Rudolf Straeuli didn’t make any friends in New Zealand last month when he pinned a surprise 23-17 win against the Chiefs on a late change to the team sheet. Named to start off the bench, Malcolm Marx and Elton Jantjies ambushed the Chiefs when they jogged on for the opening kickoff.
“With Malcolm on the bench, the Chiefs opted to rest some of their heavy forwards,” said the Lions CEO. “With him in the starting team, we could take them on at scrum time and it worked well. The foundation for our victory was laid up front.”
That got me thinking about why rugby teams are required to announce their matchday squads at least 48 hours before kickoff. What is the point?
Only a few days prior to this Super Rugby match I was at Anfield to watch Liverpool beat Chelsea 2-0. I really tried to soak up the full football experience and part of that was mingling with the locals. What stood out on the day of the match was that a lot of the chat was about the lineup that each of the managers would field.
The team lists were announced not long before kickoff and the locals drew a lot out of the combinations, the formation and who was on the bench. That’s a big part of the weekly intrigue for football supporters.
As was the case for the Lions, I think that rugby would benefit greatly from scrapping the early team announcement.
In the 2002 Tri-Nations tournament, Andre Pretorius fell sick at the team hotel on the eve of the Springboks’ last match and on the Saturday morning Straeuli told Brent Russell he was going to start at flyhalf. He had a blinder in a thrilling 33-31 win.
Two things happened that day: the Wallabies didn’t have an opportunity to do their homework on Russell, and he played well because he didn’t have a whole week to worry about things.
Knowing Brent, he’s a guy that used to end the week carrying a lot of built-up pressure from his preparation for a match. When he was told on the Saturday morning that he was playing, he didn’t have time to worry about things and he could basically just put his boots on and play. I’m sure that a lot of players would respond the same way.
In a competition that’s become as lopsided as Super Rugby, with Kiwi teams dominating all comers, keeping lineups a secret until matchday might give lesser sides a shot at upsetting the contenders. It would even things out because coaches would be under pressure to contingency plan for whether the opposing lineup is strong, weak, full of speedsters or weighted towards a power style of play.
Look what it did for the Lions, the only SA team to win in New Zealand this season.
We’re talking about a sport that’s becoming more and more technical and where analysis is playing a bigger role every season. By unveiling the team two days in advance, your plans are telegraphed to your opponents and they know what’s coming.
It’s also a procedure that makes every match more vulnerable to unexpected weather. Formula 1 would be unwatchable if heavy rains surprised teams that had been told to announce their tyre selections 48 hours before the race, so why does rugby handcuff itself?
Pushing back the team announcement would add a level of excitement to the matchday experience for supporters and a layer of unpredictability to the contest.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “If your enemy reacts to you, you’re in a position of strength.”
That theory would really be put to the test in rugby if coaches and players only had a couple of hours to mull selections and tactics.