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We need to talk about the 6-2 split

By Daniel Gallan
Peter O'Mahony of Ireland and Jamie George of England wait in the tunnel ahead of the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium on March 09, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Last Saturday provided two of the most compelling contests in recent Six Nations history. First Italy stunned Scotland in Rome before a dazzling English performance upset the grand slam-chasing Irish. But more than leave tongues wagging and punters yearning for more, those two results reinvigorated a narrative that has been churning since the 2019 World Cup.

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It revolves around the use of six forwards and two backs on the bench, a tactic employed by both the Scots and Irish as they were defeated by teams adopting the more traditional five-three split. Many heralded this as a victory for rugby’s soul. Matt Williams felt that Ireland had got their just desserts with the BBC’s Chris Jones offering an interesting perspective on the Rugby Union Daily podcast:

“It was kind of reassuring to see the six-two not work,” Jones said. “I think the six-two, and obviously even worse the seven-one, puts too much premium on power for me. If we’re trying to recalibrate the game just that tiny bit more towards evasion than collision, which I think most people agree that the game needs to find that perfect balance between an evasion and collision game, to actually see a six-two unravel might just give food for thought.”

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Andy Farrell’s podcast-listening habits remain a mystery, but, for what it’s worth, he has named five forwards and three backs on the bench for the final championship match against Scotland.

There are several points that need addressing. The first involves the belief that stacking the bench with “huge mutants”, as the former Welsh back-rower Alix Popham described South Africa’s meaty forwards last year, is somehow anathema to the spirit of the game; that this perfectly legal strategy is akin to stepping into a boxing ring with loaded gloves.

But this misses a fundamental principle of rugby which proudly places an emphasis on collisions. Even relatively smaller players like Cheslin Kolbe or Antoine Dupont have to pack enough punch in contact to thrive at the elite level. The game has always been about strength, grunt and ballast.

Farrell <a href=
England Six Nations verdict” width=”1920″ height=”1080″ /> Ireland head coach Andy Farrell (Photo by Justin Setterfield/World Rugby via Getty Images)
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Evasion is of course a major component that can’t be entirely jettisoned. And who doesn’t love seeing a speedy winger find a lost front-rower in the line for a mismatch? But to imply that a helter-skelter game is inherently more enthralling than one filled with blockbuster hits is disingenuous. Not convinced? Take a look at the two benches in the World Cup quarter-final last year between France and South Africa. In what was arguably the greatest match ever played in the sport’s grand history, both sides opted for the six-two split.

That is not to discount what Jones and other six-two sceptics might regard as a tilt too far. After all, rugby matches are often at their most exciting when forwards fatigue and gaps open up, which is partly why the use of substitutes has caused controversy since the idea was first floated.

In 1924 the New Zealand board proposed a notion that would allow “injured players [to] be replaced with the consent of the opposing captain.” This was turned down. So too were calls for reform to the rules in 1926, 1932 and 1933.

It was only in 1946, when Australia toured New Zealand, that substitutes began to play an active role. But they were still almost exclusively used as injury replacements and were not welcome everywhere the oval ball was kicked.

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Six Nations

P
W
L
D
PF
PA
PD
BP T
BP-7
BP
Total
1
England
0
0
0
0
0
2
France
0
0
0
0
0
3
Ireland
0
0
0
0
0
4
Italy
0
0
0
0
0
5
Scotland
0
0
0
0
0
6
Wales
0
0
0
0
0

This changed in 1968 when Australia put forward a motion to change substitute laws that would permit two replacements per match and only after a medical practitioner had declared the starting player unfit to continue.

By 1972 replacements were present in all international matches. In 1990 the number of permitted substitutes was increased to three. It became four in 1992 and quickly jumped to six with a seventh added to ensure an entire cohort of specialist front-rowers would be available. As of 2009, coaches have had the option of replacing their entire pack if they so wish with eight players available from the bench.

But focussing on the benefits ignores the great degree of risk involved. As Ireland found out the hard way against England, selecting a paltry two backs can backfire. After winger Calvin Nash left the field and failed to return following a failed Head Injury Assessment after just five minutes, and then utility back Ciaran Frawley was himself injured later in the piece, the worst fears of a six-two devotee were realised.

At various points Farrell had his star full-back, Hugo Keenan, and his leading scrum-half, Jamison Gibson-Park, covering at wing. Though they both performed more than competently – with Gibson-park setting up a try – it meant the usually efficient Irish machine wasn’t quite operating at full capacity.

Which is why so many critics of the six-two derided Farrell for his folly. It was what he deserved, so they argued, for his hubris. But all selections carry a degree of danger. Every coach worth their salt is a gambler. Why should this precarious strategy be seen as something glib where other cavalier decisions are celebrated? Would a coach receive similar attacks if they split their bench evenly with four backs and four forwards in search of a running game?

And besides, the six-two and seven-one are not merely uncouth methods that see uncreative coaches chuck slabs of meat into a grinder. Because of the risk they carry there is an emphasis on selecting multi-talented players who can perform numerous roles across the pitch.

South Africa proved this throughout their victorious World Cup runs in 2019 and 2023. In Japan five years ago, Frans Steyn, a player who could have won 100 Test caps at fly-half, in the midfield or at full-back allowed the Springboks coaches to develop their ‘Bomb Squad’ tactic – the now familiar strategy which sees a flood of fresh forwards maintain momentum around the hour mark.

Last year in France, where the seven-one was utilised in the final, the versatile Kwagga Smith – a loose forward with enough speed to have represented South Africa’s sevens side over 150 times – provided not only depth but a point of difference at the breakdown.

It is not enough to deploy an extra heavyweight from the bench. They have to provide guile and spark. Likewise the replacement backs – such as South Africa’s Damian Willemse, for example – must be adept across a string of positions.

So rather than chastise a new theory on how to win rugby matches, let us celebrate this daring approach for the bravery and skill that’s required to pull it off successfully. If nothing else, like Jones has suggested, it has given all coaches on both sides of the aisle food for thought.

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Comments

30 Comments
p
paul 130 days ago

Enforce only medic approved subs. And then allow any of your squad to sub on. Who cares if you go through 4 hookers if its genuine injuries. But here’s the clincher. If you sub then opposition then gets 1 free sub. Could be same position or maybe any position they want. Could be same time sub or within X minutes. Keeps it even.
If you bring back players needing 80 minute stamina then you cut back the fielding of bricks. But of course then you just get endless stoppages. Got to tie the shoelace. Need a bandaid for my finger. Contact fell out. Blah blah blah.

L
LiamBerlin 131 days ago

I think it’s a good article and an unusually good-natured chat below. However I don’t agree with Daniel’s premise which seems to me wholly in favour of at least 8 subs. There are plenty of high-quality pro coaches around either creating new ideas and/or synthesising good ideas that they observe elsewhere.
Whether we have 8 subs on none, people like Rassie, Faz and many others fill find great ways to work within the rules and talented and skilful players like we have today will adapt to play in those ways.
The discussion about what type of game we’d like to see is always going to contain lots of different preferences and perspectives. I don’t there can be a way that makes every one happy.
For what it’s worth, my preferences include:
# make less frequent law changes so players, officials and spectators can get used to what is going on; maybe bundle them e.g. mens’ rules change in the 6-12 months after a RWC final and don’t change again unless there is a demonstrable risk to players
# have less subs. Whether or not we need 3 to cover the front-row is something I would leave to medics and related specialists. Beyond them I’d prefer 0-4 and I wouldn’t place any restrictions on how the coaches select and deploy them except those medical ones for the front row

C
Coach 132 days ago

Great article. I was starting to get upset but you came back solidly, like you replaced your pack! Any team can do it and as for flair I am constantly surprised at how some forwards dummy the backline players. A prop dummying a centre keeps me pumped!

S
Shaylen 132 days ago

Well different tactics have different merits and each needs specialised players and talent to pull them off so why the 6-2 is demonised is beyond me. Its a valid tactic and bench strength in this age of big benches is something that is used as a weapon by all teams so why shouldnt teams be able to decide how they want to use that weapon. This endless drove of righteous crusaders who hate the idea of a 6-2 and claim its spoiling the game would rather everyone conforms to the same standard but that would remove interesting narratives and create boring predictable use of the bench. This would create an even less interesting spectacle and would harm the game

R
Rugby 132 days ago

Gets even more cray cray with HIA and Blood bin and temp replacements. Gatland had a whinge about that during RWC on a game that did not involve him.
Temporary replacements - all
A temporary replacement can be temporarily replaced (even if all replacements have been used).
If a temporary replacement is injured, that player may also be replaced.
If a temporary replacement is sent off, the originally replaced player is not permitted to return to the playing area, except to comply with Law 3.19 or 3.20, and only if the player has been medically cleared to do so and does so within the required time of leaving the field of play.
If the temporary replacement is temporarily suspended, the replaced player is not permitted to return to the field of play until after the period of suspension, except to comply with Law 3.19 or 3.20, and only if the player has been medically cleared to do so and does so within the required time of leaving the field of play.
If the time allowed for a temporary replacement elapses during half-time, the replacement shall become permanent unless the replaced player returns to the field of play immediately at the start of the second half.
Tactical replacements joining the match
Tactically replaced players may return to play only when replacing:
An injured front-row player.
A player with a blood injury.
A player with a head injury.
A player who has just been injured as a result of foul play (as verified by the match officials).
The nominated player described in Law 3.19 or 3.20.

R
Rugby 132 days ago

Determined by Squad size

Squad size - 15 or fewer
Minimum number of front row players in the squad - 3

Squad size - 16, 17 or 18
Minimum number of front row players in the squad - 4
Must be able to replace at the first time of asking - Either a prop or a hooker

Squad size - 19, 20, 21 or 22
Minimum number of front row players in the squad - 5
Must be able to replace at the first time of asking - Both a prop and a hooker

Squad size - 23
Minimum number of front row players in the squad - 6
Must be able to replace at the first time of asking - Loose-head prop, tight-head prop and hooker

C
Cameron 132 days ago

I don’t know where people (such as the author) get off calling a 5-3 split “traditional”, rugby didn’t even have replacements until 1968, only had two or less until 1990 (and these were extremely restricted in use), and it wasn’t until the professional era that they went up to three and permitted voluntary substitution. Eight is even more recent, coming only in 2009. At this rate of change, an entire XV will be sitting on the bench by the end of the decade.

Why rugby doesn’t just introduce a cap on the number of substitutions made and reduce the number of replacements back to 5 or less is beyond me, but if the lawmakers continue to prefer this path, they can’t complain that rugby is dominated by kicking and teams are using 6-2 and 7-1 benches, since they have actively incentivised it.

O
Otagoman II 132 days ago

I’m not entirely sure what is meant by this.
“By 1972 replacements were present in all international matches. In 1990 the number of permitted substitutes was increased to three. It became four in 1992 and quickly jumped to six with a seventh added to ensure an entire cohort of specialist front-rowers would be available.”

Is this the idea that the number of permitted replacements during a game was limited regardless of the number of named reserves?

I certainly remember that 6 players were on the reserves list from the first programme I purchased back in 1989.

R
Rugby 132 days ago

WTF

recalibrate the game to find that perfect balance between an evasion and collision game
If you wanna watch evasion then watch football/soccer.
Evasion - who came up with his turd noun? to describe our game?

Besides is it wrong Mr Jones
Evasion is a noun that means the act of avoiding or escaping, especially through trickery, cunning, or illegal means. For example, "He was arrested for tax evasion"

By illegal means like whats his face pop, popham’s weighted gloves slight, illegal.

R
Rugby 132 days ago

Oh pray tell, who is the master ofRugby’s soul ?
the spirit of the game ?

Is it Matt Williams (where is your Honorary doctorate?)
Chris Jones
Alix Popham

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