Lions legends call on World Rugby to scrap substitutes

A group of former British & Irish Lions legends have made a plea to World Rugby to only allow substitutes to be made in case of injury in order to make the game safer.

According to The Telegraph, signatories include Lions legends Sir Ian McGeechan, Willie John McBride, Sir Gareth Edwards, Barry John, and John Taylor, who insist it would be “grossly negligent” to allow the status quo of eight replacements to remain in place.

The letter is addressed to World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, and reads as follows:

“In our opinion, professional rugby union has become unnecessarily dangerous.

“For fear of losing their livelihood, current players dare not speak out, but those liberated by recent retirement clearly agree. Dylan Hartley, the former England captain, described his generation as ‘crash dummies’. His Wales and Lions counterpart Sam Warburton, fears that “if something is not done soon, a professional player will die during a game in front of TV cameras”.

“It would be grossly negligent to allow the status quo to continue. Fifty years ago on this day four of our signatories were part of a Lions team that clinched their only ever series victory over New Zealand and three years later three of them were members of the first Lions to defeat South Africa in the modern era.

“We all admire modern players who are fitter, bigger and stronger than we were, but the risks they are expected to take are, in our opinion, unacceptably high. Rugby Union was conceived as a 15-a-side game for 30 players. With the current eight substitutes per side, many of whom are tactical ‘impact players’ or ‘finishers’, this can and often does stretch to 46.

“More than half a team can be changed and some players are not expected to last 80 minutes so train accordingly, prioritizing power over aerobic capacity. This shapes the entire game leading to more collisions and in the latter stages numerous fresh ‘giants’ crashing into tiring opponents.

“The simple change we advocate is to allow eight subs on the bench if you must but limit the number that can be used to four and then only in the case of injury. This will make the game safer, a view supported by leading players and eminent members of the medical profession.

“We know that World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont agrees with us. In January 2020, he expressed his concern that ‘rugby had become a game for big people’ and backed a trial law whereby players could only be replaced if injured. Sadly, more than 18 months later World Rugby has done nothing – yet again it stands accused of all words and no action.

“So, no more empty words, we call upon Sir Bill to act now in the profound hope that Sam Warburton’s words do not become prophetic.”

Signed – Ross Reyburn, author of Saving Rugby Union – The price of professionalism, Professor John Fairclough, consultant surgeon and former chairman of the Welsh RFU medical committee, Sir Ian McGeechan, former Scotland centre and British & Irish Lions player and coach, Willie John McBride, CBE, MBE, former Ireland and Lions captain, Sir Gareth Edwards, former Wales and Lions scrum-half, Barry John, former Wales and Lions fly-half, John Taylor, former Wales and Lions flanker and Dan Hearn, former England centre.

McGeechan stressed that the group were not seeking to disadvantage teams, but were simply pushing for a “change of approach – not personnel”.

“It would mean that your best players are on the field for longer. It would not weaken a team – they would still have good players on the bench if there are injuries – and you can still manage a game over 80 minutes as well as 60 minutes with that approach.

“It is about trying to manage a game with players that are far stronger and fitter, to have an outcome that reflects fitness levels and intensity over 80 minutes rather than 60 or 20 minutes.

“South Africa can continue to outscrum the Lions, but it also means the Lions cannot change their players, either. So, if South Africa get an advantage in scrummaging, lineout and mauling, it stays with them, because their opponents cannot change tack.

“This would help smaller nations, too. If rugby genuinely became a 23-man game, then it does put certain countries on the back foot, just because of depth.”

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Craig Lewis