James Haskell has come in for a lot of stick recently after Romain Poite’s snarky reply to him during last weekend’s International against Italy. I think not only is ti completely unjustified criticism, but he should be being lauded for his actions, not slated.
Unless you’ve spent the last week living in a cave you no doubt know that Italy, under their head coach O’Shea played a very unusual tactic. They refused to commit players to tackle when England had the ball, and by doing so did not create a ruck. The consequence of this was that there was no off-side line and so the Italian players could legally walk around the tackle and disrupt the patterns of the English team.
Whether you think this was a travesty of rugby, or an inspired bit of tactical play by a wiley coach is irrelevant. It was clearly legal, and was equally clearly causing England some serious problems.
What was also obvious was that there had been some sort of discussion beforehand between Italy and Poite. At no point did he look like he even considered penalising the Italian players, and was clearly on the same page as them in their desire to upset the apple cart. It was revealed after the game that there had indeed been a discussion where the tactic was explained and Poite agreed it would be legal if certain criteria were followed. At no point was the England squad party to these discussions.
And so, during the match, when the tactic was in full flow, and Poite was happily letting the Azzuri disrupt the game England were not just on the back foot, but there were playing catch up.
The laws are clear, and I have no doubt that every player on the field understood them, what they did know however was how Poite was enforcing those laws and what criteria he was using to make the distinction between a tackle (no off-side line) and a ruck (a very clear off-side line). The only possible way to find that out was to ask him directly.
And that is exactly what James Haskell did.
He might not have asked in the most efficient way, but he was clearly confused by the way the match was going, and he was very frustrated that what he saw as illegal infringement was being called as legal by the referee. He asked Poite to clarify exactly what the law was.
Instead of answering his question Poite took it upon himself to make a sarcastic remark in reply.
I don’t think anyone should need to remind him that during the game he is the sole arbiter of what is legal and what is not. And part of his job is to communicate that to the players. It is done at set pieces, it is done when one team is under pressure and repeatedly infringing, it is usually done at the breakdown. But not this time.
The conversation went on with James Haskell attempting to get clarification of how close a player had to be to be considered part of a ruck, and whether he could simply drag on Italian player into the tackle to create a ruck. Eventually Poite answered his questions, and the second both sides had the same information the tide turned.
There is more to it that this.
Haskell did exactly what you would expect of an experienced professional rugby player in a frustrating situation. He didn’t take matters into his own hands, he asked for detailed clarification. And when he didn’t get it he asked again until he did.
The most striking thing to me, second only to Poite’s seeming delight in pulling one over the England team, was that it was James Haskell that did the asking.
Haskell isn’t the captain. He isn’t even one of the vice-captains.
He is simply a back rower who has recently returned from injury, that many people say shouldn’t be in the team at all. The actual captain was standing next to him, his mouth shut, not contributing anything at all.
And so this is why I think all England fans should be celebrating James Haskell’s behaviour last weekend.
He saw a problem, he saw that the “leaders” weren’t sorting it, and he did everything in his power to resolve the situation without risking infringing the laws himself.
To my mind he put his had up for the captaincy of the team. Hartley has not been on form recently, and it is supposedly for his leadership he is being retained. Last week he didn’t show any of that at all when it really mattered.
That was left to “The Brand”