All you need to know about substitutions in the oval-ball game

How many replacements in rugby union?

In international rugby there are eight replacements on the bench and at least three of these must be front-row specialists.

Eddie Jones likes to call them finishers, other coaches term them game changers and some tag them impact players. Dress it up however you like but most players want to be in the starting XV.

Eight players on, and eight off, at various points in the game. Nothing could be simpler could it?

But this is rugby, so it more complicated than that. Players can be replaced temporarily to have a Head Injury Assessment and can come back on if they pass the test but are off permanently if they fail it. They can also be replaced temporarily for a blood injury, for up to 15 minutes, or if they have been injured as a result of foul play.

Then you have tactical substitutions, which sometimes can be an admission the coach got his starting team wrong. In the 2016 series against Australia, Jones hooked Luther Burrell off after 29 minutes of the first Test match in Brisbane and Teimana Harrison got similar treatment, after 31 minutes of the third International, in Sydney.

If a player has been tactically replaced they can only go on again for a blood injury, an HIA, an injured front-rower or a player injured by foul play.

Then if a front-rower gets yellow or red-carded, a substitute must come on for the next scrum meaning someone, usually a back, gets pulled out of the action.

Add all this lot up and the comings and goings from the bench can leave your head spinning and your abacus screaming for mercy. But it was not always this way.

In what some might refer to as the good old days there were no substitutes and if you got injured you just soldiered on, or your team went down to 14 players.

In 1968 replacements were allowed for injured players but some of them were so keen to stay on and deny their nearest rival in their position a chance to shine they just cracked on with playing.

The first substitute used in international rugby was Ireland’s Mike Gibson who came on for Barry John in the British & Irish Lions first Test against South Africa in 1968, in Pretoria. In that game the Lions named four replacements, but only Gibson got on. When John was injured Gibson was still in his tour blazer in the stands as substitutes could not change into kit until a doctor had rubber-stamped the need for a replacement.

The four named replacements have now grown to eight with the last increase, from seven, coming in 2009.

Graham Dawe, the former hooker, was on the England bench 34 times, and started five times for his country. He finished his career with the grand total of five caps, now it would be nearly eight times that. Brian Moore, who started most of those games, has said he didn’t want to give Dawe game time if he got injured. Moore started 63 of his 64 games for England.

For reference, Danny Care won 46 of his 84 England caps off the bench whilst one of his predecessors as a scrum-half, Ian Peck, was on the bench for all of England’s 1980 Grand Slam campaign without getting on. He never won a cap.

Then in 1996, tactical replacements were introduced but limited to three per game. Nowadays coaches have carte blanche to chop and change more than half the team. Dawe would have had a barrel load of caps.

And what an effect it has on the game as turbo-charged replacements, especially in the pack, come on after an hour to play the 20 or so minutes they have trained the whole week for. Jones wants the bench reduced to six to increase fatigue towards the end of the game. Good luck with that.

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