Owen Doyle: It’s time for World Rugby to make the 5-3 replacements split compulsory

Rugby World Cup: Exemplary sentences required to rid the game of dangerous hits that are still prevalent

There are a couple of interesting videos doing the rounds.

The first is the hit on Antoine Dupont by his opposing captain, Namibia’s Johan Deysel, which left the French scrumhalf with a facial fracture and an uncertain future at this Rugby World Cup. The first thing to hope for is that Dupont recovers quickly, not just for France, but the whole tournament will be seriously diminished if he is absent.

Deysel’s actions were those of a loose cannon, firing himself at the French captain and leading with his head. It led to another sickening blow with that fractured cheek bone the result.

For all the red cards dished out, accompanied by derisory suspensions, this type of uncontrolled hit has not gone away. These, and the upright standing tackle designed to prevent the ball carrier offloading, present a serious problem for World Rugby as they are at near-pandemic levels. Of equal concern is the stark difference of opinion as to whether or not these deserve red cards.


The only certain way to get rid of these is a combination of exemplary sentences and to have universal agreement that they are illegal. But coaches are not in agreement, far from it. The Namibian coach referred to Deysel’s foul play as unintentional and an accident. The French defence coach Shaun Edwards has praised the rescinding of Owen Farrell’s recent red card, announcing that justice had been served. I wonder if he’ll jump to the defence of Deysel in the same way?

Edwards is very far from being alone, and until World Rugby find a common ground solution these so-called tackles will continue to create havoc.

What we will see, though, is another push, post World Cup, for the global introduction of the 20-minute red card replacement. As discussed previously, as the southern hemisphere continues to paddle its own canoe this is in place for both Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.

The bunker rightly upgraded the Deysel incident from a yellow to a red. But it did not upgrade another bad head clash in Georgia’s draw with Portugal and there were two more in Scotland’s win over Tonga. In that match one went to red, the other remained a yellow. It was hard to discern the difference and Gregor Townsend would have been right to be perplexed.

Bunker decisions are perhaps the most vital calls in any match, but we are not told the rationale of the Foul Play Review Officers in reaching their decisions, nor do we even know who they are. There would be understandable uproar if judges in the central criminal court hid behind the veil of anonymity.


“Immense”. A totally apt, short and sweet message which landed in my inbox as referee Ben O’Keeffe brought a conclusion to an awesome, ferocious contest between Ireland and South Africa in the Stade de France. Despite its enormous intensity, thankfully it had no dangerous head high hits. Overall, O’Keeffe, it’s fair to say, had a much better outing than his first match. However, South Africa’s Ox Nche should have been sidelined for a gratuitous, cynical little “stamp” on Josh van der Flier’s hand – just a 10-minute job, no need to trouble the bunker.

It was an immense collective effort by Ireland, overcoming a huge South African team with Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienabar opting for the much vaunted 7-1 forward split on the bench. It very nearly worked.

That brings me to the second video. It is a detailed explanation from the sports scientist Ross Tucker demonstrating that injuries resulting from tackles do not increase when replacements come on – rather they can decrease. So does that mean more replacements are needed? There is no background given as to how this information has been collated, or how many matches it covers, although I am sure some interesting stats do exist. But they cannot include matches where the 7-1 split has been used – there have only been a couple of those, which is not any sort of valid sample.

Erasmus and Nienabar have received plenty of praise for the innovation, but new ideas are not necessarily good ideas. It’s not just about the potential for injury, it drives a horse and carriage through the intent of the replacement law, even though, strictly speaking the 7-1 split is not outlawed.

The replacement law was designed to cover injuries or make tactical substitutions, firstly for the frontrow, hence three specialists must be on the bench. Then intention was that there would be two other forwards, covering the back five in the scrum and finally, three backs, covering the key positions of nine and 10, plus a utility player.

We hear a lot about the importance of the shape of the game, but the radical 7-1 split (even 6-2) seriously distorts it and pushes the game towards ever bigger, heavier players. Rugby is an 80-minute game, but it’s already clear that many can’t keep going that long or be in any way effective in the last quarter – that is an indictment in itself. The game needs less, not more, weight.

It’s another issue which World Rugby need to get their teeth into, and show us who is really running the show. To avoid coaches riding roughshod over the spirit of the replacement law, simply make the 5-3 split compulsory.

Meanwhile, Ireland are in good shape. No injuries it seems, and with a fortnight until they meet Scotland some rest and relaxation will work wonders. I’m afraid to even whisper it, but things are looking good.