World Rugby's mooted subs change an 'attempt to undermine the Springboks'

The Springboks' bench proved instrumental at the World Cup.
The Springboks' bench proved instrumental at the World Cup.
Craig Mercer
  • Former Springbok skipper Corne Krige believes World Rugby's investigation into changing the law around the number of allowed replacements is an "attempt to undermine our national team".
  • Before last year's World Cup in Japan, former national prop Ollie le Roux suggested smaller benches as a way to bring back some intrigue from a tactical perspective.
  • Krige though remains unconvinced and is joined by former Cats and Bulls pivot Kennedy Tsimba who prefers the status quo.

When Corne Krige heard World Rugby was seriously considering reducing the number of replacements allowed in a match squad, he had one dominant thought.

"I immediately thought this is nothing more than another blatant attempt to undermine our national team," he told Sport24.

The former Springbok captain knows better than most how much the current eight-man rule favours the men in Green and Gold.

He himself - a tough-as-nails 1.90m, 102kg loose forward - was a highly accomplished fringe international when Rassie Erasmus, Andre Venter and Gary Teichmann were in their prime as a national trio and later on in his career would witness the rise of Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Danie Rossouw.

And, as a supporter, he marvelled at Erasmus' brilliant use of a bench of imposing forwards at last year's World Cup - the vaunted "Bomb Squad". 

"We'll always have one of the biggest and best groups of forwards in the world. It's in the local game's DNA. Why must South African teams be punished for a strength that occurs naturally?

"Why can't we be allowed to maximise this brilliant advantage granted to us," said Krige.

Yet, after letting the initial emotion die down, the now 45-year-old former Western Province legend realises the debate is more complex than that, particularly from a tactical perspective.

Eddie Jones, England's head coach, has previously been vocal on the issue of limiting substitutes, arguing the game "needs some fatigue back".

Even before the Springboks' exploits in Japan, the idea of a smaller bench appealed to former Bok prop Ollie le Roux, ironically one of the game's pioneering impact players.

"We’ve reached a stage where the rules on replacements are a bit too flexible. The game needs a new dynamic, where you can add a bit of intrigue," he said previously.  

"That’s why I think rugby should revert back to seven replacements on the bench. You also shouldn't be able to use all of them."

It is indeed ironic that World Rugby reportedly cited injury rates as one of the tenets of their research as concerns over uncontested scrums and player safety were the basis for implementing eight-player benches.

Le Roux never denied the welfare dimension of the argument, but reasonably pointed out it could be hurting the game as a spectacle.

"If you pick six forwards you basically have a new pack in the second half. That injection of energy and freshness makes the game too loose in the last 20 minutes."Test rugby is supposed to be gritty. You don't want to take that dynamic away.”

Krige can see the value in that, though he remains unconvinced.

"From a tactical perspective, a smaller bench would require some creativity from coaches in terms of their decisions. That could make things interesting," he said.

"But that's not enough of a reason for me to change the status quo. All that the Springboks have done is legally apply the law to their advantage and that's to maximise possessing a squad of forwards so competitive that they might essentially be interchangeable."

Kennedy Tsimba, who is back coaching full-time at St Alban's College in Pretoria as well as being a consultant for Tuks after being inspired by Erasmus and Co's exploits in Japan, is diplomatic on the issue.

"The proposition has its trade-offs," the former Zimbabwe, Cats and Bulls flyhalf told Sport24.

"It would create a bit more unpredictability in terms of fatigue, which directly influences players and coaches' decision-making, especially late in the game. This would also impact the mobility and pace of the game as well as your player profiles, would have to change slightly."

Yet, Tsimba also believes the welfare argument still trumps tactics.  

"Fatigue leads to injuries, particularly due to miscalculated tactical decisions. My take would be to keep the rule as it is.

"Player welfare has far more upsides from a global prospective. It promotes having the highest possible number of players available week-to-week. It also makes for a more inclusive game."

Instead, if World Rugby wants to address the pace of the game, there might be other areas to target.

"I've enjoyed New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa. It has delivered on its promise to be a more attractive product," said Krige.

"But it's been achieved by focusing on applying the laws more ruthlessly, like the breakdown. That's the crux of the matter for me. World Rugby is preoccupied with the replacement rules when it should be focused on other laws being applied better to improve the flow of a game."

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