No substitute for timing when it comes to fresh legs


RUGBY ANALYSIS:When is Seán Cronin better than Richardt Strauss? Clearly the Ireland management believed that at 5.30pm last Saturday Strauss was their number one. However, as the game unfolded at what stage should Cronin be deemed better and therefore good enough to take over? Should it be after 10 minutes, 20, 30 . . . ?

In professional rugby the timing of a substitution has become a template. Usually it’s done on 60 minutes or, if you’re Irish, disgracefully, with just minutes to go.

In broadening the value of the substitute, you can add others such as Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan and especially Michael Bent. What is the best time for their introduction?

Strangely the answer could be after 10 minutes or not at all. There are few sides in world rugby that can physically dominate as the Springboks can; next week’s Argentina side are one but the Boks are best at battering.

Come half-time they recalibrated their rugby back 30 years to the days of “Nasty Booter” Naas Botha, with Pat Lambie taking up the route one Botha boot.

As this battering unfolded I marvelled at two players in Irish jerseys – the props, Cian Healy and Mike Ross.

Healy was fighting for every square inch on the pitch in a manner that would have made coach Tony D’Amato happy. At one stage he contorted his body into a dead ruck, intent through some superhuman effort to reverse the Springbok tide and come out with the ball.

After all that he was able to scrap with energy with the ball as well, gaining twice as many yards as Springbok winger Francois Hougaard.

Poor box kicks

As Ireland lost possession cheaply from poor box kicks and inaccurate handling (such as a one-handed spill or the pass into touch), I wondered did these backs fully understand the effort Healy and others put into getting the ball in the first place? It is a hanging offence to lose the ball in such a manner.

Use of the ball, combined with ball retention and instinct is something I’ll leave till next week, as today is all about the bench and the plan for next week.

Ross dipped well into his reserves to muster 70 minutes against a combined 240kg (nearly 40 stone) in CJ van der Linde (prop) and Adriaan Strauss (hooker) before Heinke van der Merwe arrived. At one stage Ross was visibly shaking, with sweat pouring from every pore.

Both Irish props were exceptional to survive so long – as too was Richardt Strauss.

Interestingly, after the physical toll on the Irish, it was the Springbok gargoyles who were first to drip feed out of the fixture, starting with tighthead Jannie du Plessis on 55 minutes, with the arrival of van der Merwe minutes later.

Again, when is the substitute better than the starter?

Modern professional rugby has a template: the rotation of frontrow et al. In a relatively even stakes game, rotation is at around 60 minutes. However, the Ireland frontrows against the Springboks is an entirely different matter. How does one judge when the time is right for change?

There’s plenty of corporate knowledge in this matter.

Last Monday I alluded to the arrival of Bent to the scrum with 10 minutes to go. This was of course a big help to the Ireland front five but could it have come earlier? Should it have come earlier?

For instance, Bent got just five minutes more than O’Gara but Ross had battled the entire Springbok onslaught in the toughest of positions on the pitch.

A substitution at tighthead is generally for very different reasons than that at outhalf. Yes, Sexton was extremely brave and successful in defence but battered, and outside him Gordon D’Arcy had given his all. Was then the arrival of O’Gara a decision based on tactics or was it based on physics?

With five minutes to go was O’Gara deemed better than Sexton? Was Sexton better than D’Arcy?

Clearly Bent proved to be better than the exhausted Ross at that point in time but I fear that point had arrived earlier in the fixture.

And with pace and cohesion required, Reddan couldn’t have come on early enough.

With next week in mind I wonder what plan management are hatching for game against the Pumas fixture that may throw open alternative needs from the Ireland bench that doesn’t quite fit into a template.

Drip fed

Mindful of this, the flow of fresh legs can have both a positive and negative effect on the systems within the team, where too many changes simultaneously can throw unit skills out of kilter. Drip fed is often best but not in a preconceived way.

Will we have a strong understanding of the erosion of a player’s starting status, due to the fixture, thereby knowing when is the optimum time to introduce the bench? Or will we continue to bring on Bent and O’Gara at the same time? Or, Declan Kidney, will one of our most decorated and crucially important international legends continue to rack up international caps with five-minute cameos while Ross is exhausted?

In other words when is Cronin better than Strauss?

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