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The agony and ecstasy

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Which brings us to the mother of all substitution cock-ups, one which won and lost a Super Rugby title in 2007

Springbok captain Siya Kolisi. Pic: Frans Lombard

The controversial subbing of key Springbok players that gifted the recent Test match at Loftus to the All Blacks has been hotly debated by rugby supporters, and it has also resurrected memories of similar matches where coaches got it horribly wrong.

For this scribe, two matches stand out as examples of how coaches unwittingly contrived to donate the game to the opposition, both of them at Kings Park.

Who recalls the turning of the tide when the Boks played the British and Irish Lions in Durban in 2009? It was the first Test, and the Boks accelerated into a 26-7 lead after 50 minutes, having played near perfect rugby and on the back of a mighty scrumming performance.

The Bok coaching staff thought the game was won (does this sound familiar?) and on came a wave of substitutes, which not coincidentally resulted in the Lions hitting back in the scrums and scoring two tries to make it 21-26.

The substitutions had resulted in a surrendering of momentum for the Boks and it had opened the door for the Lions. Bok captain John Smit was one of those who had been substituted (what madness?!) but thankfully he found a way to get back on the field when his replacement, Deon Carstens, went down with an injury and Smit came on to guide his team through a harrowing last 10 minutes to hang on for the win.

It is doubtful that anybody will ever own up to Carstens faking an injury but you have to speculate that it was the case, with the captain recognising that he had to get back on the field to turn the tide.

The Boks did win, but the fact that they ended up hanging on for dear life meant it was something of a Pyrrhic victory because the Lions went to Pretoria for the second Test buoyed by their comeback and confident that they could whip the Boks.

Had Peter de Villiers kept the winning combinations, notably in the front row, on for the full course of the match the Boks would have probably given the Lions a hiding. Instead, the Lions nearly won and they were consequently so full of confidence that the Boks had to produce a miracle comeback of their own to win the series in Pretoria.

Which brings us to the mother of all substitution cock-ups, one which won and lost a Super Rugby title in 2007.

We are talking about the Sharks’ coaching staff seemingly doing everything in their power to give the Bulls the opportunity to fight back and steal the first ever South African Super Rugby title.

To recap the pain for Sharks fans and the ecstasy for Bulls supporters, the Sharks seemingly had the game wrapped up at the three-quarter mark, at which point captain Smit and a host of other key Sharks made their way to the bench …

Why on earth was the captain not left on the field to manage the inevitable drama of the last minutes? Why were key Boks pulled off at Loftus two weeks ago?

Why? Why? Why?

But back to 2007 and 54 000 fans watching the agony and the ecstasy unfold at Kings Park. Despite the Sharks’ substitutions, Albert van den Berg scored a try that should have sealed the match at 19-13 with the conversion to come and only two minutes left.

The problem was kicker Percy Montgomery had been subbed along with his captain, and AJ Venter was left to make sense of the bedlam. There was utter chaos in the Sharks ranks after the try, with nobody sure who should take the conversion. So instead of Smit being on the field to hand the ball to Percy, Venter gave in to an impetuous 20-year-old, Frans Steyn, who rushed the kick, missed it horribly, and thus opened the door for the Bulls … Smit later said he shut himself in a change room cubicle and sobbed for five minutes.

He was not alone …

Yet coaches do not learn from history which categorically states: “Don’t change your players for the sake of changing!”