - in my view, it was an opportunity to get into his player's heads that he just couldn't miss. The message to the Italy players and public is clear - they will find ways to be innovative, they will be fun, they will be competitive and most of all, they will be relevant.