Lobster Pot

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Pack changes are now typically made with impact in mind, not what a withdrawn player has done, but what their replacement can do – fresh beef and grunt off the bench is the order of the day.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

Previous Post


  1. Yossarian

     /  February 5, 2014

    Basteraud being left on is the other side of the sub argument. PSA finally took off the ineffectual centre and Fickou waltzes in! A tale of two subs.

    • To me it sealed the argument of PSA’s preference for WarrenBall vs natural French flair.

      Of course Philippe will say it was part of his plan all along, to sucker in the world with a year of boshtastic drivel and then suddenly show up with more flair than (thanks WoC for the inspiration) Machenaud in Namath’s coat.

    • curates_egg

       /  February 5, 2014

      I have never understood Bastearaud’s selection for France. Even looking beyond Fickou, there are others who offer more.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  February 5, 2014

        I think its largely down to France having the worst international coach out of the tier one nations, Marc Lievermont, for all his chopping and changing at least hit on the right team every few games, PSA just consistently selects muck and adheres to a muck gameplan. Terrible coach.

  2. The thing that perplexes me was that Lancaster says it was down to Care’s lack of gametime, but he was looking as sharp at 60 minutes as he did at 0 minutes. He said he had data that showed that the game’s intensity was higher than that of the NZ game etc etc, but a simple question through the waterboys would have given him the most important information: “How’re you feeling Danny, can you keep going?”

    Also, if you’re in the one of these “high intensity” games and your *only* fly-half on the squad is pulling up with cramp constantly, you’re gonna have a bad time.

    England’s bench in general seemed like it was just largely making up the numbers. Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs and Ben Morgan aside, none of them had much impact.

    Contrast that with Ireland’s bench at the weekend:
    – McGrath for Healy is pretty much a like-for-like replacement, and some holes were punched in the already well punched Scottish defense.
    – Cronin for Best gives you a Tuilagi/Basteraud who can pass, ruck and throw into a lineout.
    – Moore to me looked a little deer-in-headlights initially, but he didn’t do anything glaringly bad
    – Boss for Murray is somewhat like-for-like, but the passing from rucks had a little more zip (and certainly wasn’t lobstering about)
    – Anyone for Sexton is always going to be a step down, but Jackson did a solid job, and a couple of inches less on that kick (which bizarrely [to me] is getting him criticised as being a negative play) would have given us another try through Dave’s yoga/gymnastics/whatever the hell that was
    – Ferg for BOD actually gave us a bit more zip in attack through the hands I thought, he was an able deputy.

    • On Jackson’s play, he nearly set up a beauty of a try but it was the wrong option on last play with no penalty advantage. In comparison Sexton absolutely shanked a simpler cross-kick earlier on, but we had a penalty advantage so we got the ball back and went again.

    • JT

       /  February 5, 2014

      Totally agree. I know it’s early days, but the big thing for me was our bench made a genuine impact. Then you think of the others who weren’t there (D’Arcy, Madigan, Reddan, Fitzgerald, Zebo, Earls, Ryan, Strauss, Kilcoyne, Gilroy, Ferris, SOB, POC etc). Point being those mentioned could have well laid a claim to start if fully fit/available etc. I don’t want to get carried away, but I’m quietly excited at the prospect of Joe growing our squad depth and, as demonstrated in the Scottish game, having genuine quality coming off the bench to make a positive impact.

      I’m loathe to put the boot in, but with the way the game has gone, it beggars belief that only 12 months ago Deccie would only ever use subs as a last resort. WoC mentions the props lasting 60 mins – think of how many times Kidney insisted that Ireland’s front row finish out the game and would never utilise any front row subs. Absolute caveman stuff.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  February 5, 2014

        One should never be loath to put the boot into Kidney, a reign darker than the darkest days of the tail end of the EOS era.

  3. Bushmills

     /  February 5, 2014

    Loving all the NFL references today, Whiff. Late night on Sunday was it?

    I used to enjoy the chatter about Martin Johnson making it as a Tight End in the NFL (he did try out pre-season with the 49er once, but more of a publicity stunt). Am sure you could start a good rumor about SOB becoming a Running Back??

    • Hahaha it was. Craig Gilroy has always struck me as a good wide receiver – very good at making yards/metres (delete as per preference) after contact. Maybe a Wes Welker type

      • WhisperingDeath

         /  February 5, 2014

        perhaps a cornerback – not enough height for a wide out. not sure he’s as tough as wes for the crossing routes…

      • Yer Man

         /  February 5, 2014

        Gilroy as a Kick Returner!

        • osheaf01

           /  February 6, 2014

          Keith Earls as special teams receiver would be even better!

  4. Paddy

     /  February 5, 2014

    I think their obsession with ball carrying subs is the problem. Neither M Vunipola(can’t scrum, can carry) or Youngs(can’t hook, can carry) are renowned in their primary function. Morgan is a 1 trick pony though tbf it’s a good trick. With Cole flagging they’re really coughing up the scrums so they need to bring on defenders or breakdown specialists to help the flagging Wood and Robshaw.

    Their back subs were somewhat hampered by Mays departure early on and they did have a defensive specialist in Barritt on the bench(who was IMO as responsible for the try as Goode).

    Love the Dickson description

    • Agreed. I think it was Brian Moore who queried why Brian O’Driscoll couldn’t be an impact sub for the Lions. He said something along the lines of: ‘If Davies has failed to bash through them, there is little chance that Tuilagi will be able to either. A pass to put someone through a gap can more impactful as someone bashing at the midfield’.

      • Paddy

         /  February 5, 2014

        Yeah impact means bosh. If Youngs and Mako V are the best available back ups fair enough(I think they’re down to their 4th choice tighthead at the moment) but I think they should really look at a flanker for the bench spot as opposed to an out an out 8.

        • I’d disagree that impact must mean bosh. Scrum halves make an impact by upping the tempo of the game, ROG was great coming on for Sexton for pinning opposition back in their 22. Kyle Best makes the point below about Tom Court having massive impact in the scrum more than anywhere.

          If a defense is dogged enough to tackle things to a standstill, switching the gameplan slightly (like Basteraud for Fickou) can make a huge difference.

          The flip side of that is that a little extra bosh can help, as evidenced by Ben Morgan’s particular brand of impact.

          • Paddy

             /  February 5, 2014

            I meant to the English impact means bosh/hard yards carrier etc. I agree with most of what you say, my point was that the English seem to favour bosh in almost all circumstances particularly with the forwards. Contrast it with the strong points of the Irish front rows and replacements .
            Cronin for Best – carrier for breakdown nuisance
            McGrath for Healy – breakdown nuisance for carrier
            Moore for Ross – Scrum for Scrum

            You can make the case that they do the other thing reasonably well. But I think the replacements aren’t just a case of the coach saying we need fresh bosh!

            In Morgans case he made 60+ yards in about 14 mins and his side added 3 points and conceded 10.

    • Yossarian

       /  February 5, 2014

      i like Lancaster, he has made England seem humble(impossible to any irish going fan from the 90’s-00’s!)he dropped ashton and he seems to want to play a bit of rugby with the team(despite the lack of players suited to it) but he does seem naive as a coach.
      Nowell was out of his depth, Vunipola can’t scrum-a death sentence in Paris, Care was heading for MOM when he called him ashore and some of his midfield call ups have been painfully poor. Billy 36 wasn’t wanted by Leicster, the lad who played against NZ(league convert) was poor. I just think he makes some bad judgement calls and game time decisions.

  5. Kyle Best

     /  February 5, 2014

    A huge part of Ulster taking that win at Welford Rd was down to the appearance made by Tom Court off the bench, he put an exhausted Dan Cole into the dirt twice late on the match. Two big wins in the scrum with 15 mins to go definitely gave Ulster the confidence to carry the lead home.

    Picking Callum Black to start and Court on the bench hasn’t been the regular at Ulster but it worked amazingly well on the day so all credit to Anscombe and the boys!

    • Really good point – imagine he was scrummaging against a fresh Castro instead – easy to envisage Leicester digging out the scores they needed to win the game

  6. curates_egg

     /  February 5, 2014

    Why anyone thinks England are such strong contenders to win the championship is beyond me. Their winning the championship requires 3 better squads of players to perform worse than them. That is not to take anything away from Lancaster, who has really made the best out of the resources at hand. Their hitherto effective but simple gameplan has surely been picked apart by 2 of the better coaches in the competition, who also have better squads at their disposal? That leaves them relying on home advantage, which hasn’t been that relevant in the recent past.

    In short, did them throwing the game away against a very nervy French side really cost them the championship?

    • osheaf01

       /  February 5, 2014

      They’ve won 4/5 in the last 3 championships, which is a lot better than Ireland have managed. They also have by far the biggest pick of any nation, and really should be doing much better than they do.

      • Comparisons with Ireland in 2011-2012-2013 are largely irrelevant though. That is kind of the point of my comment. They won 4 out of 5 in those years because both the French and ourselves were struggling with out-of-depth coaches (granted we spanked them in one of our one-off performances to ensure the Nike Grand Slam ad in 2011 went down in history).

        Surely, Gatland and Schmidt will not allow their charges to get brought down to England’s level? I acknowledge the home advantage factor against both…but you would think the stronger squads and coaches of both Ireland and Wales would negate that?

    • It’s a tight championship. Had they beaten France, they’d be staring down the barrel of Scotland away and Ireland at home before welcoming Wales to Twickenham. They’ll absolutely be in the mix in a year where a Grand Slam appears unlikely. As osheaf01 says above, they’ve gone 4/5 in the last three series. They may not be any great shakes, but there is no outstanding team.

  7. Munstermicko

     /  February 5, 2014

    Who used to remember the old Deckie tactic of empting the bench at 78 or 79 minutes?
    With Plug Cullen, Reddan, Buckley and Declan’s pet paddy Wallace having a short jog onto the grass for 120 seconds of immortality before the final whistle?

    • Leo Cullen getting on for six seconds has to go down as something of a nadir.

      • Scrumdog

         /  February 5, 2014

        Irish rugby is progressing very nicely, and rapidly, away from the humdrum of Kidney style and ‘Kidneyspeak’ management. The new regime already having put miles between ‘the then’ and ‘the now’! Let’s forget where we were headed under Kidney and only reference it, sometime in the distant future, as a place in rugby we don’t ever want to revisit! The ‘Slam was really belong to E.O.S. and it went South from there after that. Schools rugby and Munster rugby was Kidney’s bag…. not test rugby.

      • JT

         /  February 6, 2014

        I remember that, even Cullen himself looked fairly bemused coming on if I remember correctly. Insisting on leaving his entire front row on the park for 80 mins week after week in the 6 Nations was another joke. Caveman, dinosaur stuff.

  8. Yer Man

     /  February 5, 2014

    Dare I say it that the national team is starting to resemble the provincial sides – where having a game-plan that involves the bench making incisive changes to the style & tempo of the game has been in evidence for a while?
    The mindset seems to be changing to appreciate that the bench is a role in it’s own right, rather than a consolation prize for whoever didn’t make the starting lineup.
    For example, the argument that Jackson is currently the second best #10, but Madigan offers cover for more positions and may be a more likely #22.

  9. Abitofshoepie

     /  February 5, 2014

    Love the ‘lobster pot’ descriptor, reminds me of ‘the Crab’ being used to describe Neil Lennons side-to-side never forwards soccerball style.

    On the usage of bench players as a real weapon, even though he is clearly our best loose head, its always struck me that Cian Healy might be even more of a menace to the opposition if used as an impact sub. Bringing him on at 50 mins when the opposition is beginning to tire and the game is breaking up would make the best use of his powerful running game. I might be wrong, but I seem to vaguely remember Schmidt employing this tactic in a Leinster European game.

    • 2011 semi-final versus Toulouse was it?

      • Joe

         /  February 6, 2014

        Wasn’t 2011 – that was actually Van der Merwe , who came on and made a huge impact immediately, winning a scrum penalty as I recall. And that was just after Healy had made a storming run too.

        As a general aside, that game is my general riposte to those that say the Aviva is conducive to a great atmosphere (though granted it helps when it’s showcasing one of the best matches I have seen live).

%d bloggers like this: