Jacques van der Westhuyzen.

One week coaches are praised for getting it right, the next they’re hammered for getting it wrong.

Knowing when is the right time to send on the replacements in a game of rugby has been a hotly debated issue for a few years now, and it’s likely to remain one of the game’s biggest talking points in future.

There’s no right and wrong time, or perfect method of knowing when is best to unpack the bench.

It remains a gamble; sometimes coaches will get it spot-on, sometimes they won’t.

On Saturday at Ellis Park, Lions boss Swys de Bruin got it perfectly right; he backed his bench to turn the game around against the Rebels and they delivered in style.

Andries Coetzee and Lionel Mapoe made the biggest impact; they both scored tries, worked their butts off when they entered the proceedings, and between them carried the ball 15 times and beat 11 defenders.

In that same second half, Rebels coach Dave Wessels also sent on his entire bench, but after the 42nd minute, when the Rebels had gone 33-5 up, they were unable to trouble the defence again.

So, while the bench-sitters for the Lions helped swing the game their way, the Rebels’ so-called impact players had no impact at all.

But a week before, De Bruin’s decision to empty his bench almost backfired spectacularly.

After the Lions had scored their seventh try and been in total command of the match against the Jaguares, the Lions boss made a raft of substitutions.

But they had no impact, except to allow the visitors to run in four tries to nothing in the latter stages of the match.

Not one of the Lions’ backs on the bench that day – Dillon Smit, Harold Vorster and Gianni Lombard – beat a defender with ball-in-hand; a stunning difference to what went down this past Saturday.

Of course, there are other factors that play a part in how teams see out the closing minutes of matches; like the score and whether one team has taken their foot off the pedal, who has travelled that week and who hasn’t, and weather and the referee and so on.

But what cannot be denied is how crucial the bench is in modern-day rugby.

It is indeed no longer a 15-man game, but a 23-man battle, and the men warming the bench play just as crucial a role as the starters.

And, how wonderful for the coaches nowadays to be able to make up to eight changes to their team during the 80 minutes if they’re not performing; that’s more than 50 percent of the team.

But it can work for you, or it can’t and as De Bruin said after the come-from-behind win against the Rebels at the weekend: “Sometimes you take a hammering for making changes, and sometimes it works.”

It is certainly one of the tougher decisions a coach has to make on match-day.

And we haven’t even got to what type of player should be on the bench – a calm, senior man who’s done it all before, or a young, nothing-to-lose rookie, who has no fear and has what some call plenty of X-factor.

On Saturday, for the Lions, two veteran backline players brought the energy and helped get their team onto the front foot.

But it was a 21-year-old fearless rookie in his first season of Super Rugby, Lombard, who slotted the angled penalty kick to win the game.

Coaching is a pressure-filled job, with numerous tough decisions having to be made. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.


The Star

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