McGeechan fears lives could be lost unless rugby cuts substitution numbers substitution numbers

London (AFP) –


Four-time British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan is among a number of rugby greats who have warned that lives could be lost unless the sport reduces the number of substitutions allowed in a game.

In an open letter to global governing body World Rugby, McGeechan and fellow 15-a-side 1970s stars Willie John McBride, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and John Taylor cite former Lions skipper Sam Warburton's words in 2019 that someone "will die during a game in front of TV cameras" if nothing is done.

At present, teams can replace eight players per match for either injury or tactical reasons.

But the quintet's letter -- also signed by consultant surgeon Professor John Fairclough -- has called on World Rugby to change the sport's laws so substitutions are for injuries only, a move that would outlaw the use of tactical replacements which unleash fresh players into a game against tired opponents.

They believe four injury substitutions per match would be sufficient.

"It would be grossly negligent to allow the status quo to continue," their letter said.

"Rugby Union was conceived as a 15-a-side game for 30 players.

"With the current eight substitutes per side, many of whom are tactical 'impact players' or 'finishers', this can and often does stretch to 46."

They added: "This shapes the entire game, leading to more collisions and in the latter stages, numerous fresh 'giants' crashing into tiring opponents.

"The simple change we advocate is to allow eight subs on the bench if you must, but limit the number that can be used to four and then only in the case of injury.

"This will make the game safer, a view supported by leading players and eminent members of the medical profession."

Substitutions for injuries were first introduced in 1968. Tactical replacements became a feature in 1996, not long after the sport turned professional, although these were limited to three initially.

- 'No more empty words' -

Meanwhile, the authors lamented that a call by World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont, himself a former England and Lions captain for a trial law allowing only injured players to be substituted had not been enacted.

"In January 2020, he expressed his concern that 'rugby had become a game for big people' and backed a trial law whereby players could only be replaced if injured," they wrote.

"Sadly, more than 18 months later World Rugby has done nothing...So, no more empty words, we call upon Sir Bill to act now in the profound hope that Sam Warburton's words do not become prophetic."

Player welfare and particularly the consequences of head injuries, have become major topics of concern in rugby, as in a number of sports.

Several former rugby players, including England's 2003 World Cup winning hooker Steve Thompson -- are taking legal action against World Rugby, England's Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union for brain damage they claim they suffered during their careers.