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Jackson column: Call to cut the subs will cull land of the giants

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Peter Jackson

The first substitution at Test level took place 50 years ago next summer and involved one all-time great replacing another – Mike Gibson for an injured Barry John. What began at Loftus Versfeld during the South Africa-Lions series of 1968 as a trickle has long since turned into a flood of biblical proportion. Nobody could have envisaged the devastation that would be unleashed by the human equivalent of a buffalo herd stampeding through every Test match.

The game had created a monster and the wreckage wrought on a weekly basis takes some clearing. The admirable but naïve concept of replacements, as they used to be called, being used one per match strictly for injury purposes has long been replaced by a system that allows more than half a team to be changed at any time and for any reason.

Most damagingly of all, it disturbed the very dynamic of the game, destroying the old principal of one front row gradually wearing down the other over the course of 80 minutes. It allowed sheer size to overpower durability and the monstrous effect of ever more gigantic collisions can be gauged by a casualty list growing season on season.

At the 1995 World Cup substitutions averaged three per match. Twenty years later, with benches creaking beneath the weight of eight subs, the figure had risen five-fold. Now it seems some of the movers and shakers have had enough.

WRU chairman Gareth Davies is leading the call for fewer subs, arguing a maximum of four or five would force coaches to think more about forwards of 80-minute mobility and less about those of greater bulk geared to last for the final quarter. The argument, that it would create more room, is not a new one. Andy Robinson called for a reduction in subs when England’s head coach. “It could change the body shape of players,’’ he said. “In the last 20 minutes when there should be more space to play in, players are running into guys of 120kg who have just come on. That may have an impact on the number of injuries.’’

Throughout the autumn, every one of the world’s top nine countries changed their entire front row in the second half of every match with the solitary exception of Ireland against Argentina. They replaced both props, leaving their hooker, Rory Best, to go the distance.

Allowing coaches to change their starting XV by one-third as opposed to more than half would force them to consider props able to last for 80 minutes the way they used to. England tighthead Dan Cole, alone of his contemporaries, has lasted that long on nine occasions in recent years.

And when did England, for example, last go through a Test match without a solitary substitution? Argentina in Buenos Aires, June 2002 when Clive Woodward kept a team containing five new caps (Michael Horak, Geoff Appleford, Ben Johnston, Phil Christophers, Alex Codling) intact. They won, 23-18.

Who knows that may have been the last time the same Test front row finished the match en bloc. Ready access to five auxiliary forwards eliminates the fatigue factor and encourages the use of massive men programmed to last for half an hour, if that long.

Eddie Jones redefined them as ‘finishers’ rather than ‘impact’ players. In that respect the impact made by the largest sub of all, Wallaby lock Will Skelton, can be gauged from his vital statistics: 6ft 8in and 22 stone.

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