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The replacements debate - are England evolving?
Holding on for the vital RBS 6 Nations victory against Ireland suggests Stuart Lancaster’s young England team are learning fast.
That titanic Twickenham tussle helps ease, though not entirely erase, the memories of slipping to defeats from winning positions against New Zealand and France. It also suggests former teacher Lancaster, just like his charges, is broadening his international education.
The topic of replacements exercised the English rugby fraternity after France’s late, late show in the 26-24 win over Les Rosbifs on the opening weekend of this year’s Championship.
It was the second successive match that Chris Robshaw’s men had staged a comeback, eked out a lead and then stalled in their progress when Lancaster asked his bench to leap into action.
And no lesser light than World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward suggested the raft of England changes around the hour mark was responsible for their Parisian pain.
The issue that got most people hot under the collar against France was the changes stalled England’s momentum having overhauled that early deficit with 18-unanswered points.
Five substitutions were made in eight minutes, with scrum-half Danny Care’s removal causing fierce debate on social media.
“Yes Ben Morgan and Tom Youngs had an impact, but when you make changes you can lose your leadership, attacking structure, defensive organisation and composure. Changes should be made for fatigue, injury or tactics,” reasoned Sir Clive.
Lancaster highlighted the ball in play time of 46 minutes – more than 10 minutes greater than the 2011 World Cup average – as being a cause of cramping that affected Owen Farrell, Jack Nowell and Tom Wood and influenced his calls.
But he insisted his methods are not pre-planned or based on the data provided by the GPS monitors sewn into the shirt of each player.
“The replacements were not the reason we lost the game,” said Lancaster. “The biggest reason was the start. We used all our energy to get back and ran out of juice.
“I will make the substitutions the way I have always done – based on my coach’s intuition, the way I see the game unfolding.”
The game unfolded very differently at Twickenham against Ireland when, for only the second time in his tenure, Lancaster did not change either of his half-backs.
In 2013 the scrum-half was being hooked, on average, just around the hour mark as Care was in France but since then the Harlequins number nine has played for 73 minutes in Scotland and the full 80 against Ireland.
As well as Care, another lynchpin of the side in hooker Dylan Hartley has seen his on-pitch time also increase, up 14 minutes from game one of the Championship to game three.
The statistics also show that in the last year England are at their most effective in the third quarter of games, just before that golden hour mark when changes have been made before.
Disturbingly, they also highlight how England are at their least effective in the final 20 minutes.
Against France maybe, but not against Ireland. It looks like Lancaster and his team are learning on the job and evolving into a more efficient, effective England side.
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