Getting What You Want

Replacements aren't the problem.

When a cadre of former Lions (among others) send an open letter to World Rugby suggesting that, to make the game safer, the number of replacements allowed per side per game be reduced to four from the eight currently allowed and, even then, only in the case of an injury people tend to listen.

Or, at the very least, pay attention. That’s the capital that guys like Sam Warburton, Willie John McBride and Ian McGeechan have and that capital is never more valuable than in the weeks before, during and immediately after a Lions series.

The concept behind their suggestion is pretty simple – if you reduce the number of replacements a team can make during a game, players, in general, will have to [citation required] become smaller, or at least less massive, to last for the full 80 minutes.

I’ll let the Former Lions Ultimate Legends Of The Game explain it in their own words.

“Rugby union was conceived as a 15-a-side game for 30 players. With the current eight substitutes per side, many of whom are tactical ‘impact players’ or ‘finishers’, this can and often does stretch to 46.

“More than half a team can be changed, and some players are not expected to last 80 minutes so train accordingly, prioritising power over aerobic capacity. This shapes the entire game, leading to more collisions and, in the latter stages, numerous fresh ‘giants’ crashing into tiring opponents.

“The simple change we advocate is to allow eight subs on the bench if you must, but limit the number that can be used to four and then only in the case of injury.

“This will make the game safer, a view supported by leading players and eminent members of the medical profession.”

Forget that it’s rugby’s greatest quivery monologue merchants putting their name to this a few weeks after the Lions lost to a South African side that is defined by their 80-minute physical dominance for a few minutes. That would appear to be bad timing more than anything else and, for me anyway, my utter boredom with the “look at each other in the eyes across the street in 50 years time and weep” guff that reached its peak over the last few weeks is definitely colouring my view of their open letter.

As for the substance of their argument, I don’t think it holds water in the modern game.

Firstly, anything that relies on a player being “injured” before they can be replaced is open to abuse. Who defines what “injured” actually means in the context of who can be replaced? Does an independent doctor determine the severity or is it a team doctor? I remember back in 2009 when a team who had some troubles in the scrum kept having this weird issue where they ended up going to uncontested scrums midway through big games in the knockout stages of the then Guinness Premiership because they didn’t have enough replacement props on the bench.

Who was that again?

Ian McGeechan’s Wasps.

That isn’t meant as a gotcha moment – because who knows, maybe Wasps in 2009 really were just that lucky that uncontested scrums helped them out two massive games in a row against good scrummaging sides – but it is a very pertinent example of how a lack of replacements or a limit on same can produce asterisk moments. Remember the hullabaloo a few weeks ago when the Bristol Bears were under the pump in the scrum against Leicester Tigers and we all had to witness an unedifying scene where Pat Lam tried to play off that John Afoa was injured when he wasn’t so that there would be an uncontested scrum on the 5m line with the game in the balance?

A bench where you can only use four replacements is a charter for this very scenario happening over and over again.

All you need is one back to pull a hamstring in the first half and one back five forward to fail an HIA before the 60th minute and you’re already in a situation where uncontested scrums are an inevitability.

So let’s say you’ve made your four replacements because of “injuries” and a player has to go for an HIA? What happens then?

What if you’ve made your four replacements and a key player picks up a head injury in a big game – will they then be under pressure to play on so as not reduce the team to 14 players? I’m sure they wouldn’t (right?) but that scenario would then become more likely to occur. Do we want that in the game? I certainly don’t.

Maybe they mean that you can make four tactical subs but then every other sub thereafter has to be for an injury? For some reason, I think we’d start to see a spate of injuries to ensure the full eight replacements were used one way or the other but maybe I’m just a cynic.

Ultimately, what the signees of this letter want is a safer game and that is an admirable aim. Everyone, bar BOOMFA Let The Boys Play Twitter, wants the game to be safer. The likes of McGeechan feel that a limit on replacements will force players to slim down and depower to ensure they last the full 80 minutes, which is far from certain. The signatories of this open letter want to make sure that more tired players are up against more tired players in the latter parts of the game. This, we’re told, should increase the amount of attacking rugby we see because tired players can’t fill space. Even if this was true, and I’m yet to be convinced that it’s anything more than received wisdom, wouldn’t the same principle of “tiredness degrades performance” apply to the attacking side too?

In their own words once again;

…some players are not expected to last 80 minutes so train accordingly, prioritising power over aerobic capacity. This shapes the entire game, leading to more collisions and, in the latter stages, numerous fresh ‘giants’ crashing into tiring opponents.

The need for elite power and size will not leave the game under any circumstances. The genie is out of the bottle. Rugby Union as it has come to be played is most often won by the team that can deploy elite size and power consistently across the full 80 minutes. If there is a limit on replacements, players will not get “smaller” because that is a losing strategy. Instead, we will see the ball in play time drop considerably to allow power players time to recover between sequences of action.

In the second test of the recent Lions series, the first half last one hour and three minutes but only featured 16 minutes and 28 seconds of actual ball in play action. The second half of the same game had 14 minutes and one second. The third test had 26 minutes 22 seconds of ball in play time total. In a world of four replacements or a limit on replacements, this will be the new reality to ensure a winning advantage is not lost.

Will Skelton, for example, is one of the largest forwards to have ever played the game from a height, frame and weight perspective yet he regularly plays close to 80 minutes for La Rochelle because he has a limited role that focuses on what he’s good at – impact collisions. His involvements at the lineout are limited to keep his involvements/calories where they are most effective. Any restrictions on replacements won’t take guys like Skelton out of the game, they will only create new ways to keep guys like Skelton active for as long as possible, and that doesn’t mean hitting the salads.

If we want the game to become more likely to stress the cardio of more teams consistently to the point that they may actually be forced to make a decision between aerobic capacity and power output if they can’t have both, we have to up the ball in play time considerably and use the clock to stress the fitness of players.

Replacements aren’t the issue – time is the issue.

Look at this sequence from the last Lions test to get an idea of how much actual intensive action takes place across this stretch of time.

This was part of a larger sequence of the game that started with a Lions penalty and ended with a South African restart after a lineout freekick, a scrum, a reset, a scrum penalty and then a kick at goal that lasted from 12:25 on the match clock to 16:15 – a full three minutes and 50 seconds of match time where very little actually happened. But the actual real-time elapsed was five minutes and 20 seconds from the awarding of the initial penalty to the eventual restart.

This was just one sequence but it is repeated all the way through the game where the clock is ticking but nothing is actually happening. It is particularly prevalent when a team is looking to run down a sin-bin or cheese the clock at the end of the game when defending a lead.

What if we tied the actual ball in play time to the movement of the clock? What if we stopped the clock whenever the game was stopped, not just for injuries but for everything that isn’t phase play?

I will accept that forcing teams to speed up the scrummage is an invitation for injuries and making the game less safe so what if we said this – take all the time you need to scrummage safely and have the resets you need to be fair but the clock will not advance until the ball is out of the scrum. Now teams can have all the size they want to affect the scrum but those players still have to play every single minute of phase play. If a scrum sequence takes three minutes of real time – let’s say a slow setup, a reset, another reset and then the actual scrum itself the clock should not move forward by one second until we have a playable ball.

So the forwards can have their scrummage but they still have to play three minutes of actual ball in play time.

Let’s go further – the clock should not advance until the ball leaves the lineout. When the ball gets passed down to the halfback, the clock becomes live but when the ball is in the maul time is off until the ball leaves the maul. Why? Because only phase play makes the clock move forward.

If only phase play is counted as real-time then the match clock should be stopped for every penalty or kick at goal until the ball is playable.

We can’t have teams eating away at the real clock by cheesing time at the scrum, lineout and every time the ball is lined up for a penalty. In the sequence above, the players had five minutes 20 seconds where they were only scrummaging against each other for 30 seconds at the very most. The rest of the time was spent standing around recovering.

With that in mind, every dead ball should be subject to a dead ball clock of 30 seconds.

You have 30 seconds to play a dead ball or the ball gets turned over to the opposition. If you’re kicking down the line, you have to do it in 30 seconds. If you choose to kick at goal, you have 30 seconds to kick it from when the ball is on the tee before the ball is turned over.

If you win a scrum, you have to be set up and ready to scrummage within 30 seconds or the ball is turned over to the opposition. It’s the same for a lineout – once the ball goes into touch, both sides have 30 seconds to get into the lineout or it’s a freekick against the “slow” side.

Under my proposal, the above sequence would take a maximum time of two minutes thirty seconds of real-time – 30 seconds to kick the ball for the first penalty, 30 seconds to get the lineout ready, 30 seconds to get the first scrum, 30 seconds to do the reset and then a max of 30 seconds from the time the kick at goal is declared to when the ball must be kicked – but the match clock would not advance by a single second because the ball was never playable. Now all those players will have to spend 40 minutes each half playing phase play. Ball in play time shouldn’t be 26 minutes out of 80. It shouldn’t be 30 minutes out of 80. It should be 40 minutes of ball in play each half with no opportunities for long periods of inactivity that isn’t halftime or looking after a player with a serious injury.

We wouldn’t be long getting the space and game we actually want then. Do we want tired players and spaces opening up? What better way to generate that than 80 minutes of actual ball in play time? Sure, the game would take longer to play – not that much longer than now, realistically speaking – but you’d be guaranteed to see more phase action, which is what we all want to see, right?

Forget about replacements. We need to use time to get the game we want.

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