In the immediate aftermath of the South Africa’s Rugby Championship game against New Zealand in Cape Town – a game lost 24-25 by the hosts – Steven Kitshoff was asked whose daft idea it had been to allow the first half to run to a staggering 50 minutes.
The 1.84m, 125kg prop said the decision to carry on playing like the band on the Titanic for 10 minutes after the halftime hooter had gone had been made by the tight five as part of the Springboks’ strategy to engage the All Blacks in a conditioning staring contest.
Long story short, not only had the penny dropped that a massive part of competing with the black juggernaut lay in outlasting them physically, it was also an attitude that can be said to have paid dividends in the miracle of Wellington a fortnight ago.
During the last quarter of that 36-34 upset, the Boks matched the All Blacks for effort in a period of the match in which they normally pull away from the opposition – this despite the fact that they also had to cope with a Willie le Roux sin-binning.
With the Boks’ conditioning gains, why would SA Rugby introduce rolling substitutions in this year’s Currie Cup Premier Division? It could be the ignoramus in me, but I’ve always (unfairly, sometimes) associated rolling subs with unfit pub players who need a break just when the heat is turned on to have a beer or a cigarette or both.
The idea was first tried in this year’s SuperSport Rugby Challenge, a tournament of indeterminate level simply because its 15 teams include Currie Cup strength sides and semi-professionals from the smaller unions and the Namibian B-team.
The thinking at the time was explained by SA Rugby’s referees’ manager Banks Yantolo: “The decision to allow rolling substitutions, which we’re already using in our Under-19 Provincial Championship, was done with player welfare and safety, especially at scrums, as well as reducing the likelihood of uncontested scrums to protect the integrity of the game, in mind.”
Simply put the officials were gatvol of teams finishing games with uncontested scrums because they didn’t have an extra prop on their seven-man benches. The integrity bit referred to weaker sides having to resort to faking an injury after subbing a prop so that the subbed prop can go back onto the field after sucking on his asthma pump on the bench.
The obvious solution brought by the rolling subs is that teams can now legitimately rotate their front rows and finish matches with 15 against 15 and no uncontested scrums.
But the unintended consequence is that of 150kg props, who can only play full pelt for 15 minutes at a time, not being encouraged to be in the right shape because they can always be subbed when they get tired, which is often.
Western Province coach John Dobson had also voiced another concern, that of teams being legally enabled to tap out in the heat of battle: “Sometimes when you play against teams that play with tempo, chances are you can refresh your team and they don’t get the reward for playing with intensity.”
Another possible reason to go with rolling subs is the Currie Cup teams’ reluctance to pay for the costs of an extra player that would make for an eight-man bench and therefore a full quota of front row replacements, what with the unions’ travelling budgets being progressively cut over the years.
Budget cuts have become an unhappy reality for rugby entities everywhere; New Zealand recently decided to have the Mitre 10 Cup sides travel by bus whenever possible. But to cut costs in a way that can impact performance up the ladder is incredibly short-sighted.
One may have understood it if the rolling subs were limited to the First Division of the Currie Cup due to most of those teams being semi-pro at best. But to do it in the country’s premier domestic division – where some will expect Bok bolters to emerge – makes no sense at all.
Good luck unearthing the next Steven Kitshoff that way.