More manpower needed as game speeds up

Rugby League authorities are on the point of increasing men on the benc h from two to four. Dave Hadfield reports
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The old cliche with which a coach fobs off the media and consoles a player left out of the starting team - that it is a 15-man game - is marked for obsolescence.

Within the coming year, he will be able to put a fatherly arm around a young hopeful relegated to the substitutes' bench and tell him, in all honesty: "Never mind, son, it's a 17-man game."

Rugby League, which since the start of the 1970s has allowed two substitutes per side in domestic games, is about to be forced to double that number, because otherwise players are simply not going to be able to keep up.

It is conventional wisdom that the tempo of the code has been increasing throughout the era since substitutes were first introduced and the call for a more liberal attitude to replacements has been growing in direct proportion.

The difference over the last couple of weeks is that the pace of the game has suddenly leapt a couple of gears. The reason is plain enough; it is because referees have been putting into operation a diktat for Rugby League headquarters that players must be punished immediately and severely for the sort of spoiling, slowing tactics around the play-the-ball that have become part of the fabric of the game in this country.

The catalyst for the change was the way that the Kangaroo tourists this autumn had clearly made a quantum jump in the way they play the game. Under a refereeing regime that insists upon a quick play-the-ball and a generous 10-metre offside rule, they have made its rhythm more fluid that ever before.

Within days of their departure, the new referees' overlord, Greg McCallum, himself an import from Australia, was making it equally clear that the same policy would be followed here.

The result has been a series of matches of epic cut and thrust, played at a rate of knots that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.

"It's great for the spectators, and we have to be in favour of that," panted the Warrington captain, Greg Mackey, as he recovered from the Regal Trophy tie at Salford on Saturday.

"The old adage about protecting a lead doesn't apply any more, because at any moment you can be cut to shreds. It creates more tries and opens up the game, which must be a good thing, but it is very hard on the players."

Mackey was one of four players sin-binned for trying to stem the flow of the game at The Willows on Saturday, but despite that he remains in favour of the new policy.

"My one proviso is that we must have four substitutes. They are trying to turn rugby league players into super-athletes, and that is fair enough, but we need to be able to spread the workload if we are to survive."

Mackey's coach, Brian Johnson, has long been in favour of further reinforcements.

"The case has always been strong, because it will give clubs a chance to blood young players, but it's even stronger now," he said.

International rugby and, bizarrely, some amateur leagues, already employ four substitutes, so it makes little sense for top professional matches in this country to stand outside the mainstream.

There will be resistance from those who will see it as a further slide towards the Americanisation of sport and an edging towards the gridiron pattern of constant interchanges.

The Bradford Northern coach, Peter Fox, even complained during the Kangaroo tour that the use of the four substitute rule in tour matches gave the Australians an unfair advantage. When, as sometimes appeared to be the case, English clubs struggled to find 17 fit players of first-team standard, there was some force in that argument.

But the Australians have experimented on our behalf with the pitfalls of the replacement system. A brief dalliance with completely unlimited substitutions - which made the match incomprehensible to most watchers - was howled down and they are now happy with a format of four on the bench and a total of six changes.

Something similar to that is what is likely to happen here. McCallum sees the extra men as an inevitable consequence of his deliberate, and so far highly successful attempts to raise the tempo of the entertainment, and a proposal can be expected in the new year.

The Rugby League as a whole has no specific policy on the issue at the moment, but it is likely to look favourably upon McCallum's logical extension of his work so far.

As Alan Tait might have put it, after he staggered up to the radio point after Leeds' dazzling victory over Wigan on the first weekend of the new edict, the trick now is to maintain that level of exhilaration while fending off exhaustion.

The only answer to that appears to lie in calling up the re-inforcements, and that is likely to happen sooner rather than later.