Six Nations rugby and why players on the bench are the secret to winning

Substitutes aren’t second-raters, they’re rugby’s new secret weapon, says Simon Barnes

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“Sometimes I dream of revolution, a bloody coup d’état by the second rank – troupes of actors slaughtered by their understudies, magicians sawn in half by indefatigably smiling glamour girls, cricket teams wiped out by marauding bands of twelfth men…”

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This fantasy, by a character in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Inspector Hound, has come to pass in the form of the England rugby team. The real stars are the replacements – who are no longer called that. They’re finishers. Not only do they bring the game to an end, but they also finish off the opposition.

It’s as if the job of the 15 who start the match is to prepare the way for those greater than themselves, in the manner of John the Baptist.

The starters knock the opposition over, but the finishers jump on them – shoving shattered forwards off the ball or running in tries past, and often through, exhausted would-be tacklers. There’s no doubt about it, rugby union is now played 23-a-side.

In this year’s Six Nations, games have tended to be decided in the last 20 minutes – when the finishers are on the pitch. Replacements is not the term used by Eddie Jones, the England coach, who has taken up the more dashing term, finishers.

“We don’t see ourselves as ‘the bench’,” said Jamie George. His job is to replace the captain, Dylan Hartley, as hooker and finish the match. Jones gave the job of starting scrum half to Danny Care against Italy; he had been the finisher in the previous two matches. But when he made the swap, Jones spelt it out: “Ben [Youngs] will then come on and finish the game.”

The modern rugby game-plan takes in the finishers right, as it were, from the start. The other five nations make equally lavish use of their replacements. But Jones has gone out of his way to make it clear that the finishers matter as much – if not more – than the starters. You’re not on the bench because you’re second-rate; you’re there to finish the game.  

In baseball, it’s a standard tactic for one player to pitch the first seven or eight innings – but the last one or two are pitched by a closer. A closer is no second-rater: he’s a specialist. Typically he’ll come on when his team has a narrow lead in order to keep that lead safe.

In limited-overs cricket, some players specialise in bowling right at the end of the innings. They’re called “death-bowlers” because they bowl “at the death”. Lasith Malinga of Sri Lanka is the finest the game has ever seen.

The term “finishers” is clearly gaining traction. England’s matches against France, Wales and Italy were all close until the finishers took the field. So as you watch the final Six Nations matches, look out for the players with numbers 16 to 23 on their backs. They’ll probably be the difference between victory and defeat.

Six Nations remaining fixtures…

SCOTLAND v ITALY Saturday 12.10pm (k/o 12.30pm) BBC1, 12.30pm 5 Live Sp Ex

FRANCE v WALES Saturday 2.25pm (k/o 2.45pm) BBC1, 5 Live Sports Extra

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IRELAND v ENGLAND Saturday 4pm (k/o 5pm) ITV, 5pm 5 Live