Rugby is a 23-man game now, “they” say. And “they” are rarely wrong, and certainly not in this case, though it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. As recently as the 2007 RWC final, South Africa made just one permanent change, and that after 72 minutes (we aren’t counting Bismarck’s brief appearance as a blood sub for John Smit). Such a situation is unthinkable today, where coaches pick an eight man bench with a substitution policy in mind.
Even players are conditioned in such a way – one of major reasons for the Leicester Tigers relative lack of success this year is the inability of Dan Cole to burn himself out for 60 minutes then let Castro take over. For example:
- In this years HEC, in the 4 games against Ulster and Montpellier, Dan Cole played 314 minutes and Fraser Balmain (!) 6 – Leicester lost twice, won in the last minute once, and needed a last minute Ryan Lamb drop goal to seal victory in the other game
- In the 2012-13 HEC, in the 4 games against Toulouse and the Hairsprays, Cole played 235 minutes (58, 54, 60, 63) with Castro coming off the bench and totting up 85 minutes in total. Leicester won twice, drew once and topped the pool
The loss of Castro to France is a major driver in the lower effectiveness of the Tiger pack this year. And speaking of France, French props would self-destruct were they asked to do a full 80 these days.
Pack changes are now typically made with impact in mind, not what a withdrawn player has done, but what their replacement can do – fresh beef and grunt off the bench is the order of the day. Frequently big performers are asked to do what Cole was – give it all for 50-60 minutes – that’s their role in the 23. In the backline, a bit more thought is required – bench backs are not always there to provide relief, but to give options in case of injury or a change in gameplan – a classic example here would be Ulster’s use of Paul Marshall last season, where Pienaar stepped into the ten channel and provided a more structured game, while Wee PJ had a breather.
It’s a form of the classic cliche forwards win matches, backs decide by how much (aside: the American football equivalent of offence wins matches, defence wins championships was proven in brutal fashion late Sunday night) – your forward replacements roles are to continue whatever the starter was doing, but the backs have a more cerebral role. That’s simplified of course, but the principle stands.
One critical error that must be avoided when changing backs on the fly is losing momentum. Last year in Fortress Aviva, Ireland were 13-6 up on France after the hour and Conor Murray was bossing the game – the entrance of Eoin Reddan saw Ireland lose all momentum, and almost the game.
And there was another classic example in Le Bosh on Saturday night – England had started abysmally with Jack “Pat McGibbon” Nowell to the fore and quickly went 16-3 down. In 20 minutes either side of half-time oranges, they scored 18 points and for all intents and purposes had the game won – the first score was created by a cheeky tap penalty (scrum-halves always tap penalties cheekily, don’t they? They assuredly do) by Danny Care, and the last was a cheeky Naas Botha-esque zero-backlift drop goal by the same player.
England essentially had the game won, but fell victim to substitution by numbers – Care was hauled ashore for Lee Dickson. Dickson’s selection above Ben Youngs in the first place was perplexing, and his play took all the wind out of England’s sails – they went from snappy incisive ruck ball that made Owen Farrell look like Carlos Spencer on the gain line to hand-waving, flapping and rumbles. An English acquaintence described Dickson as a “lobster in a bucket” – waving his bound claws ineffectively while predictably moving in a small arc.
The change corresponded with the removal of the laughably ineffective Jean-Marc Doussain (didn’t it seem like Nyanga played scrum-half more than Doussain?) for Teen Wolf Maxime Machenaud – with England dawdling and France actually having someone who passed the ball from the base of the ruck, the dynamic of the game completely changed. France suddenly looked dangerous and the game seemed alive – it wasn’t guaranteed that France would win, but England sacrificed the initative voluntarily, and it might end up costing them the championship.
PS wouldn’t it be great if Machenaud wore Joe Namath’s fur coat – if you’re going to have hair like that, work it Maxime, work it