Substitutions In Rugby (Explained For Beginners)

Substitutions weren’t part of the sport of Rugby Union in the early days of the sport. The laws around substitutions have changed several times.

This article looks at when and what kind of substitutions are allowed. We also take a close look at an infamous substitution that brought massive bans and fines to the club that purchased fake blood capsules from a joke shop.

How Many Substitutions Are Allowed In Rugby Union?

A maximum of eight substitutions is allowed across rugby union matches at all levels. International and professional teams will usually name eight substitutes on their bench to take full advantage of the rules. Domestic competitions can mandate lower numbers of subs.

The number of allowed substitutions has risen over the years. This is partly due to the recognition that the front row position is highly specialized, and a lack of experience can result in head and neck injuries.

Rules about the front row

Professional teams can no longer throw a flanker into the front row to replace an injured prop (much to the delight of the opposition). They must be able to replace both props and hooker with a substitute who is registered to play in that position.

That usually means having an entire front row replacement on the bench. There are a handful of international-level players who can prop on both sides of the scrum i.e. loose-head and tight head. Coaches sometimes take advantage of the versatility, as it opens up a position on the bench for a substitute beyond the front row.

Andrew Porter of Ireland is one of the select few. He played loosehead prop as a schoolboy but moved over to tighthead as a professional player.

When Can Substitutions Be Made In Rugby?

When a player is injured during play, the game usually continues even if they are being treated by a physio or medical staff. The only reason referees will stop the game is if a head injury is involved or if the injured player and attending staff are “in the way”.

Substitutions can only be made in rugby when the ball has gone dead and the play has stopped. The touchline officials record the substitution and mark it as either permanent or temporary due to a blood injury. Substitutes can only take to the pitch when the referee waves them on.

Substitutions can be made right up to the last play of the match. You may see a coach ordering a substitution with seconds to go when they have a slim lead. This can be an attempt to disrupt the rhythm of the opposition.

Sometimes a young and inexperienced player is thrown on for the final few minutes to get a feel for a big crowd. It’s fair to say that grizzled old-timers are rarely overjoyed to be pushed on in the dying seconds of a wet and windy day!

Are Rolling Subs Allowed In Rugby?

Substituted players usually cannot return to the pitch in Rugby Union, except in limited circumstances. However, underage matches and social competitions may allow rolling substitutions.

When Were Substitutes Introduced In Rugby?

Substitutions weren’t part of the original rules in Rugby Union. We know that they were occurring in the Southern Hemisphere in the sixties, but this wasn’t officially sanctioned by the international authorities.

The first sanctioned substitution for an injured player occurred during a British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1968. It involved two icons of the game: Welsh wizard Barry John and Irish legend Mike Gibson. Both were considered two of the best fly halves in the sport at the time.

Barry John started the first test but broke his collar bone just fifteen minutes into the game. That was the end of his tour. Mike Gibson came on to replace him.

During the Five Nations tournament the following year, the Scottish scrum half took a bad injury to his ankle. His substitution was the first occurrence in an international match in Europe.

At this point, only substitutions for injury were allowed. Tactical replacements, as in soccer, were not part of rugby. However, it was clear that coaches were encouraging players to feign injury to allow a tactical substitution.

So, the rugby authorities gave in to the inevitable. In 1996, they sanctioned three tactical substitutions per match.

Temporary And Permanent Substitutions

There are two types of substitutions in Rugby Union: temporary and permanent.

Temporary replacements

Temporary substitutions can occur for blood injuries or suspected concussions.

Players who are bleeding are not allowed to take part in play. Unless the backroom team can patch them up quickly on the field, the referee will order a blood substitution. The physio and medical staff have fifteen minutes to stop the blood from flowing and let the patched-up player return to the field of play.

Once fifteen minutes have passed, the substitution becomes permanent and the player cannot return.

The rules governing suspected concussions are similar. Players must leave the field to undergo an assessment by medical staff. If they can’t pass the cognitive tests, then the substitution becomes permanent.

Permanent substitutions

If blood or concussion isn’t involved, then the substitution is considered permanent. In normal circumstances, the substituted player cannot return to the field.

However, there are exceptions for front-row players. It’s common practice now for props and hookers to be substituted after fifty or sixty minutes for tactical reasons. Their replacements are expected to play out the rest of the match.

If a replacement front row is injured, then the starting front row will come back on as a replacement. I’ve often seen a rather glum look on the face of the starting prop in this situation. They’re sitting on the bench, happily thinking of a juicy burger or two. Having to haul themselves back onto the pitch is like getting a green salad instead!

You may be wondering what happens if the starting prop comes on and gets injured? The answer is uncontested scrums. But that’s another story.

Bloodgate: The Most Controversial Substitution Of All Time

I mentioned that during the period when only injury substitutions were allowed, coaches engaged in skullduggery by making their players feign injuries. Tactical injuries were brought into the sport in 1996 to eliminate this form of cheating.

The thing about basic injuries is that they are easy to fake. Just hobble around a bit with a convincing wince, and the opposition team’s doctor (if there is one) can hardly prove there’s nothing wrong.

But faking a blood injury is a different matter. It’s a bit unreasonable for a coach to ask a player to bite through his tongue. A decent club would provide a handy blood capsule to the patsy…err…I mean player.

And that’s exactly what renowned English club Harlequins did back in 2009. In none other than a quarter-final in the elite European competition, known then as the Heineken Cup.

Why? To get a substituted player back onto the pitch.

Harlequins vs Leinster, Heinken Cup Quarter Final 2009

In 2009, Irish province Leinster traveled to the Harlequins home ground for the quarter-final of the European Championship.

The match was a tight affair, with the score at 5-6 with five minutes to go. Harlequins had scored an unconverted try, while Leinster had kicked two penalties to take the narrowest of leads.

Harlequins would have prayed for a late penalty, but you can tell from the scoreline that the Leinster defense was not coughing up infringements. The best chance for Quins was a drop goal.

But Quins had a massive problem. Their starting fly half, Nick Evans, was carrying an injury when he started the game. I was watching the match on television and assumed that the replacement fly half came on as an injury substitution. I mean, I watched Evans grimace with discomfort as he hobbled off the pitch.

The start of the skullduggery

But that was the start of the skullduggery. Remember, I’ve already mentioned that an injured player cannot return to the field. It just so happens that the Harlequins backroom team told the touchline officials that the injury was “tactical”.

That must have been a get-out-of-jail card that the Harlequins coaches hoped they wouldn’t have to use. Unfortunately, and this was really bad luck, their replacement fly half came on and pulled his hamstring.

With five minutes to go, Quins needed a drop-goal but had no specialist kicker on the pitch. But the only way that they could get their fly half, Nick Evans, back onto the field was through a blood substitution.

“How can he come back on?”

The ball went dead with five minutes to go, and a Harlequins winger suddenly became “injured”. The physio ran on to attend the home player.

Meanwhile, substituted fly half Nick Evans was standing at the side of the pitch, tracksuit off and ready to come back onto the field. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. As a specialist kicker, he could save the say for Quins.

The television commentators were as confused as everybody else. Commentator Stuart Barnes had been an international fly half himself. “How can he come back on?” he wondered aloud.

The referee was Nigel Owens, one of the best in the game. Owens went over to check with his touchline officials. They confirmed that the Evans substitution had been marked as tactical, not an injury. Owens had no choice but to allow him to come back onto the field for a blood injury.

The blood, the blood

At this point, the whole affair descended into a very public farce. This was a conspiracy wearing clown shoes and driving a clown car.

The Harlequins physio had purchased blood capsules from a local joke shop. Under instructions from the coach, he handed a capsule to the winger during a break in play.

The winger took his opportunity to pop the capsule into his mouth and bite down hard. Perhaps a little too hard. His mouth filled with the deep red liquid. The cameras caught him spluttering it onto his chin.

As he walked off the pitch, the “blood” looked a little too red for real life. Even worse, the winger gave a wink to his teammates on the bench. No, I’m not kidding. Watch the video, I’ve slowed it right down to highlight all its stupid glory.

When farce stops being funny

What happened off the field became far more serious.

The Leinster backroom staff recognized the blood was fake, as indeed did the tournament officials. Players being treated for a blood injury go straight down the tunnel to their team’s physio room.

Leinster staff followed the player down to the physio room, demanding to see the “cut”. Apparently, some tournament officials accompanied them, just as incensed. Some accounts have a posse banging on the door, with the Quins staff keeping them out. This tale has probably grown a little taller with time.

Unfortunately, the winger panicked. He begged the Harlequins team doctor to cut his lip. She refused at first. But worried that he would try to make a cut himself, she made an incision. This would be ruinous to her career.

The fallout

It’s just as well for the tournament and the sport that Leinster won the match by a single point. They would go on to win the cup itself. Their winning run (their first European championship) was accompanied by the increasingly startling revelations from an inquiry into Harlequin’s conduct.

This was the eventual fallout from Bloodgate:

The winger was banned for a year, but the term was reduced to four months. This may seem light, but he’s the guy who spilled the beans to the inquiry.

The physio who handed over the blood capsules lost his license to practice. He appealed successfully but lost two years through pursuing his case.

  • Club coach (Director of Rugby) was given a three-year ban from the sport.
  • The chairman (and co-owner) resigned his position.
  • The club itself was fined the hefty sum of 260 thousand pounds.

Who suffered the consequences the most? Probably the club doctor, who was a distinguished Accident & Emergency consultant. Applying a cut to the player was a complete lack of judgment, but was hardly likely to be relevant to her medical career.

However, she had to appear at a separate inquiry conducted by the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom (the GMC). The worst outcome could have been to be struck off as a doctor. There was also a great deal of publicity surrounding her case.

In a touch of class that was typical of the man, Leinster’s team doctor gave evidence on her behalf. The late Professor Tanner spoke strongly about the reputational damage incurred. Eventually, the Quins doctor was given a warning for her conduct.