Rugby coaching tips for tactical substitutions

Rugby is no longer a 15-man game. We need to think in terms of a match-day squad of at the least 18 players. So how do you keep substitutes involved, motivated and working for the whole team?

1. Communicate before the game

Make sure the substitutes know why they are on the bench. Have they been dropped? Is it part of a rotational policy? Are they utility players covering more than one position? Perhaps it's your tactics. For instance a player who is going to come on to tighten up the scrummage against powerful front row opponents later on in the game.

They might be on the bench because of a poor disciplinary record. Maybe as a reward for a consistent improvement or good performances in training. You may say to the player that they need to improve a specific part of their game, and so although they are not in the immediate team, they remain and integral part of the squad.

In any event, clear and precise information, preferably given early in the week, can help your rugby players adopt the right mental approach in preparing for the game.

2. Keep them involved in training and during the game

Don't just use substitutes as tackle bag holders. After all they might have to come on in the first minute, so they also need training drill time with the match day XV.

Keep them involved during the game with specific tasks. These could include observing:

  • The player in their position as part of the game analysis.

  • Units within the team. For example, how the front row is performing.

  • Particular technical aspects. For example, weaknesses in the defensive system, reasons for penalties conceded.

They can then relay technical messages during breaks in play.

Helping players to observe the game from the sideline: Be specific in the nature of the task, if necessary providing a list of the criteria to be observed and a means of recording the observations. Also, try to keep the task relatively limited in extent. After all, the bulk of the observation and analysis is still down to you as the coach!

Remember, this is primarily a way of keeping the substitutes focused on the game, not turning subs into coaches.

3. Keep them active

At regular intervals throughout the game have the subs carry out warm up drills, both with and without the ball. They should work together, with the activity kept short and sharp.

Remember that static stretches will result in reduced power output, so make sure the activity is dynamic.

Particularly at the lower levels of the game, try to avoid having the subs carrying out tasks which can either breed disaffection or inhibit their focus during the game. For instance, running the touch, cutting up the half-time oranges, carrying the kit.

4. Give them adequate warning (if possible!)

If they are to go on, give them five minutes beforehand to physically and mentally prepare. They should go on knowing exactly what you expect of them. Before they go on give them a specific focus so they can concentrate their minds on a precise aspect of their performance. Keep a tackle pad close at hand so they can have a few "hits" just before "entering the fray".

5.Should the sub go after a specific amount of time?

Personally I do not adopt a rigid "you will go on after 60 minutes" approach for three reasons.

  1. If this is told to the player early on, their preparation can be very narrowly focused. If the plan then changes and they come on earlier or later than expected, they may be under-prepared and perform poorly.

  2. There are so many variables in a game that are beyond your control as coach that I believe rigid plans are too easily disrupted. Instead, I give subs an indication of the circumstances in which they are most likely to come on, but always with the caveat that these circumstances may change.

  3. A rigid approach may have a negative impact upon the player replaced. 

6. Communicate after the game

Demonstrate the value you place on the substitutes by asking for and acknowledging their feedback in your post game analysis. Acknowledge their contributions publicly in the post match team meeting, as well as individually. If a player didn't get onto the pitch, make a point of explaining to them why as soon as possible.

Peter Tann is an RFU coach and sports psychologist.

This article is taken from the Better Rugby Coaching e-newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free rugby drills and skills twice a week.

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