Super 15: May the best bench win

Last updated 12:00 20/02/2014
Sam Cane

SAM CANE: Better off the bench.

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When Mike Gibson replaced Barry John in the Lions' first test against South Africa in 1968 it was the first official replacement in a test match (although replacements happened unofficially in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia before that).

Tactical substitutions were introduced in 1996. Originally three replacements were allowed; today eight are permitted.

Of all the rule changes to have happened in rugby, few have had the impact of the "sub".

A successful modern-day rugby team not only boasts a strong starting 15, but a strong 23 with specific roles to win the game.

The term "impact player" has been used to describe those players best suited to the bench - they are vital.

In 2013 the All Blacks completed a faultless season. The last play of that season was an exchange between two subs, Dane Coles and Ryan Crotty.

Coles, the hooker, in the presence of two defenders, offloaded to second five Crotty who scored a try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Ireland.

The play was a metaphor for the All Blacks' season, two subs making a dynamic impression.

In the All Blacks' 14 matches last year they made 102 substitutions overall, 88 of those changes occurred after 50 minutes. In the last half an hour of tests in 2013 the All Blacks outscored their opposition, 183-53!

It's a lame excuse to suggest that the All Blacks are a vastly fitter team than everybody else. The reason they won every test last year was due to the impact of their bench. Beauden Barrett, in particular, was electrifying.

In the last two years the Chiefs have won the Super Rugby competition.

Their bench for last year's final, in which they scored the last 14 points in a 26-22 victory, was strong: Rhys Marshall, Ben Afeaki, Michael Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, Augustine Pulu, Bundee Aki and Robbie Robinson.

Cane was one of the All Blacks' best last season, but the Chiefs starting No 7 is Tanerau Latimer, who played his five All Black tests in 2009.

Cane works better on the bench. He is a more explosive ball carrier and possibly a fraction quicker to the breakdown. Latimer is a warrior who rarely lets his team down.

Pulu is a more dynamic halfback than All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Pulu's running game close to the ruck is exceptional and a nightmare for tired defenders.

However Kerr-Barlow's judgment is superior and his kicking game marginally stronger, making him better suited to start the game.

When predicting what will happen in the Super Rugby this year, don't just look at which team has the best starting 15 or even the best squad in terms of sheer talent.

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Look at the way teams use their reserves. An impact player is no longer a guy who struggles to play 80 minutes, so he just plays 20.

An impact player is somebody picked to break a game open, they may be better than those in the starting 15, but offer qualities better suited later in the game.

Impact players make a real difference.

May the best bench win! 

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