CAPE TOWN – Is there a science to using your bench?
If there is one thing the Lions’ remarkable Super Rugby comeback victory over the Rebels on Saturday showed, it’s the kind of impact your subs can make.
And it’s a lesson Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus shouldn’t leave on the bench as he gathers his World Cup squad.
But that’s nothing new.
Here’s a Test-level example.
You’re playing the All Blacks, the final quarter is approaching and while you feel your tank is running out as you try to catch up, stay in the lead or just stay in the game, you see a mini group of fresh-legged Kiwis making their way onto the field.
Disheartening for the team having to combat it, but effective.
Seeing the likes of TJ Perenara or Ofa Tu’ungafasi up the intensity at a time you’d expect it to drop cannot be pleasant.
We’ve seen it many times. But we’ve also seen it go the other way.
Erasmus last year copped some criticism for the way he deployed his replacements. Particularly against the All Blacks in Pretoria.
They went from a 30-13 lead to a 32-30 defeat. And all of that was courtesy of an ineffective use of the bench.
Come the World Cup in Japan later this year, every single team that wants a chance of reconnecting with or being introduced to “Bill” will need a 23-man strong effort, consistently.
No more is settling on your starting XV the priority, while the substitution spots are secondary add-ons.
Whether you believe the bench is reinforcement you should look to when the moment arises or plan as carefully and tactfully as you would a world-champion athlete’s meal plan, you’re probably right.
There’s room for both. In a strategic way. It’s a combination.
Sure, maybe the meal-plan example isn’t really a realistic approach to take into a match, things happen, after all.
But there should at least be some kind of planning and strategy involved.
Yeah, you can’t predict what happens in a game. Weather conditions can dictate tactics. Injury to certain players can throw out the pre-planned length of his on-field stay. The score might change the coach’s objective – to stay ahead by using a certain style of play or to bring on impact players to chase or close out the game. You might need to keep a player on to continue dealing with the opposition’s approach or bring on a different player who is able to handle it better.
There is no how-to book that can equip you with all the knowledge you need to always get it right.
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But you can plan ahead.
You have to look at different factors. Have a plan, but also be flexible to timing. Read the situation. Analyse it. Know your players, know their strengths, know their temperament.
You can’t make substitutions just for the sake of it or just role the replacement dice. The game has progressed much further than that.
So, while there will always be room for a bit of improv when it comes to bringing on fresh legs, having some kind of plan as to how you are going to go about it is vital.
The Lions coaching staff on Saturday read the situation, and it worked out.
It might not always, and Swys de Bruin might not even have planned it.
But, as Erasmus plans his World Cup outfit, that bench and its use needs just as much planning.
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