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Talking Tactics: How coaches plan their interchanges

Matt Parish, NRL.com Fri, Apr 05, 2013 - 12:30 PM

Melbourne's Cameron Smith has been at his consistent best in 2013. Copyright: NRL Photos

Matthew Parish is an assistant coach at the Parramatta Eels and also the New South Wales Blues.

It wasn’t that long ago when coaches picked their best 13 players each week and sent them into the game, knowing injury and sheer fatigue would eventually force a replacement.
These days however, the rugby league landscape has changed significantly – and the interchange bench, and the intelligent use of substitutions, has become a game-changer.

For an NRL coach, it’s almost like a giant game of chess: he diligently watches each play, strategically plans the direction his side will take, all the while trying to calculate every possible scenario that might eventuate and put a spanner in the works. Yep, rugby league has well and truly become a 17-man game... well, 18 if you count the coach!

The coach doesn’t only fill the No.1 through 13 jerseys – 14 through 17 are every bit as crucial and integral to his structure, offering as they do strike power, impact and stability. And importantly, their contributions are on-call, available at the press of a two-way radio button.

But it’s not as simple as just calling on replacements: the coach also has to know how to use them. Often it’s the moments when coaches use their bench players that influence the team’s chances of winning... or losing.

As you’d expect, all coaches go into games with a pre-determined plan as to how to effectively use their bench in any given game. However, it’s the ‘great unknowns’ – injuries, the flow of possession, and of course a changing scoreline – that force the coach to adapt to the unpredictable nature of our game.

It is imperative that coaches select a bench that can cover all positions on the field. Certainly it’s rare for an entire team to escape a full 80 minutes of action without a player being taken from the field with an injury.

Most coaches have similar structures on their interchange benches, depending on the teams they coach. All coaches pick two big forwards that usually replace the starting front-rowers, plus a back-rower to replace another tiring forward. This player can often fill in at say centre should an outside back get hurt.

Once again, the reason these players are interchanged is because of the importance of the team gaining momentum through the middle of the ruck. This creates attacking opportunities for the team. Of equal importance is the need to stop the opposition team’s go-forward and dominate the play-the-ball area in defence, which enables the defensive line to be set.

The final position on the bench – and sometimes the most potent – is the rotation dummy-half, or utility. This player is often injected into the game to lift the tempo and possibly ignite some attacking flair. They must have the ability to cover a number of key positions on the field, should the team get an injury in the halves or the outside backs. 

Players like Penrith’s James Segeyaro, the Raiders’ Shaun Berrigan and Cronulla’s Isaac De Gois are good examples of players that come on and increase the tempo of the game for their team at critical stages of the match.

Meanwhile other teams – such as the Storm with Cameron Smith; the Wests Tigers with Robbie Farah; the Sea Eagles with the ever-reliable Matt Ballin; and the Rabbitohs with jack-in-the-box Issac Luke – have the luxury of picking another type of bench player, such as another big forward given their accomplished hookers play 80 minutes most weeks. (It’s interesting to note that the three top teams currently – the Storm, Souths and Manly – all have hookers who generally play 80 minutes.)

While it is very important for all teams to start games well, it is an interesting fact that in most clashes, more points are scored in the last 20 minutes of the game than any other time.
So with this in mind, as a coach, do you start with your best 13 players... or finish with your best 13?
It is impossible to do both!