A look at each club's average interchange times through 2019 has revealed differing strategies between coaches, with the Roosters nailing their plans and the Cowboys in particular leaving themselves exposed late in games.
Overall the Broncos and Cowboys (both using their final interchange after 69 minutes, on average) and Rabbitohs (70th minute) were happy to run the gauntlet in the final 10 minutes of games while the Panthers (77th minute), Bulldogs and Sea Eagles (76th minute) effectively held their final change til the dying moments on average.
The year's three standout teams, the Roosters, Raiders and Storm, each made their final change in the 75th minute on average, as did the fifth-finishing Eels, indicating that could be about the sweet spot.
When it came to making the first change, now-departed Titans coach Garth Brennan looked to the pine earlier than any other coach, throwing his first benchie into the fray in just the 17th minute on average while Wests Tigers mentor Michael Maguire (19th minute) was the only other clipboard-holder to average a change in the opening quarter. The earliest average interchange by a top-eight club was 20 minutes, by the Storm and Broncos.
Roosters head honcho Trent Robinson held back his first change longer than any other coach, leaving all 13 starters in place until the 24th minute on average while eight other clubs were equal second, making their first change in the 22nd minute.
One of those was Bunnies boss Wayne Bennett, however he was also the equal-earliest to the second change, favouring the double-change early with the two starting props both resting by the 25th minute – level with the Storm and just ahead of four clubs, including Gold Coast, who had two changes made by the 26th minute.
Despite a few teams consistently running the gauntlet with their final interchange, there were remarkably few costly issues late in games.
Arguably the most impactful was in Townsville in the Cowboys' 22-20 loss to Manly in round 13; Paul Green used his seventh interchange to replace an injured Mitch Dunn in the 66th minute and at the same time used his eighth to bring Jake Granville back for debutant Reuben Cotter, despite the hooker having played just 11 minutes in his maiden NRL match.
Two minutes later Jordan McLean pulled a hamstring and the Cowboys had to play the final 12 minutes with 12 men; there was no score by either team in that period but the one-man disadvantage prevented North Queensland from pushing for the winning play.
While the Rabbitohs memorably finished their gutsy round 25 win over the Roosters with just 12 men on the field, that was nothing to do with interchanges – the club still had one spare at full-time but lost Dane Gagai to a hamstring injury and four other players to head knocks, making for a frantic final few minutes.
The Roosters' average mark of 24 minutes for the first interchange would be even higher were it not for a handful of injuries very early in games to the likes of Jake Friend, Luke Keary and Mitch Aubusson throughout the season. While similar is true of most clubs to some extent, Robinson tended to leave his starting middles on the field until around the 28th to 30th minute.
In fact just three times all year did Robinson make a voluntarily interchange before his opposition had (in rounds 13, 17 and 23) so there may even be a psychological element in declaring his forwards fitter than those of the opposition and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Siosiua Taukeiaho and Isaac Liu regularly backed up Robinson's interchange policy.
The numbers make interesting reading when compared with the equivalent 2018 data.
Even in 2018 the Roosters made their first interchange later than any other club while the Cowboys again were the side that used them all up the soonest.
Most clubs made their first and last interchange, on average, at about the same time in 2019 as they did in 2018 – even those that changed coaches (like Brisbane, Manly and Cronulla) or those that drastically improved their ladder position (like Parramatta and Canberra).
Souths, who switched coaches from Anthony Seibold to Wayne Bennett, made their first change much later in 2019 (up from 17 minutes to 22) while the Titans' first change came much later in 2018 (shortening from 21 to 17 minutes in 2019).