Peter Sterling: Why bench strength is so important

The very fabric of rugby league was altered when we went from replacements to interchanges.<br><br>That was introduced in 1991 when four players were allowed to be put in and out of the game at will as long as two of them had played at least half a game in the preceding President’s Cup or Reserve Grade. As a result of criticism, this was quickly modified mid-year to allow just six interchanges.<br><br>Five years later we were back to the farcical situation of unlimited which was the case until 2001 when it became a maximum of 12.<br><br>This was again amended two seasons ago by a reduction to the current 10 interchanges.<br><br>As you can see, it has been an on-going battle to determine just what is the most appropriate number that our game should accommodate whilst still maintaining its’ gladiatorial attraction.<br><br>Obviously player welfare is first and foremost in mind, as it should be. <br><br>The landscape also changed with the dumping of the traditional lower grade fixtures to the lone under-20’s NYC game that now precedes our first-grade fixtures.<br><br>Personally, I’ve never been a fan of interchange football because it has taken away much of the necessary fatigue factor. When a player gets tired, instead of having to dig deep and find hidden reserves it is easier to get him straight off for a rest. &nbsp;<br><br>If their side is looking vulnerable, coaches can just add another brick to the wall. &nbsp;<br><br>Balmain great Wayne Pearce summed it up best when he asked why should an opposing player get three different shots at him during the course of 80 minutes?&nbsp; He correctly pointed out that the extra work he had done on fitness and in the gym in his own preparation was negated by these manufactured player “rests”.<br><br>It has also had a severe effect on the game’s ball players who rarely get the opportunity to operate against a tiring defence. Part of their trade should be to recognize where the opposition are becoming vulnerable and produce the key to unlock them.<br><br>As a result I would much prefer to see a further reduction of interchange in the near future so that we have tired players on the field for longer. <br><br>I believe the number should be seven.<br><br>Starting front-rowers tend to be given a break sometime in the opening 20 minutes, so their withdrawal and re-introduction would constitute four interchanges. I imagine most coaches would prefer to keep one up their sleeve in the case of injury later in the game. That would leave just a further two which would need to be used astutely to extract the maximum benefit.<br><br>Critics will say that this would lead to a slower game and they may be right but I’ve never felt that a faster game was necessarily a better game. What I have found with matches played constantly up-tempo is that they are predominantly filled with dummy-half running and that is not an appealing contest. <br><br>Obviously we now have a sport that is very much a 17 man game, so much so that the strength of a team is often best demonstrated by who is sitting on the bench.<br><br>Of the 96 forwards who ran on to start games last weekend only 24 played the full 80 minutes and they were the usual suspects that do so most weekends. The remaining 72 were on the field for an average of 51 minutes, ranging from the Storms' Ryan Hoffman’s 77 down to the Tigers' Bryce Gibbs’ 25 minute contribution.<br><br>Looking back over the last month gives an interesting insight as to who some of the teams still in contention are calling upon to play substantial game-time off the bench.<br><br>The Eels' Justin Horo has been something of a standout in the amount of minutes played, consistently being utilised for more than half of the contest. Despite usually sitting alongside Origin reps Justin Poore and Tim Mannah, it is the rookie back-rower that gets thrown into the action for the longer periods. <br><br>In the absence of the suspended Ben Smith, Justin started against the Broncos which meant that in the past four games he has actually played more football than Nathan Cayless, Fuifui MoiMoi and Feleti Mateo.<br><br>It’s no surprise that Daniel Anderson is so keen to use the son of former Kiwi international Mark, as he is a strong runner, robust defender and a tough competitor. <br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=851&amp;fixtureid=50020101507&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=1302" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Horo split the Knights' line in Rd 15.</a><br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=855&amp;fixtureid=50020101904&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=2687" target="_blnk">CLICK HERE to see Horo's support play against the Panthers.</a><br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=854&amp;fixtureid=50020101807&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=linebreak&amp;period=2&amp;time=2058" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Horo's hole-hitting at pace against the Cowboys.</a><br><br>One of the reasons the Dragons sit where they do is the work done by Jarrod Saffy and Trent Merrin when introduced. Trent in particular is a real player of the future and St George Illawarra wasted no time in extending his contract earlier this year. <br><br>He’s almost a younger version of starting prop Michael Weyman in that he is compactly but powerfully built, yet has the ability to produce some silky off-loads and second-phase play. Also like his more experienced teammate he is terribly hard to stop from close range.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=845&amp;fixtureid=50020100901&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=1&amp;time=1844" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see how hard Merrin is to stop at close range.</a><br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=847&amp;fixtureid=50020101104&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=1637" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Merrin's strength at the line.</a><br><br>Whilst their recent record may not support the assessment, I rate Penrith’s bench as arguably the best in the competition.<br><br>Both Nathan Smith and Gavin Cooper are seasoned professionals and Sam McKendry’s strong showings have seen him elevated into the first 13 for this weekend. Sam can be guilty of getting a bit sloppy when playing the ball but he’s a real handful when carting it up and hitting in defence.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=858&amp;fixtureid=50020102208&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=1&amp;time=1695" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see McKendry's strong support play.</a><br><br>Throw in Masada Iosefa, Matthew Bell and a fit Tim Grant and the Panthers are well served.<br><br>So too the Gold Coast who give “the Bushranger” Brad Meyers, Michael Henderson and the young Bodene Thompson plenty of opportunities. I really enjoy the wholehearted Meyers whose career looked all but over until being resurrected by the Titans.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=858&amp;fixtureid=50020102202&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=2751" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Thompson scoring off a set play with Scott Prince.</a><br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=852&amp;fixtureid=50020101607&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=1&amp;time=1569" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Meyers also scoring from a kick.</a><br><br>With Greg Bird about to make his return they boast a real balance in their squad and that is reflected in their recent results.<br><br>Finally, the Tigers on the weekend showed the strike-power they possess off the bench with Andrew Fifita and Simon Dwyer playing big parts in the team’s 25 point victory over Penrith.<br><br>Andrew’s two try effort was reward for knuckling down to some serious fitness work after being dropped by Tim Sheens a month ago for putting on extra weight. For a big man he is deceptively quick as shown when he busted the Panthers from their kick-off.<br><br>Simon is also a real talent with an ideal back-rowers build and is a constant threat, especially in the opposition’s 20 metre zone.<br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=859&amp;fixtureid=50020102307&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=1&amp;time=1816" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see the first of Fifita's double against the Panthers.</a><br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=859&amp;fixtureid=50020102307&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=2293" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Fifita's second against the Panthers.</a><br><br><a href="http://www.nrl.com/gameAnalyser/tabId/10910/default.aspx?seasonID=240?seasonid=240&amp;roundid=849&amp;fixtureid=50020101302&amp;videoquality=1&amp;type=try&amp;period=2&amp;time=2387" target="_blank">CLICK HERE to see Dwyer's dangerous line running against the Bulldogs.</a><br>