Are Open Substituions Killing Club Rugby?

Eddie DzurillaCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2009

BATH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Edinburgh centre Nick De Luca looks on dejectedly on the final whistle of the Heineken Cup Pool 5 match between Bath and Edinburgh at the Recreation Ground on December 13, 2009 in Cardiff, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Stu Forster/Getty Images

After a proud history of amateur competition spanning over a century , Rugby Union bit the bullet in the mid 90’s and, as we all know, decided to embrace professionalism.

Along with this came rule changes which were designed to speed up the game, mainly in an effort to make it more “watchable” and “exciting” for television viewers.  And like most things designed to make life easier for those who are already committed to sitting on their duff, we’ve had some unfortunate negative repercussions.

Since the mid 90’s, the number of participants in men’s club rugby has been down in almost all nations.  This downward trend was interrupted for a few years in England and Australia after they won their respective World Cups, but resumed thereafter (this “WC effect” seems to have a lifespan of about four years).

So the question is, why?  While the clubs are certainly not going to go away in their entirety, both empirical and anecdotal evidence indicates a wide spread flagging of overall participation.  The various RFU’s have attempted to mask this drop-off by pointing to increases in youth and women’s programs (which indeed have been robust in many countries).  But the old dinosaurs of the unions, the venerable men’s clubs, have seen a marked decline in both number of participants and number of sides fielded.

I believe one of the main reasons is the open substitution rule.   The net result of this rule has been fewer sides and fewer playing minutes for a large amount of players.

As an example,  a typical weekend fixture before the open sub rule.  45 players, and an A, B, and C game.  Simple.  45 people getting 90 minutes of rugby each (perhaps 70 or 60 minutes for the C match if the captains agreed).  But, in general, everyone gets a full game of rugby in.

Now?   With open substitutions, 44 players would fill out 2 sides.  16 (8 for the A and 8 for the B) would get a full 80 minutes of rugby in.  The other 28?  Most would get only 40 minutes, or half a game.  Additionally, the elimination of the C game reduces the opportunities for those less skilled, new to the game, or changing positions to have an chance to play.  So they quit, many times to the detriment of the club as a whole (it takes more than excellent players to make a club; it takes a brotherhood, and many times those C players create the character of a club).

The open substitution rule has also made it less of a player’s game , and more of a coach’s game.  In the past, a coach would retire and watch the game from the stands; he wasn’t making decisions on the pitch.  Now the coach is manipulating the actual game, which I believe is to the detriment and spirit of the game, especially at the club level.

Be careful what you ask for.   Rule changes were instigated to appease the TV Gods, with an eye towards the tons of money that is given to sports leagues in the U.S., such as the NFL and Major League Baseball. 

However, it is also a fact that in the states those sports have been entirely taken away from the players.   Opportunities for play after the schoolboy level, especially for football, are extremely limited.  Do we really want to follow that model for Rugby Union?

It is my sincere belief that the encroachment of professionalism has, in both subtle and non subtle ways including the aforementioned, started to chip away at the essence and specialness that Rugby Union once represented as not just an athletic endeavor but as a way of life and fraternity of like minded bothers.

It is my belief that the reduction of the numbers of clubs, reduction in clubs who tour ( especially overseas0 and even smaller items like the paucity of song singing in post match celebrations is linked to this change, and I lament such greatly. 

I’m curious as the overall rugby communities’ thoughts on this, and would like to encourage posters to chip in with their two cents on this subject. Thanks.