The importance of a 22-man game was never more evident than when the Springboks scraped past Samoa on Friday – which reminded me of a famous line in a very popular video game in the 1990′s.
For years we have criticized South African rugby coaches for their seeming inability to use their bench effectively. For some reason coaches, players (and fans) view the bench players as ‘reserves’ in case something goes wrong, or ‘second best’ to the starting XV.
Last week Super Rugby winning coach, Ewen McKenzie, wrote a brilliant article on this subject, referring to the starting XV as ‘starters’, and the bench players as ‘finishers’.
In South African rugby I can personally only think of one coach that experimented with this idea, and that was over a decade ago with Nick Mallet who almost exclusively used players like Ollie le Roux as impact players from the bench.
Since then, you can almost bet your bottom dollar that coaches through all levels of South African rugby will introduce bench players on a pre-determined schedule irrespective of the match situation or unless injury forces them to.
The simple fact is that modern rugby requires the full complement of 22 players to be successful, where depending on the opposition you identify key areas and who your best starters and best finishers are for that specific game.
This will include key positions within your team depending on your own strengths and weaknesses, and those of the opposing team. It will also include the pre-determined game plan and which players are best suited to lay the foundation, and those who can finish off the job.
Of course you have to factor in the probability of injuries and which players are versatile enough to cover other positions, but as coach you first have to start to try and control what you can, and injuries isn’t one of those.
There has been a lot of debate prior and during this World Cup surrounding specific selections and players and who should start and who not, but I believe 99% of these arguments miss the point.
When you look to formulate your own point of view on this subject it is important to remember that there is little point in arguing a selection based on a totally different game plan or approach that you know won’t be employed by the Springboks in this World Cup.
Quite simply, the only question you should ask yourself is; ‘Given the current team dynamic, which positions are crucial to execute the favoured approach?’ Once you have established that, ask yourself which players are best suited to be ‘starters’ or laying the foundation, and which players are best suited as ‘finishers’?.
My personal observation from Friday’s game was that the Boks started well enough – but just could not finish the job off properly – and personally, that settled the argument for me about a couple of players who should start, and those who should finish.