In this modern age of impact substitutions and having to have front row cover on the bench, there probably isn’t the same status (or lack of it) attached to being a replacement as there was in my day (blimey, how much of an old fart does that make me sound?).
Being on the bench usually meant that not only that you weren’t considered quite good enough to be in the 1st XV, but also that the 2nd XV had also decided that they could manage without your services that particular week. It was also usual to name 1 forward (always a backrower as there were always plenty of us to go round) and 1 back (usually a centre for the same reasons). Consequently, in my younger days, I occasionally had to do my duty and serve time on the bench.
So, the ego having been well and truly mangled when the team sheet arrived in the post on a Thursday morning (yes, there was a time before emails and text messaging), it was essential to devise a strategy to make sure that, when the selection committee met the following week, you were not cast off into the barren wastelands otherwise known as the 3rd XV.
What follows therefore is a survival guide to being a replacement which, with a little tweak here and there, can be equally applicable today:
- Before the match, go through the motions of warming up and do it alone. You can still look keen without getting in the way and there’s no point in tiring yourself out or getting all psyched up when the best you can hope for is a stint running touch.
- Knowing the line-out calls (or the backs moves as applicable) is also irrelevant at this stage – you can always ask if and when you do get on. Obviously this might not apply these days if you’re a planned tactical substitution, but it may still do so if your hooker can’t hit a barn door with a banjo anyway.
- Don’t, under any circumstances, volunteer to run touch. Let the other replacement do it. If it’s bitterly cold then there might be a case for doing the job just to prevent hypothermia setting in but not otherwise. If it’s raining get under an umbrella and make the other guy do it.
- Grab the oranges at half time and run on with them, looking really enthusiastic. At this stage it’s all about appearances, so plenty of vocal encouragement – make them believe you’re a team player.
- Try and avoid having to go on until there are, at most, 20 minutes to go. Any longer and you’ll have some serious work to do. If someone goes down injured before this deadline, make all the right noises about how well he's playing and how he’d be letting the team down if he came off.
- With about 20 minutes to go start dropping hints to the coach about how the team might use some fresh legs. If you’ve managed to persuade some poor sod to stay on the field for the last hour or so, despite him being crocked early on, you can now start muttering about how he’s struggling to keep up and is letting the team down.
- If and when you do get on it’s important to make an immediate impact, causing the watching selectors to wonder why you weren’t picked as first choice. So, lots of vocal encouragement and a couple of big tackles will help, but easily the best way is to poach a try with your first touch. Luckily this happened to me the first time I was replacement for Peterborough 1st XV as an 18 year old. I came on with, you guessed it, just under 20 minutes to go and managed to lurk around the edge of a maul for a minute or so before our veteran number 8 broke to the blindside and popped a pass to me. I had about fifteen metres to run but the fullback was out of position and I made it over the line just as he tackled me. It was my debut and it cost me a jug but it was well worth it.
- After the game be very modest about how brilliantly you played for those last 20 minutes, about how the groundwork had already been laid by the rest of the team, about how well the player you replaced had played until you went on. Modestly repeat this several times during the evening, especially within earshot of anyone on the selection committee.