The South Terrace is a new series from The East Terrace editor James Stafford (@jpstafford).
One of the great things about sport is you can never really ever predict what’s coming next. While what’s past is prologue, generally offering a pretty reliable hint of what’s to come, sometimes plot lines don’t pan out according to age old formulas.
A competitor's overwhelming advantage in experience, athletic ability, entourage support or pay packet weight can, from time to time, be undercut by a piece of smart thinking executed to perfection under pressure.
Seemingly insurmountable opponents can very occasionally be levelled by wit, rather than by rapier. And it’s the rarity of the seemingly natural order of things being turned upside down that makes it so appealing to genuine sporting fans.
Few expected Italy to do anything but try gamely when they arrived at Twickenham for round three of the 2017 Six Nations. Predictions consistently seemed to congregate around a fifty point beating for the visitors. Yet for forty minutes one of the strongest rugby teams on the planet was utterly flummoxed when being confronted with a simple, if risky, tactic.
For those that like a bit of thinking with their sport, or something to break the monotony of mainstream tactics, it was fascinating.
Matt Dawson is not a man who welcomes such challenges. In fact, he actively rages against such things.
For him it seems playing within the laws of the game are unacceptable if it doesn’t cook up a game that serves up a cookie cutter template that suits his palate.
Despite reaching the pinnacle of the game and winning a World Cup under Clive Woodward, a coach who wisely looked to exploit any 1% advantage that he could legally take, Dawson is surprisingly closed minded to a team seeking to grab whatever edge it can.
More of the same for me, please
For the man who toured with the 2001 Lions in the innovative role of player columnist, there was no fascination in seeing elite athletes being forced to adapt under pressure to an unexpected narrative. There was nothing to savour in seeing 50/1 underdogs leading at the halfway point away from home against a team they’ve never beaten. Rather, it was a time for anger.
Dawson choose to rant, rather than reflect on the inability of well paid athletes to understand the basic laws of the game. In fact, Dawson seemed to hint at his own lack of understanding of rugby’s ruck laws, at one point bizarrely claiming a disallowed try was due to Italy’s tactics, rather than a basic law infringement from England that actually had nothing to do with Italy’s strategy on the day.
It’s hard to imagine that Matt Dawson, when captain on the infamous 1998 ‘Tour to Hell’, wouldn’t have taken advantage of whatever legal means possible to compete. Perhaps we are being harsh though. Perhaps, given the choice to reduce a 76-0 loss to Australia to something less horrific, Dawson would have stoically refused his coach’s order to employ a legal strategy to halt the golden wave washing over England, preferring to honourably limit his side’s options.
We’ll never know.
Dawson’s lack of perspective was spectacular last week, going so far as to imply Italy’s coach Conor O’Shea shamed the game and had earned anything but respect for his approach.
That's talk of shame, coming from the man who made this.
Those who do not learn from history
Dawson’s Twitter rant didn’t stop there. He went on to predict utter chaos in the amateur game as a result of Italy’s trangressions on Saturday
Except, there was nothing original about the sins of Sergio Parisse’s men. Amusingly, the above Tweet revealed a surprising lack of knowledge from one of the BBC’s major pundits that this tactic has been employed on several occasions before.
Tweets such as this started flying around during the first half of the game.
The fact that it has been utilised previously without causing the game of rugby football to collapse in on itself only serves to reveal Dawson’s utter lack of perspective on the matter.
Even better, he aggressively claimed that you can’t expect professional players to adapt to this tactic on the fly. Despite, teams having done exactly that in the past.
On Saturday Dawson served only to paint himself as the 21st century equivalent of the narrow minded British pundits and players who raged against early innovations in the international game. Those blinkered establishment types who scoffed at the 1905 New Zealand team that dared to experiment with positional play.
The following extract from the Auckland Star in 1917 (reflecting on the 1905 tour and of captain Dave Gallaher’s deployment in the newly created ‘rover’ position) encapsulates the tradition Dawson seeks to carry forth today.
"The Britishers stood aghast at this style of play. They only saw Gallaher descending like fury on the British halves, bumping them and robbing them, and opening up the lightning passing bout that ended in big scores for the black-garbed stranger team. The critics cried out the loud protest, the crowds roared with indignation and the air of the playing fields rang with thunderous complaints of unfair play...."
It would have been nice of Dawson to use his influential position to shine some light to his audience, many of whom are casual fans, as to how the laws allowed Italy to play this way and why they may have chosen to do so. He didn't have to like it, but he could have viewed it as a brave, and incredibly risky, strategy that was so rare as to be enjoyable purely in its own rights. He could have analysed and dissected.
But we know that Dawson isn't a fan of asking questions.
He could have have even grabbed it as an example of how a tournament that has been around since the 1890s still keeps writing new and original tales. That this unpredictability in sport, the ability of brain to rival brawn, is what makes sport so magnificent. That to be the best in sport you have to react to the unknown as well as you plan for the predictable.
Instead Dawson chose to rant.
Dawson was right to say there was some shameful stuff going on last week in rugby. But it wasn’t coming from Conor O’Shea’s men.