The Art of Substitution

Being the head of a national rugby team is less about coaching and more about management than any other level of the game. In that role, the Mole considers that substitution is a key consideration and that Declan Kidney and Phillippe Saint-Andre both scored high on this weekend. However, Warren Gatland seems to do so every week.

Based on results and performance to date, The Mole’s ranking order for the 6 Nations coaches is:

  1. Warren Gatland
  2. PSA
  3. Stuart Lancaster
  4. Declan Kidney
  5. Jacques Brunel
  6. Andy Robinson

Quibbling there may be about the relative ranking of Robinson and Brunel – Robinson is arguably achieving less with more, which has him one rung below Brunel on our table – but there can be little acrimony regarding the first four places, which also reflect the Six Nations table after [a maximum of] three rounds.

Not in a year of moonless nights [Moles don’t do months or Sundays] would the Mole have guessed that Wales had never won a Triple Crown on English soil. With 20 Triple Crown wins since 1893, second only to the English total of 23, Wales has seemed like a regular winner of this accolade. But although with only one win in the 26 years between the late-70s and mid-00s, it’s still very surprising to find that a win at Twickenham, to garnish the Crown, is a unique event.

A New Broom Sweeps Clean … And Then The Old Broom Sweeps Clean Again

Gatland - there's every indication that he's steering Wales towards a Grand Slam, even though the Welsh have had a couple of very narrow wins in Dublin and Twickenham. They may not be the dominant team that some in the principality are proclaiming them as, but they're getting the wins.

National coach since November 2007, after a World Cup experience which saw Wales lose to both Australia and Fiji and fail to qualify for the quarter-finals, Gatland’s managerial innovation since June 2011 has brought about a remarkable renaissance in Welsh national fortunes, which despite the implosion of their club game, seems to go from strength to strength and has placed him in the front rank of potential Lions coaches for 2013.

Gatland has overseen the re-construction of an entire national team structure and outlook since June 2011 by dint of superb conditioning, disciplined man management, innovative attacking and great defensive organisation. It has helped that he has had available extremely talented and physically big players, but he has had the courage to select them regardless of age.

Common perception in modern rugby has it that the rugby World Cup is the focus of a four-year cycle of development. In Ireland, every national coach has had to cope with the IRFU mantra that the Six Nations is what pays for the bread and water and that the World Cup is a loss leader. If that is the economic reality for Irish rugby, surely it must also be the case for Wales, Scotland and probably Italy? However, has Warren Gatland re-invented the wheel by looking at the World Cup [and subsequently the next four Six Nations tournaments] in a totally different light?

Gatland [and Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley] ended up with a squad that few – perhaps even they – could not have dreamed about in Spring 2011. Indeed, the comparison, with the current team, shows how radical the change has been:

WALES v England [Feb 2011]: 15. James Hook; 14. Morgan Stoddart; 13. Jamie Roberts; 12. JJV Davies; 11. Shane Williams; 10. Stephen Jones; 9. Mike Phillips; 1. Paul James; 2. Matthew Rees (captain); 3. Craig Mitchell; 4. Bradley Davies; 5. Alun Wyn Jones; 6. Dan Lydiate; 7. Sam Warburton; 8. Andy Powell.

Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard; 17. John Yapp; 18. Ryan Jones; 19. Jonathan Thomas; 20. Dwayne Peel; 21. Rhys Priestland; 22. Lee Byrne

WALES v England [Feb 2012]: 15. Leigh Halfpenny; 14. George North; 13. JJV Davies; 12. Jamie Roberts; 11. Alex Cuthbert; 10. Rhys Priestland; 9. Mike Phillips; 1. Gethin Jenkins; 2. Ken Owens; 3. Adam Jones; 4. I Evans; 5. Alun Wyn Jones; 6. Dan Lydiate; 7. Sam Warburton (captain); 8. Toby Faletau.

Replacements: 16. Richard Hibbard; 17. Paul James; 18. Ryan Jones; 19. Justin Tipuric; 20. Lloyd Williams; 21. James Hook; 22. Scott Williams

New Faces: Halfpenny [23], North [19], Cuthbert [21], Priestland [24], Owens [25], Faletau [21], Justin Tipuric [22], L. Williams [22], S. Williams  [21]

That’s an entirely changed back three, an entirely changed front row and changes in every unit of the team: the centers have swapped positions, the out-half has changed, there’s been a change in the second row [with Luke Charteris in there for the World Cup, it shouldn’t be forgotten], and there’s a new No8 in Toby Faletau.

Could any other country, or rather, any other national coach achieve such a turnaround with such consequences?

Whatever Happened To Shaun Edwards?

Shaun Edwards - do you remember when Welsh success was all down to him?

Apart from the actual attainment of their first trophy by this ‘new’ Welsh team, The Mole has also been fascinated by the manner in which the personalities and expertise of Shane Edwards and Robert Howley have been relegated into the background in the new Welsh hierarchy, to be replaced by the emerging personality of an engaging national captain in Sam Warburton. More of this line of enquiry another day.

Art vs Science

Among the myriad of man-management skills that Gatland has brought to bear on this re-modelled team of Taffs, has been that of substitution and once again, in this Triple Crown game against England, he was right on the money. Unlike the game against Ireland, Gatland needed only to release Ryan Jones for Alun Wyn-Jones from the bench after 54 minutes. His pack were keeping the English hordes at bay and he didn’t believe they warranted any further assistance than the arrival of the former Grand Slam captain.

His earlier substitution of Scott Williams for Jamie Roberts was injury-enforced at half-time and whatever Wales lost with Roberts’s retirement they recovered in spades when Williams used his deceptive strength to rip the ball out of the grasp of English second-row Courtney Lawes and then race over 50 metres, with a chip kick and follow-up, to score the winning try for his country. BBC commentators had debated whether Gatland should have inserted the more experienced Stephen Jones for the talismanic figure of Roberts, but Gatland [Edwards & Howley] had once again read the runes correctly.

Kidney Sees Light; Unloads Bench 

"I put a left-handed batter in to hit against a left-handed pitcher. It's called playing the percentages - it's what smart managers do to win ballgames."

In a very different scenario, Declan Kidney also played the right tune against the Italians in Dublin. His half-back partnership, and thus the entire Irish team, had looked badly out of kilter during the first forty minutes against Italy.

Too much frenetic and expansive rugby, without any semblance of pattern or control, had seen a reasonably good early start squandered and the Italians well in the game at half-time 17-10. However, at 54 minutes, the substitution of Murray by Reddan proved the critical management decision of the week.

Forget the post-match rationalisation that “inevitably the ball comes quicker in the last quarter”: Reddan understands totally that the prime decision maker in international rugby is the out-half.

He has his head up. He sees where opponents are marking. He understands where weaknesses are evident. He is not looking at his forwards heels and backsides and trying to peer over opposition forwards who are half a foot taller. For all of those reasons, Reddan knows that whether it is Sexton or O’Gara or Madigan, they have a much better chance of changing the game, if they get fast ball delivered in front of them and at the correct height.

Having wrought that change, Kidney was able to follow up with less significant but nevertheless important alterations in the front-row, second-row, back-row and mid-field. O’Mahony’s first cap at flanker and Bowe’s installation into mid-field are investments which may reap a dividend in Paris rather than Dublin. Donncha Ryan’s arrival should become permanent before Ireland play New Zealand in June and Tom Court deserved an outing in his real position of loose-head prop. Well done all and particularly Declan Kidney.

Où est le bouef? Sur le banc

Nallet and Servat brought experience off the bench – but is it better to start these guys or let them sit out the first hour?

In Murrayfield, Phillippe Saint-Andre had a different challenge and a very different calibre of response. Fortunate to be level 10-10 at half-time, he had the capacity to unleash William Servat [hooker], Julian Bonnaire [flanker], Lionel Nallet [second-row] and Vincent Debaty [prop] into the fray. With 184 caps between the first three of these players – all of whom started in the World Cup final less than half a year ago – Debaty’s attainment of his second French cap will not have been viewed as an experiment.

In the mind of The Mole, these substitutions were the difference between a French and a Scottish win in front of the first full Murrayfield for this fixture in 20 years. Tough luck on Andy Robinson, but without church-bound Ewan Murray, his front five just could not cope with the early French reinforcements. This game was over about eight minutes before The Mole realized it was over, as the French were able to pull the same trick as the 2007 World-Cup winning Boks pulled so often: bring on big men with an awful lot of high-end experience and shut the game down through set-piece dominance, low-risk rugby and good discipline.

The Fall Of The House Of Lancaster

Stuart Lancaster – the safe pair of hands has his eyes on the top job. Could Courtney Lawes' mistake have a devastating impact on his candidacy? Going into an interview with the Welsh scalp under his belt would have given him a huge boost

And so back to Twickenham, where despite the English media’s proclamations of the wonderful achievements of new coach Stuart Lancaster [and a surprising and new-found comfort in moral victories], it is the view in Mole Towers that this man’s substitutions ended up losing the game for his team.

Sometimes your subs can end up letting you down, or making you look like a chump – Declan Kidney has experienced that a couple of times, notably when the luckless Paddy Wallace refused to give a scoring pass to an unmarked Keith Earls against Wales in the dying moments of the 2011 Six Nations game.  Lancaster’s subs – some ill-timed, some ill-conceived substitutions and some merely unfortunate – didn’t pan out.

At 60 mins, Lawes for Botha … why? Wales had taken off their own tighthead second row Alun-Wyn Jones [only returning from a long period out through injury and thus a bit short of wind], and replaced him with Ryan Jones, a more regular blindside than second-row. With the game breaking up, the greater mobility and running threat of Lawes, coupled with the decrease in scrummaging heft offered by the Welsh change, should have paid off. It didn’t. Lawes got stripped in contact when isolated in the middle of the pitch, leading directly to the Welsh try. Unfortunate.

At 65 mins, Matt Stevens, Bath’s versatile dual-sided prop, came on for Corbisiero … why? Was it to have another cut out of Adam Jones, the hard-scrummaging but heavy-set Welsh tighthead not known for his fitness, in the knowledge that Gatland didn’t have a decent prop to bring off the bench?

The introduction of very ordinary players like Dowson [for No8 Ben Morgan] and Webber [for hooker Dylan Hartley] did little to alter the shape of the game. Lancaster is missing some decent players in these positions in Northampton’s Tom Wood and Bath’s Lee Mears, but the guys with whom he has chosen to replace them are pretty ordinary and arguably not really of international standard. There’s only so much effect they’re ever going to have on a game at this level.

Worst of all, at 60 mins, was Youngs for Dickson at scrum-half. At the top of their respective games, Youngs is a better option than Dickson. However, while Dickson’s game is currently in fine working order, Youngs is in a malaise that can affect talented young players. He’s simply way off his best. Waaaaay off.

Dickson had not given an inch to the Welsh lynchpin Phillips, and had helped England’s own Welshman, No8 Ben Morgan, through his first international start with the minimum of fuss. He had given an armchair ride to new fly-half Farrell. This guy, a not particularly highly-rated scrum-half by many outside Northampton, had managed to thrive against a world class opposite number, and he had done so making his first start for England, outside a player making his first start and inside a 20-year old out half making his first start in the position.

Owen Farrell’s leg injury necessitated the introduction of Toby Flood at out half, and maybe Lancaster felt that bringing in Young, his regular partner at Leicester, would add something to a forced substitution. Don’t forget, this is the same halfback partnership that won England the Six Nations last year. Unfortunately Flood is only recently back from injury and not yet anywhere near his best form, and Youngs is going through the proverbial mare.

Harsh criticism perhaps, but that is the standard in the big league and Lancaster will no doubt reflect on those decisions as he prepares for the French and Irish over the next fortnight.

Winners And Losers

National coaches do not have the opportunity to improve the basic skills of their players, nor to build front-five units by constant repetition like a club coach. They do however have the luxury of being able to ignore the egos of those players who feel that to be substituted is to be rejected eternally. Gatland has got the majority of those calls right over the past twelve months. Kidney and PSA got their calls right last weekend. Which one will read the cards best next Sunday in Stade de France?

6 thoughts on “The Art of Substitution

  1. A quick bit of info on the “Wales have never won a triple crown at Twickenham before”. It is worth remembering that during our ‘dominant period in the 70s the first game (I am told) was always vs England. Hence the “that January trip” that Max Boyce sung about.

    Which means we could never win the triple crown there then, as it was always the first step towards it

    Cracking article btw, loved it

      • It was just another example of the BBC coming up with rubbish stats to support fortress twickenham. The ‘1 win since 1988’ one got my goat, surely 1 win from the last 2 would make more sense?

        I’ll look forward to next time (2014) the BBC saying “England have only won 1 game against Wales at Twickenham in the 6 Nations in the last 8 years”. Though I doubt we’ll see that one…

  2. Re. Gatland & substitutions, this quote from Gatland is very interesting:
    “We were going to take Rhys Priestland off with 20 minutes to go, but then decided the best way for him to learn was to see if he could see the game out.”

    Man-management brilliance or foolishness? It worked out OK, but it could have gone horrendously pear-shaped.

    • Agreed kitd. Priestland didn’t have a good game at all, and if Wales had lost there would have been plenty of questions about why centurion Stephen Jones was left sitting on the bench all game.

  3. Pingback: O’Shea’s Stock Rises | Digging Like a Demented Mole

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