Former Leinster and Scotland coach Matt Williams has called on World Rugby to step in and ensure the integrity of the game isn’t compromised by teams stacking benches with forwards.
The Australian’s comments came after Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber shocked the world last week when he named seven forwards on his eight-man interchange bench for last Friday’s 35-7 demolition of the All Blacks at Twickenham.
After a late niggle forced fullback Willie le Roux to miss the Test, Nienaber brought loose-forward Kwagga Smith onto the bench.
It meant the world champions included seven forwards instead of six, with halfback Cobus Reinach the sole back included.
Nienaber, who won the World Cup under Rassier Erasmus in 2019, said the fact his non-23 matchday squad had enjoyed different programs ahead of the World Cup meant he didn’t want to rush in a back to compromise their health and plans moving forward.
While Nienaber acknowledged it was a risk going into a match with only one back, nor did he dismiss the possibility of using the tactic again.
“The least risk for a bench is a 5-3 split to cover the most positions. 7-1 is a big risk, and we were fortunate tonight we did not get any backline injuries,” Nienaber said.
“It is something that we train for, with certain forwards to fulfil some roles in backline play. We have to plan for those scenarios with all the yellow cards that go around these days.”
The 2019 World Cup became synonymous with Erasmus’ use of his Springboks bench, with the world champions using to great effect their “bomb squad” of forwards.
Scenes of Nienaber deploying several players at once early in the second half during Friday’s thumping win over the All Blacks, which was set up by their 14-0 lead at half-time, once again raised eyebrows of not just the Springboks’ extraordinary depth but the trajectory of rugby, too.
The unusual configuration of the bench came three months after Wallabies coach Eddie Jones quipped on The Roar rugby podcast that he might have seven forwards on a bench.
Since then, Jones has twice gone into matches with six forwards on his bench.
Not that it’s always worked out for Jones.
Against Argentina in July that decision came back to haunt the Wallabies, with no specialist centre able to cover the injury absence of Len Ikitau.
Similarly, Jones’ decision to go in without a centre replacement somewhat was exposed when Lalakai Foketi was forced from the field to go undergo a Head Injury Assessment. It meant fly-half Carter Gordon had to shift to inside centre.
Williams, who coached the Waratahs and Leinster as well as Scotland, hit out at Nienaber’s decision to include seven forwards and said it should raise concerns within the World Rugby corridors in Dublin.
The Australian’s premise was that replacing virtually the entire pack compromised not only the integrity of the game but also contradicted why World Rugby initially increased the amount of reserves too.
“It does concern you, especially when you look at the way the South Africans are abusing the bench at the moment,” Williams told the Off the Ball’s Monday Night Rugby program.
“The bench came in for safety reasons, so that people didn’t come on in positions they weren’t trained for so we didn’t have injuries; we weren’t putting back-rowers in the front-row, everything was done for a reason.
“They had seven off the bench. Seven forwards, really, seriously? World Rugby’s got to act on this.
“The way you fix it, you must have three recognised backs on the bench. But right now, South Africa just change the whole team, the whole pack, and if they do that and we’re [Ireland] not up to scratch, we’ve got some players, they’ll be found out.
“South Africa’s tactics are obvious now what they’re going to do, and we have to be ready for it.”
Jones has previously called on World Rugby to reduce the number of players on the bench, saying fatigue was not only a positive for the overall spectacle but meant players, who played the entire match, were less likely to be left in compromising positions against fresh players as a result of less numbers on the bench.
“I’d only have six reserves and I reckon that’d make a hell of a difference,” he said, listing cover for all three front-row positions, another forward for the back five, and two for the backline.
“That would introduce some fatigue into the game.”
Williams added that the Springboks, who are one of this year’s World Cup favourites, were running the gauntlet if they didn’t include more cover in the backs.
“In 1999 when the Wallabies won the World Cup I was coaching the Waratahs,” Williams said.
“[Australia] had one tight-head prop, who did the whole tournament. We were one injury away from disaster.
“To win you’ve got to have luck going your way too. South Africa are walking a tightrope, if they get an injury in the backline, it could come back to get them.”