Jake’s guide to substitutions

Jake White

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.

- Jake White

Let's chat

  • Barry

    Thanks interesting read.
    The fact that New Zealand always clear their bench, just confirms that they have created and fully developed ample depth, so their bench are used as a mechanism of impacting the game, rather than just covering a position in case of injury.

    Unfortunately we are still in the phase of developing depth, so the bench issue is more complex. We simply do not have proper cover in a number of key positions – 9 & 15 are the biggest issue and I am not sure we are batting with the right alternatives in those positions! This is further complicated with transformation targets.

    Not an easy one to address for Erasmus

    • Minging

      Obvious difference between how NZ are permitted to select and how ZA are ordered to select. Well that is for anyone without their heads stuck up their own ass!

    • SweetAz

      Yep, the elephant in the room you may not address,–in future generations white SA rugby players will have their own #METOOWHENIWASN’TAQUOTA

  • gerhard van tonder gerhard van tonder

    Good read thanks.
    Last weekend Eddie Jones changed Hartley at halftime and brought on George. The latter timing with Itoje were a little bit off and Retallick stole 3 lineouts that changed the momentum of the game. I know there were other factors like the lineout calls as well but still. I hate changes where the player on the field is in top form and gets replaced.

  • Albert

    The odd thing about Rassie is he says he is looking to build depth ahead of the world cup, yet in some positions he has barely given others a chance. Kriel and De Allende have over 30 caps in the centres. Why not give more time to the back-ups and place the incumbents on the bench in case? Willie Le Roux should be on the bench to strengthen the team in the last 20 minutes or so. Same with Faf and I would even say Marx. Were Rassie really trying to build depth, he would have a very experienced bench to bring on and finish the game strongly instead of hiding inexperienced players.

    We need to know now whether certain players are actually adding value or just passengers.

    • Chris Mouton

      Yeah, I also find it odd. Our biggest problem at the moment is our centres not creating space or passing. They run full tilt into contact and stop the entire momentum. To be honest, I would’ve tried Jantjies at 10, Pollard at 12, Nel at 13 and Willemse and Kolbe on the bench. Haven’t heard about Nel at all. The same thing is with Schickerling. Last time we heard their names was when they were called up to the Bok squad. And what about Oupa Brits?

    • Barry

      Albert, its not a bad idea starting with the new guys and having the experience on the bench in case it all falls down. Fresh in my mind is the All Black test at Loftus, where we had that one tied up and then we put the inexperienced bench on and the whole thing fell to pieces! Perhaps it would have worked out better doing it the other way around.
      I must say though, I am concerned that the alternatives at 9 & 15 are simply not ready for test rugby, regardless of which way around they come on, but at least if they are played we will be able to get a better feel!

  • John Comyn

    I guess it is easier for the AB’s to empty the bench given they are normally way out in front in the last 10 or 20 minutes plus they have 30 guys who are on a par in skills. For those who have constantly been berating Rassie for not giving Pappier game time, I believe he is staring against Scotland. I’m looking forward to seeing him playing.

    • Barry

      Sorry John, but I would tend to agree with Sweet.

      Papier has half a SR season under the bonnet. It’s just not enough experience and really high risk!

      As was the case in the England test, the basic functions will be fine – put the ball in, recycle, quick service – but at international level your looking for more than that. In the England test Van Zyl and Papier jointly made “zero” metres.

      Of the three on tour, I would play Schreuder hands down. He is older, way more experienced, and had a year in Europe. Not the best in the world, but safe and way less risk!

    • SweetAz

      I’m not, -I believe he is going to be horribly exposed. This Scots team is no pushover. I won’t be surprised if the Boks lose badly.

      • John Comyn

        I think we are going to thump them. They were not to flash against Wales and one cannot read anything into the Fiji game. We have to much fire power across the park. If we finally get it all together it will be one way traffic. Says me with fingers and toes crossed!

        • Frankie Knuckles

          So what do say now, smart arse?
          Nice, that humble pie, huh?

        • SweetAz

          I hope you are right but Scotland at home have a good record and some very good players. Josh Strauss on the bench should have been sitting on the Bok bench, -same with WP Nel.

  • Michael Strydom

    4 players have in fact played 80 minutes in a RWC and won. (Although McCaw was subbed on 80 min) non subbed players, Os, Eales & Read.

    • Matt

      Sure, but did they play 80minutes in two finals and win both ;)

  • Malcolm Randall

    A really good read, thanks.

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