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Rugby union set to trial rolling substitutions

England's bench looks on at last year's Six Nations game against Scotland
The bench could become an even more important part of the game

Rugby league-style rolling substitutions will be trialled in rugby union's County Championship from 1 May.

The controversial proposal emerged from a Rugby Football Union task group report released last year.

Under the system, each team will be able to make up to 12 interchanges per game, with players allowed to return to action having already been substituted.

Supporters say the plan will improve player welfare, but opponents fear it will change the character of the sport.

Rolling substitutions have become an accepted part of rugby league since they were first introduced in the early 1990s.

In Super League (the top level of rugby league in Britain), teams can also make up to 12 interchanges in a match. It has led to the majority of props being rotated during the game, tending to play in relatively short bursts.

Rugby union's world governing body, the International Rugby Board, sanctioned the trial last year, and the RFU's council has now approved its use in the County Championship, which is primarily competed for by players below the professional tiers of the English game.

"All the coaches I have spoken to are saying 'Bring it on' so there is certainly an appetite to try things," said Rob Briers, the RFU's chair of the County Championship review group and RFU competitions.

If rolling substitutions are to be tested, we have to be very careful. The shape of the game, its core values and the health of those who play it are all at risk

Wales and Wasps coach Shaun Edwards, speaking last year

"Using a finite, one-month competition at the end of the season gives people a chance to see how it may or may not work at a reasonable level of rugby."

Chris Cuthbertson, chair of the RFU's laws sub-committee added: "There will be consultation at all levels of the game and there will not be a blanket implementation across England. It would be for each level of the game to determine if such a system would be beneficial for them."

The RFU task group was set up in the wake of the infamous 'Bloodgate' and the rolling substitution idea has been seen as a way of ensuring the current blood substitution rules cannot be abused again.

As the rules stand, a temporary replacement is only permitted if a player has a blood injury. However, the rule was abused last season when Harlequins winger Tom Williams went off with fake blood coming from his mouth to be replaced by Nick Evans.


But critics say the introduction of rolling replacements could lead to an even greater emphasis on size and bulk.

"A prop who wanted to last 60 minutes could not balloon up to 24 stone if only because he would become an absolute liability in open play," wrote Wasps and Wales coach Shaun Edwards, who is a legend of British rugby league, in his column for The Guardian last year.

"However, if one of the front five has to last only 10 or 20 minutes of explosive action before getting a rest on the bench, then 20 stone is better than 18 and 22 better than 20, and enough time in the gym will certainly shape these new giants.

"If rolling substitutions are to be tested, we have to be very careful. The shape of the game, its core values and the health of those who play it are all at risk."

But England manager Martin Johnson, also speaking last year, said he could see the reasons for the introduction of the change.

England manager Martin Johnson
Johnson said rolling substitutions would be better for player safety

"Some form of rolling substitutions needs to be looked at," he said.

"I liked it when 15 guys had to battle it out and you had to be fit for 80 minutes, but you come around to thinking about it as a possibility."

Johnson also said he agreed with the panel's suggestion that rolling replacements would benefit player welfare, as they would allow potential cases of concussion to be properly diagnosed.

"Player safety is an issue with players getting bangs on the head," he said.

"It needs to be looked at carefully and I am sure it will be trialled. Maybe it is inevitable."

Interchanges will only be allowed to take place during stoppages in play.

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see also
Johnson backs substitution change
01 Oct 09 |  English
Rugby bosses ponder law changes
23 Nov 09 |  Rugby Union
Cheating not widespread, says RFU
30 Sep 09 |  English
Dallaglio named in RFU task force
28 Aug 09 |  English

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