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Law discussion: too many substitutes allowed?

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It took rugby football a long time to allow replacements. Replacements for injury came first in the interests of player health; then came replacements/substitutions for tactical reasons.

South Africa used substitutions in the Rugby World Cup final in a way that caused Jeremy Guscott, in his playing days a great English centre, to propose a change of law to restrict the number of substitutions to make a match a fairer contest.

In the beginning there was no restriction on the number of players when village played village. At Rugby School, which gave the game its name, School House would play the rest, and nobody counted the number of players in each side. In 1971 the first international was played between Scotland and England, and each side had 20 players - a convenient number for the unifying aspirations of the Irish who chose 10 from the South and 10 from the North. In 1892 it became law that there would be 15 players on each side. 15 - and that was it.

In 1924 New Zealand proposed that the replacement of injured players be allowed. It was turned down, as it was in 1932, 1947 and 1952. If you had an injury you got on with it. The injured player either battled on or you played a man short. It was the brave rugby way.

But in 1966, when England played France, David Perry, an English loose forward, was injured and heroically played on. In so doing he exacerbated the injury to his knee to such an extent that it ended his playing career. That was his 15th and last cap for England whose captain he had been.

In 1967, New Zealand again proposed replacement for injury in international matches and again it was rejected. But suddenly in 19568, despite Scotland dissent, replacement for injury was allowed in Test matches when a doctor gave his opinion that the player should not carry on
playing. The number of such replacements was limited to two.

The door had been opened slightly and gradually the scope of the law widened to include all rugby.

Then 1995 temporary replacement was allowed for a bleeding player. This was at a time when it was feared that contaminated blood could cause problems for others. In 1996, tactical substitutions came to be allowed. In 2015, the head injury assessment (HIA) was introduced into rugby, as concussion became an increasing concern.

South Africa used substitution as a weapon against England. After just 43 minutes of the match, they changed the whole of their front row. England had suffered the loss of their tighthead, Kyle Sinckler in the second minute and their front row was battling. In the first half they had been penalised four times in six scrum, and suddenly a fresh group of three front row players trotted onto the field, intending to keep forward domination going.

Guscott suggests restricting the number of replacements from eight to three per match, saying the game would be better off if teams were able to use only three replacements even though they could still have the same number of players sitting on the bench.

"I believe this sport can get better still, and more attractive to play and to watch, by limiting the number of substitutions – and that should be the next big step we take."

Allowing replacements was to protect players' health by avoiding the Perry situation. In the Guscott suggestion, what would happen if more than three players in a team were injured. And if more than three could be used in the case of injury, rather than tactical substitution, who would decide what was injury? That would again most likely require the involvement of a medical doctor. It is a system that is open to abuse - the use of faked injuries to allow for a substitution.

England could have limited their sufferings in the scrum early on if they had taken Dan Cole off with a faked injury so that the match would continue with uncontested scrums. But that would not lessen the physical struggles of the team outside of the scrums, in fact it could exacerbate them.

Law 3.17 In a squad of 23 players or at the discretion of the match organiser, a player whose departure has caused the referee to order uncontested scrums cannot be replaced.

This match continued with contested scrums.

What South Africa did was within the prescriptions of the law.

Law 3 NUMBERS
1. Each team has no more than 15 players in the playing area during play.
4. For international matches, a union may nominate up to eight replacements.
8. The table indicates the minimum number of front-row players by squad size and the minimum replacement obligations. A match organiser may, having taken player welfare into account, amend the minimum number of front-row players in the squad and the minimum replacement obligations at defined levels of the game.
Squad size                 Minimum number of front row players in the squad        Must be able to replace at the first time of asking
15 or fewer                  3                                                                                     -
16, 17 or 18                4                                                                                      Either a prop or a hooker
19, 20, 21 or 22          5                                                                                      Both a prop and a hooker
23                               6                                                                                       Loose-head prop, tight-head prop and hooker

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