Rugby Union

Rugby World Cup - substitutes have a big role to play this year

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With just a few hours to go until the kick-off of the Rugby World Cup, the teams have been announced and the nerves starting to jangle.

Whilst the starting XV have their roles assigned, it makes me wonder about those players named as substitutes for the occasion. 

No longer are there the perennial bench-warmers, sitting in their pristine tracksuits, reduced to the occasional jog down the touchline to show the coach they’re still there.


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The game of today is one where you will see a host of new players thrown into the maelstrom on or around the 60 minute mark. The intention being to replace your players that are about to fall off the pace with some fresh legs to find the gaps in a tiring opposition’s defence.

In the front row especially, the replacement bench has been transformed. Gone are the days of being able to pick a prop who could play both sides and then perhaps a hooker.

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Now it’s a block replacement of the entire front row, generally early on in the second half, to ensure the ball from scrums goes your way. 

The second and back-row replacements are usually there to aid tired limbs – the trackers placed on players these days highlighting the distances covered, the speed between breakdowns and whether they’re likely to be running on empty. 

Them being able to cover multiple positions means they can go where most needed though perhaps the bullocking runs of Billy Vunipola will hope to strike some fear into a tired opposition.

The replacement backs are generally where the tactical aspect comes into play – should England wish to protect a lead, we would expect the experienced Farrell enter the fray at 10 with his superior kicking from hand and deadshot eye for a penalty kick. 

Similarly, Wigglesworth is a relatively defensive scrum half with good box kick and excellent service in his passing game to ease pressure for his teammates.

To a certain extent, it’s a surprise to see Sam Burgess named on the subs bench – I’d have expected the more versatile Henry Slade to have been named to counter any knocks that may occur to the starting XV. We know the physical test that the Fijians will present on Friday.

This is not a slur at Burgess, having played in the forwards and backs for Bath, he is undoubtedly a highly talented individual; but should we have a couple of knocks to our backline then we would potentially have some big gaps defensively should he be played out of position. Particularly against the sevens specialists who will relish running at defences in broken play.

The England coaches will presumably be hoping that he can get his firm carrying game going. His early international career yet to provide much more than a glimmer of the promise he represents.

One suspects that his willingness to impress will need to be backed up by a decent performance in attack, as well as defence or Henry Slade may be knocking on the door very soon.

Either way, through tactical reasons or necessity, you’re likely to see the entire bench emptied of its contents – how they can influence the game in their limited appearance will be key.

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Rugby Union
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