Back when Nelie Smith was coaching Eastern Province, it was his custom to sit on the side of the field with the reserves during matches.
In those days, you never used to put the reserve hooker on. Vorster Venter was EP’s reserve hooker at the time, and at the 20-minute mark of every game, Nelie would lean forward in his chair and bark at the bench to warm up.
Vorster and the rest of the reserves would then get up; some of them would do shuttles, others would stretch, but Vorster would inevitably end up back on the bench.
One day, 20 minutes into a match, Nelie leaned forward, turned to the reserves and yelled, “warm up!”, and Vorster quickly retorted, “WHAT FOR!?”
It’s a great anecdote from an era of the game when the bench was only used in an emergency.
Even further back, there were no reserves. You had 15 players and if one of them got injured you had to play with 14 men. Then they said the two most important positions on the field were scrumhalf and hooker, because you can’t play without those guys, so teams were allowed one of each on the bench.
But then the players chosen for the bench started coming on at different positions – the scrumhalf was going on at wing and the hookers were being used on the flank.
And then they decided that you needed props on the bench, and later props who could play on both sides of the scrum. And now we’ve got an eight-man bench, and all the way down to school teams you will find dedicated reserves who don’t play for the second team.
I saw an interesting infographic the other day that listed the number of unused reserves by each of the top 10 Test nations over the past three seasons. Wales (32) and South Africa (31) had the most unused substitutions over that period while New Zealand had cleared their bench in every Test.
In the 2007 Rugby World Cup final, Os du Randt played for 80 minutes and he was 36 years old. I mean, he told me he was 30 with six years’ experience, but he was actually 36. He had also played all of the 1995 final. Os and John Eales (1991 & 1999) may be the only guys to win two Rugby World Cups having played 80 minutes in each final.
The thing about substitutions is that it’s not an exact science, and the art of making good substitutions changes all the time. Certain players are better off the bench than starting Test matches, and if you’re going to embrace the advantages of having a matchday 23, there’ll be guys on the bench who come on and make a massive difference.
But a player’s impact off the bench is influenced by too many factors to make it safe to tell that guy he’s definitely going to get a certain amount of game time before the match. Some guys make an impact dependent on the team you’re playing against, for other players the conditions play a part – the time remaining, the score, weather and the way the ref is managing the game. And that’s why there’s an art to making good substitutions – you can’t decide pregame who is going on, when.
Some coaches tell a player that he’ll get 30 minutes and many substitutions are made at the 50-minute mark. Often, it’s when the game is on a knife’s edge, like a defensive scrum or lineout, and they change the prop or hooker. It’s a vital moment in the match, but because the coach has promised that reserve 30 minutes, he sits with a problem.
You’ve got to be very careful about doing that because the psychological impact of substitutions on individual players and their opponents is huge. Subbing a player just as he’s starting to get on top of his counterpart gives your opponents confidence because you’ve let them off the hook.
What you do gain by giving a guy time off the bench is the chance to experience the win, and that’s beneficial because when you eventually do start him, he’s confident that every time he’s on the field, he’s in a good situation.
You can also put reserves on when the heat is on, and the team is getting pumped, to help youngsters experience the tempo of a rampant side. When I was at the Sharks in 2014 we played the Crusaders in a Super Rugby semi-final in Christchurch. After three quarters we were down 21-6 and completely out of the contest, and I cleared the bench so that those youngsters could experience what it was like to play against a team operating at top speed. The Chiefs did the same in the 2009 final against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld and that squad went on to win successive titles.
The thinking was that, when we prepared for Super Rugby the following season and I spoke about playing with tempo, those players would truly understand what I meant because they were on the field when the Crusaders were playing with maximum tempo against them.
People will continue to ask when it is the right time to make changes and what the minimum game time a reserve should be given. The answer is that there are no rules about making substitutions except that they can’t always be pre-programmed and they shouldn’t be done in the blind hope that the replacement player is magically going to make something happen.
If you’re rolling the dice like that, then it’s not a substitution. You’re playing the lottery.