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Substitution in Rugby
(Written by Lucas in 2004 for Stormers Newsletter)

In the long history of rugby there has been quite a few revolutionary changes to the laws of the game. Most modern amendments are designed to either ensure better player safety or to create a more attractive spectacle for the vast amount of spectators, the game’s lifeblood. There is a law change that not only encompassed both these objectives but also altered the whole tactical approach of a rugby match - the use of substitutes.

In order to understand the influence of substitution on the game, the players and on coaches few people are better equipped to explain than one of Springbok rugby’s legendary figures and the current Investec Western Province coach, Carel du Plessis. Asked about substitution in his playing days, Carel remarked ‘There were only two reserves and no substitutions except for injury. It was usually a reserve scrumhalf and a reserve forward, typically a hooker and they had to cover all the positions.’ Times have changed indeed!

The game today, allows for seven substitutes i.e. a 22-man squad is selected. Law 3 of the game governs this complicated area of the game and allows for quite a few variations like temporary replacements for blood, tactical substitution and exceptions regarding to front rows and again to blood injuries. Typically a fourth match official on the touchline monitors this law however it is susceptible to confusion and abuse.

In the RWC for example, England played with 16 men at one stage. Carel has first hand knowledge, ‘There was an incident that occurred at Super 12 level, where a player was substituted and the team got an injury with a few minutes left. The player was sent back and a blood injury was faked.’ On how to best control this Law, he offers the following suggestion, ‘I would like to see this area being monitored consistently and in a professional manner and that the match doctor confirms a blood injury and makes sure it is not fake.’

Substitution’s effect on the coaching of a rugby team is profound, Carel explains, ‘Obviously one looks to do tactical substitution, the players or bigger squad have to be trained in what the team is doing, how the team is playing, what the plans are so there is no breakdown of; communication, organization and calls if a new guy comes onto the field. There must be continuity with regards to your game.’

During the match itself, a good substitution can provide the spark required to win a match or the fresh impetus when a player’s strength is sagging. The game plan may cater for substitutions but sometimes events and injuries dictate change as Carel says, ‘Often tactically you make a switch, depending on how the game is going, if there are problem areas and/or your kicking game is on song. It is usually planned beforehand, but you have to keep injuries in mind.’ Modern coaching requires shrewd management of the situation as well as a gambler’s instinct when to make the right decision that will ensure victory.

How do the players deal with the substitution? Carel reveal, ‘Players want to start, but those in the 22 understand there will be changes. Often guys take 40 to 50 minutes to get on top of their opponents and getting into what they are supposed to do, so it is difficult to come on with little time left. However, they have to get use to it.’

The squad system in a competitive sport like rugby is not the easiest to deal with and a coach is required to do a lot of man-management. Carel explains, ‘You cannot leave a player on the bench for 5 weeks, they lose their match fitness. Changes are not made for the sake of changes but to keep your team performance at the same level, to give your top players game time and keep their form and confidence. Obviously form dictates selection and if players perform they are rewarded with selection more often than not. Players know and understand it that rugby is competitive and they compete to get in the starting 15. The guys with consistency in performance will be rewarded with more game time.’

The inevitable question of payment does arise and in this case, all are treated equal. The match fee paid is the same but the starting lineup is the ultimate objective and Carel makes it clear, ‘It is about performance they (the players) understand that consistent good performance enhances their market value and they will earn the spin offs i.e. a better contract with the province, national contracts etc.’ Rugby has become a true professional sport.

The future of substitution is a continuous debate; there are thoughts out there on expanding the bench to 9 or even 10 players. Carel does not agree, ‘There should be a fixed amount of players allowed on the field, even if you have more than the seven substitutes available. You cannot put on a whole defensive or attacking team like in American Gridiron. In rugby you actually get a break down in defence and organisation when players are fatigued so they don’t react to certain situations. That is when players who are fitter or who have more flair can exploit the scenario. If you allow 9 on the bench you can ensure fresh players and it becomes that more difficult to break down defences. That is why you work on attacking weak spots as part of your tactics, to exploit them and win the game.’

Substitution has revolutionized rugby, in the way the game is played, how a team is coached and the players’ approach. It has also contributed to more in-depth thinking on the game, better tactical awareness and acumen in all rugby personnel and some exhilarating moments when ‘supersubs’ change the outcome of the game. Now, if only the supporters can understand it!