Rugby has come a long way since the dawn of professionalism, but are the Queensland Reds about to influence the biggest change of all?
At the start of January we heard Dutch footballer Marco Van Basten putting forward suggestions that the game of football look to another sport, field hockey, for changes that will carry it forward in the coming years. (Van Basten Leaves Fans Flat-Footed)
Currently in Rugby Union there are seven substitutions allowed in Internationals. Once a player is substituted they cannot be brought back onto the pitch except for one of two reasons: the first being a blood injury which requires urgent medical attention (known as a “blood substitution”), or a forward is required to come back onto the pitch to replace an injured front-row forward, which is a specialist position.
On 12 April 2009 there was a blood substitution incident that made headlines. Harlequins used a blood injury as a tactical way to get players back on the field of play in the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Leinster.
The scandal known as “Bloodgate” revealed how far some teams were willing to go to win matches. Harlequin’s Tom Williams bit into a blood pack, this led to him being taken off the pitch and specialised kicker Nick Evans replacing him. To try and cover up the incident Williams then had his mouth cut open by the Harlequins club doctor Wendy Chapman.
Leinster still won the match. When the incident was made public, all those who participated in the incident were punished, with Williams himself receiving a 12-month ban which was later reduced to four months.
After this incident there was a stronger push for rolling substitutions in the game. Those pushing for such a move argued that this would return the game to being suitable for people of all shapes and sizes. Such a rule change would allow a 120kg forward to bulk up to closer to 130kgs and be used for short spells in a game in which he could explode and use his weight for short periods rather than having to last a full game or around an hour.
Rolling substations are a big part of American Football, a sport that sees a designated kicker come on and off the pitch when required.
As Football looks to field hockey is rugby looking at American Football?
It is a fact that England’s Jonny Wilkinson never shied away from his tackling duties at club and international level. This was rare for a fly half. He paid a heavy price missing large periods of time in his career due to injury. In fact the Western Force’s number 10 Peter Grant was another who early in his career did more than his fair share of tackling, that was until he was warned that such commitment could shorten his career. The Western Force’s under 20’s Fly Half Anthony Hondros is a player who may wish to take heed of this advice.
When the Western Force hosted the Queensland Reds in Perth last Thursday it was interesting to see that when they were in defensive mode from line-outs and scrums the Reds full back Karmichael Hunt moved into the fly half position, and regular fly half Quade Cooper dropped back to full back. Cooper has never been known for his tackling prowess, and it was clear that coach Nick Stiles and his team were looking to protect their mercurial number ten.
Such tactics many believe may well lend strength to Rugby Union bringing in rolling substitutions sooner rather than later.
This could of course mean that teams have an attacking fly half who comes on when they have a scrum or line-out when in attack, and employ a more defensive, strong tackling player in that position when in defence. We may well then see a specialist kicker come on purely to kick penalties. That is unless Rugby Union adopts a similar rule to Field Hockey which currently has rolling substitutions, whereby if a player is not on the pitch when the penalty has been given, a substitution cannot happen until play restarts. In Hockey a specialist drag flicker is not allowed onto the pitch if not already there when a penalty corner is awarded.
It would be interesting to see whether Rugby chose to follow Field Hockey or American Football.
Of course all of this is pure conjecture at the moment. However the powers that be in Rugby Union are constantly looking to ‘evolve’ the game and as more rugby is played, which in turn is shortening the careers of the top players, one feels that Rolling substitutions are not that far away. Positional changes as employed by Queensland Reds, protecting their Wallabies fly half will only lend weigh to those in favour of brining in such a rule change.
The traditionalists are not going to like it. Just as Force fans did not like to see a fly half not face up to his responsibilities.
How often do we hear commentators trot out the following cliches: “It’s no longer a 15-man game, it’s a 23-man game. It’s all about the bench, it’s all about the squad on a match-day.”
Rugby is a 15-a-side game. It always was, as any traditionalist will tell you, and it was a war of attrition. The team that was physically stronger and fitter would often prevail if not it came down to outright skill to decide a match.
The front row is a dark place, but even if you had never been there everyone knew that nothing gave a prop more pride than seeing their opposite number begin to weaken. Now there is little or no reward for a prop who gets on top of his opposite number. As soon as that starts to happen the opponent simply sends on someone else to test him, a fresh player raring to go. Is that really good for the game?
Player welfare is very important and so it should be. That is why in modern day rugby the front-rows must be protected. Front row substitutions and many others are now classed as a welfare issue rather than tactical, and we must accept that they are here to stay.
Rugby is supposed to be a game of confrontation, of testing your opponent’s mental and physical resolve. Strength, fitness and skill would determine the outcomes of matches. Those days are long gone. Now regrettably, this is no longer always the case. As soon as one player fades or has been exposed on comes another to replace him, and there is no way back.
When rolling substitutions do come into the game, and many believe they will, there is a section in the game arguing that rather than being like American football, rugby should cull the number of substitutes rather than increase them. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds and how many other sides look to protect their fly half as the Reds did against the Force.