Johnstone: Rugby replacements revamp needed

17:59, Aug 20 2014
Dane Coles
GAME OF HIS LIFE: Dane Coles hit top form for the All Blacks against the Wallabies.

Dane Coles' substitution during the All Blacks' struggles in Sydney represented everything that's wrong with rugby replacements.

Well, maybe not everything - running on players two minutes from the end for cheap test caps still rates as the biggest blight on the system since "tactical replacements" were introduced.

But replacing Coles seemed unnecessary.

The hooker was having one of the better games of his blossoming career. He was certainly one of the better All Blacks on the park, arguably the pick of the pack.

He'd shown up in New Zealand's only real scoring opportunity early on and had just helped in a try-saving piece of defence moments before he was pulled from the park.

Coles was in full swing, operating on all cylinders when he was told to head to the sidelines after just 52 minutes.


It reeked of a pre-determined substitution, a call made well before the match, rather than a decision based on reacting to the circumstances.

Coles was playing well enough to deserve to stay in the mix and the team effort would have been better for that.

Given that the game was hanging in the balance, why remove a form player?

It seemed risky and so it proved. Replacement Keven Mealamu was almost instantly asked to throw to the lineout - not his strongest skill - and the ball was turned over.

There's been much made about the lack of hooking depth in the lea-up to this season and the run-in to the World Cup.

Leaving Coles to soldier on in the trenches in the heat of a Bledisloe battle, even for a wee while longer, may have paid better long-term dividends.

Rugby isn't an 80-minute game anymore, at least not for eight or so players in the starting side who pretty much know they'll be asked to front for far shorter than that.

Look back on virtually any professional match and you'll see replacements being made at the 50, 60 and 70 minute marks. You can virtually set your clock by it.

In an age of where the "impact player" is in vogue, not every substitution works out that way.

That's why some decisions deserve to be more about circumstances than squad harmony.

A 15-minute reward for someone coming off the bench should be weighed up against leaving them on the pine and keeping them hungry, especially if the player being replaced is ticking along well.

It's an area rugby may need to reconsider as new rules continue to be trialled at various levels in different competitions around the world.

Rugby hates taking a leaf from rugby league's book, but given the messy handling of some of their substitutions under the current system, adopting league's interchange bench might be a viable alternative.

A short "breather" might be a better way to get the best out of some of the harder workers in the team effort.

Then again, Coles looks like the kind of player who would run himself into the ground for the cause - especially with the Bledisloe Cup at stake.