In the run-up to the Six Nations this week, Nigel Owens has added his Welsh lilt to the growing chorus of voices looking to limit the number of substitutions allowed in a game of rugby.
"We as referees and referee managers in World Rugby, we're always looking at things that need to be applied firmer, which contributes to the safety of the game and that is an ongoing process," Owens said on Radio 4's Today Programme.
"It is a physical game and unless you change it beyond total recognition of what the sport is, you are going to have to accept that there is going to be a risk of injury, but a minimal risk if you compare it to people that are injured everyday in walking about doing nothing."
It may seem like that is a new complaint but it has history. Former Scottish coach Andy Robinson claimed he suggested reducing the number of substitutes down to five back in 2005. Welsh Rugby Union chairman Gareth Davies wanted to reduce substitutions back in 2017 when World Rugby began trialling the law change. More recently Jeremy Guscott has advocated reducing substitutes down to five initially and then only allowing substitutes when injury strikes.
“It would be an even better sport if the bench was reduced in number,” Guscott wrote in the Rugby Paper. “Half a team coming on with fresh legs and sharp minds against guys, who have been taken to the point of exhaustion, is pushing the game out of the realms of normality.
“We have got to make sure that rugby union remains a game in which skill and fitness are paramount – even though the fitness element has been eroded.
“A player like Alun Wyn Jones can go for 80 minutes, and so can Mako Vunipola, but there are a hell of a lot that cannot. The only problem is they are not made to pay the price.”
Currently, teams have eight players on the bench at the start of a game but can make more substitutions in certain circumstances. If a front-row player is sin-binned they must be replaced with another front-row player to have competitive scrums.
This requires another player on the team, usually a back-row player, to join the sin-binned player in the stands. When the sin-bin ends the back-row player will return. Repeat that situation for blood injuries and concussions and the number of substitutes can easily stretch into double figures.
The likes of Owens and Guscott have listed safety and attacking freedom as two factors in the push for fewer subs. What are the benefits of reducing substitutes and what will we lose?
Very simply, forcing players to play for more minutes will result in tired players. Tired players are slower players. Slower players leave gaps in defence and that results in more points. Currently, 57% of tries are scored in the second-half of matches. Tired players, even though more than half the team can be replaced, already concede more points. How exciting could the last 40 minutes of games be if just one-third of the team were fresh?
It might be hard to see how safety would be impacted by reducing substitutions. The suggested safety benefits are twofold. Firstly, lowering the speed of players, by making them more tired, will lower the force in collisions. That means less force going through joints, less going into bones, and crucially, less going into heads and ultimately brains. As rugby battles to become safer, and more appealing to the parents of future superstars, reducing the injury risk is vital.
The second safety benefit is longer term. Some players are built for 50 minutes of rugby. Props increase their bulk to improve scrummaging safe in the knowledge that they will get a sit-down shortly after half-time. If they needed to carry that extra heft around for a full game they would immediately notice it. The outcome is players who have to balance power with endurance. The ultimate result is lighter players. Force is mass multiplied by acceleration… reduce mass and you reduce force.
It might sound simple; reduce the substitutions and the game suddenly gets much better. Unfortunately for World Rugby, it is not so clear-cut. During the first World Cup the ball was in play for just 35% of the time, in 2015 that figure was 44%. Ball-in-play time is trending upwards and that is a good thing for fans. Ball-in-play time is linked to mistakes, and tired players make more.
If you knock balls on or allow tries it reduces the time the ball is in play. Setting up scrums and taking conversions is a drain on time. Reduce substitutes and you will almost certainly see the upward trend in ball-in-play collapse.
A safer game is also not guaranteed. It is true that fewer substitutions will almost certainly lead to less force in collisions but that is not the only factor. Can a tired player keep his tackling form for 80 minutes? If they do not and end up slumping down during tackles or not bending their legs and staying higher the risk of head injuries increases. Head-to-head or knee-to-head collisions do not need to be at a great force to cause problems.
For many years rugby players have grown bigger. Between 1994 and 2014 the average weight of an England rugby player grew by 13kg. The substitution law is intended to reverse this trend. It might work, and we might have fitter players and fewer injuries. The alternative is a future where exhausted players end up injuring themselves.
There is no doubt that the number of points will increase if the law change is brought in. Defences will be flimsy but is this what we want? We want tries, but don’t we also want a balance between attack and defence. Are we content to reduce the quality of play to increase the number of points?