We need to talk about the 6-2 split

We need to talk about the 6-2 split

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Last Saturday provided two of the most compelling contests in recent Six Nations history. First Italy stunned Scotland in Rome before a dazzling English performance upset the grand slam-chasing Irish. But more than leave tongues wagging and punters yearning for more, those two results reinvigorated a narrative that has been churning since the 2019 World Cup.

It revolves around the use of six forwards and two backs on the bench, a tactic employed by both the Scots and Irish as they were defeated by teams adopting the more traditional five-three split. Many heralded this as a victory for rugby’s soul. Matt Williams felt that Ireland had got their just desserts with the BBC’s Chris Jones offering an interesting perspective on the Rugby Union Daily podcast:

“It was kind of reassuring to see the six-two not work,” Jones said. “I think the six-two, and obviously even worse the seven-one, puts too much premium on power for me. If we’re trying to recalibrate the game just that tiny bit more towards evasion than collision, which I think most people agree that the game needs to find that perfect balance between an evasion and collision game, to actually see a six-two unravel might just give food for thought.”

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Andy Farrell’s podcast-listening habits remain a mystery, but, for what it’s worth, he has named five forwards and three backs on the bench for the final championship match against Scotland.

There are several points that need addressing. The first involves the belief that stacking the bench with “huge mutants”, as the former Welsh back-rower Alix Popham described South Africa’s meaty forwards last year, is somehow anathema to the spirit of the game; that this perfectly legal strategy is akin to stepping into a boxing ring with loaded gloves.

But this misses a fundamental principle of rugby which proudly places an emphasis on collisions. Even relatively smaller players like Cheslin Kolbe or Antoine Dupont have to pack enough punch in contact to thrive at the elite level. The game has always been about strength, grunt and ballast.

Farrell <a href=
England Six Nations verdict” width=”1920″ height=”1080″ /> Ireland head coach Andy Farrell (Photo by Justin Setterfield/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Evasion is of course a major component that can’t be entirely jettisoned. And who doesn’t love seeing a speedy winger find a lost front-rower in the line for a mismatch? But to imply that a helter-skelter game is inherently more enthralling than one filled with blockbuster hits is disingenuous. Not convinced? Take a look at the two benches in the World Cup quarter-final last year between France and South Africa. In what was arguably the greatest match ever played in the sport’s grand history, both sides opted for the six-two split.

That is not to discount what Jones and other six-two sceptics might regard as a tilt too far. After all, rugby matches are often at their most exciting when forwards fatigue and gaps open up, which is partly why the use of substitutes has caused controversy since the idea was first floated.

In 1924 the New Zealand board proposed a notion that would allow “injured players [to] be replaced with the consent of the opposing captain.” This was turned down. So too were calls for reform to the rules in 1926, 1932 and 1933.

It was only in 1946, when Australia toured New Zealand, that substitutes began to play an active role. But they were still almost exclusively used as injury replacements and were not welcome everywhere the oval ball was kicked.

Six Nations

P

W

L

D

PF

PA

PD

BP T

BP-7

BP

Total

1

0

0

0

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

3

0

0

0

0

0

4

0

0

0

0

0

5

0

0

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6

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This changed in 1968 when Australia put forward a motion to change substitute laws that would permit two replacements per match and only after a medical practitioner had declared the starting player unfit to continue.

By 1972 replacements were present in all international matches. In 1990 the number of permitted substitutes was increased to three. It became four in 1992 and quickly jumped to six with a seventh added to ensure an entire cohort of specialist front-rowers would be available. As of 2009, coaches have had the option of replacing their entire pack if they so wish with eight players available from the bench.

But focussing on the benefits ignores the great degree of risk involved. As Ireland found out the hard way against England, selecting a paltry two backs can backfire. After winger Calvin Nash left the field and failed to return following a failed Head Injury Assessment after just five minutes, and then utility back Ciaran Frawley was himself injured later in the piece, the worst fears of a six-two devotee were realised.

At various points Farrell had his star full-back, Hugo Keenan, and his leading scrum-half, Jamison Gibson-Park, covering at wing. Though they both performed more than competently – with Gibson-park setting up a try – it meant the usually efficient Irish machine wasn’t quite operating at full capacity.

Which is why so many critics of the six-two derided Farrell for his folly. It was what he deserved, so they argued, for his hubris. But all selections carry a degree of danger. Every coach worth their salt is a gambler. Why should this precarious strategy be seen as something glib where other cavalier decisions are celebrated? Would a coach receive similar attacks if they split their bench evenly with four backs and four forwards in search of a running game?

And besides, the six-two and seven-one are not merely uncouth methods that see uncreative coaches chuck slabs of meat into a grinder. Because of the risk they carry there is an emphasis on selecting multi-talented players who can perform numerous roles across the pitch.

South Africa proved this throughout their victorious World Cup runs in 2019 and 2023. In Japan five years ago, Frans Steyn, a player who could have won 100 Test caps at fly-half, in the midfield or at full-back allowed the Springboks coaches to develop their ‘Bomb Squad’ tactic – the now familiar strategy which sees a flood of fresh forwards maintain momentum around the hour mark.

Last year in France, where the seven-one was utilised in the final, the versatile Kwagga Smith – a loose forward with enough speed to have represented South Africa’s sevens side over 150 times – provided not only depth but a point of difference at the breakdown.

It is not enough to deploy an extra heavyweight from the bench. They have to provide guile and spark. Likewise the replacement backs – such as South Africa’s Damian Willemse, for example – must be adept across a string of positions.

So rather than chastise a new theory on how to win rugby matches, let us celebrate this daring approach for the bravery and skill that’s required to pull it off successfully. If nothing else, like Jones has suggested, it has given all coaches on both sides of the aisle food for thought.

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