The Uncontested Surprise
The Springboks intended to dominate Italy with the sheer power of their forwards, starting with scrums. It was an important part of their strategy. But just 14 minutes into the game, their scrum power was nullified.
Normally injuries are detrimental to a team but in this case the injuries to two Italian players got them off a hook.
The two players injured were the only two tightheads in their team of 23 – Simone Ferrari and Marco Riccioni. Ferrari suffered in the very first scrum of the match and walked off limping with strapping to his thigh. That was inside two minutes.
Riccioni replaced Ferrari. He tackled Lood de Jager, was taken off for a head injury assessment and did not come back. When he went off, on 14 minutes, the scrums became uncontested as Italy had no other props adequately trained to play on the tighthead.
And so for the next 66 minutes the scrums were uncontested. It spoilt the Springboks’ planning and in fact spoilt the match.
Ordering uncontested scrums is not a referee’s option. Doing so is a part of the laws of the game. The honesty side of the matter is different and not within the referee’s province at all. We shall talk about it after we have read the relevant law as it stands in 2019.
Law 3: Uncontested scrums
13. Scrums will become uncontested if either team cannot field a suitably trained front row or if the referee so orders.
14. A match organiser may stipulate the conditions under which a game may start with uncontested scrums.
15. Uncontested scrums as a result of a sending off, temporary suspension or injury must be played with eight players per side.
16. When a front-row player leaves the playing area, whether through injury or temporary or permanent suspension, the referee enquires at that time whether the team can continue with contested scrums. If the referee is informed that the team will not be able to contest the scrum, then the referee orders uncontested scrums. If the player returns or another front-row player comes on, then contested scrums may resume.
17. In a squad of 23 players or at the discretion of the match organiser, a player whose departure has caused the referee to order uncontested scrums cannot be replaced.
18. Only when no replacement front-row player is available is any other player permitted to play in the front row.
19. If a front-row player is temporarily suspended, and the team cannot continue with contested scrums with players already on the field, then the team nominates another player to leave the playing area to enable an available front-row player to come on. The nominated player may not return until the period of suspension ends, or to act as a replacement.
20. If a front-row player is sent off, and the team cannot continue with contested scrums with players already on the field, then the team nominates another player to leave the playing area to enable an available front-row player to come on. The nominated player may act as a replacement.
The introduction of this law was a part of player protection, and it makes sense.
People are querying the Italian honesty in this matter.
Before the match, the Italians sang their anthem and refereed – in the second line – to Scipio, the Roman general who had defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 2002. Mind you by then Hannibal’s army was old and thinned out over some 17 years of campaigning, which was even longer than Victor Matfield’s international career.
When Hannibal and his Carthaginians marched down Italy, they destroyed the Romans at Trebia and then Lake Trasimene. But a Roman came up with a clever tactic – avoiding battle. The man who devised this was Quint us Fabius Maximus, and his tactics are known as Fabian tactics, which infuriated Hannibal and his team no end.
Not long ago Italy used Fabian tactics at breakdowns – avoiding contact and so avoiding the formation of rucks and so avoiding having offside lines. That was at Twickenham in 2017 and it sowed consternation in English ranks and led to a change in the law which allowed the tackled team to be able to establish an offside line.
Were the injuries to the two tightheads early in the match against South Africa Fabian tactics?
Un contested scrums certainly suited Italy more than they suited South Africa as they nullified scrum power entirely.
It may, of course, just be a wicked thought, well disproved when the players miss the next match. Mind you, it’s against the All Blacks, which may make Fabian tactics attractive!.