Mark Keohane.
Mark Keohane.

Rugby in catch-22 over match 23 substitutes rules

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Aug 2, 2020

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CAPE TOWN - Talk of a law change to reduce the number of substitutes is not a World Rugby conspiracy aimed at weakening the Springboks, who based so much of their 2019 World Cup success on six forwards and two backs replacement bench, instead of the more traditional four and three split.

The world is not out to get South Africa or the Springboks.

World Cup winning coach Rassie Erasmus’s use of the bench at the World Cup was a tactical masterclass. He appreciated the versatility of his replacements to cover more than one position and he based his forward onslaught on what was available to him in a player context.

Two years from now, a match 23 for the Springboks may not accommodate a six/two split because the player versatility may not be there. This goes for the Boks and any other team, be it at Test, regional, provincial or club level.

Many in the sport have been advocating the reduction in substitute numbers to restore the game to one in which 15 plays 15 for 80 minutes, instead of the uncompromising and tempo driven game that could only be sustained with the use of 23 players on each side.

Former England midfielder turned analyst Jeremy Guscott in, 2018 detailed his thinking on substitute number reductions in the Rugby Paper.

Guscott’s article appeared before Erasmus had coached the Boks and 18 months before the birth of Erasmus’s ‘Bomb Squad’.

The debate of substitute number reductions must be divorced from the Springboks' ‘Bomb squad’. The paranoia is disturbing.

Those in favour of a substitute number reduction base their argument on a match evolving through natural fatigue, structured defences weakening and the game opening up in the final quarter because of skill.

Rugby, argue the likes of Guscott and the world’s leading referee Nigel Owens, was designed to be a contest between 15 players on each side. If you started a match you were expected to finish it unless you were incapable of continuing because of injury.

Rugby Union because of machine-like player conditioning and structured defences often resembles a game of rugby league and it is sustainable for 80 minutes because players in critical positions, in squads with quality in depth, split the 80 minutes between two players.

Professional coaches, like the Stormers' John Dobson, ridiculed the suggestion of a substitutes' reduction on the basis of the intensity and attrition of the game, as it is played in 2020. The disconnect between Dobson and Guscott’s contrasting views is based on whether one still sees rugby as a 15-a-side game or as an evolved version that now caters for the skill sets of 23 players a side.

Those who favour the game as it is currently played believe that rugby’s evolution has been a natural progression of professionalism, and it demands eight substitutes, who can be introduced at any time tactically or because of injury.

The likes of Guscott want a game that resembles the essence of rugby, as it was played before the game went professional.

Rugby’s lawmakers, in an over-saturated sports broadcast environment, are constantly searching for ways to make the game more attractive and attack orientated. It is why the reduction of substitute numbers, which would make for weaker defences and more flamboyant attack over 80 minutes, has support.

Guscott says the game he played and loved had unique qualities. Speak to modern players, who have only known rugby as 23 plays 23 and they will also tell you the game they play today has unique qualities.

@mark_keohane

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