Rugby substitution rules explained as Kiwis face South Africa in World Cup final

Sports fans all over the world will be tuning into watch the Rugby World Cup final this evening as South Africa take on New Zealand, with some newbies to the sport likely among the millions of viewers. Express Sport is on hand to help explain the substitution rules in rugby for those who may not be well-versed in the sport.

This year’s Rugby World Cup has proven hugely popular across the globe with around 15 million people watching the tournament opener between New Zealand and France. Only the 2011 Rugby World Cup final has had a higher TV audience than that match.

ITV also recorded their biggest TV audience of 2023 for England’s bitter semi-final defeat to South Africa with 8.7 million viewers tuning in. There is set to be similar numbers this weekend watching on as New Zealand and South Africa battle it out in a hotly-anticipated final.

The World Cup has attracted new fans to the sport, who may not be fully aware of the rules of rugby. Express Sport takes a stab at explaining the substitution rules in rugby union to ensure those fans new to the sport can follow what is happening on the field of play.

Rugby substitution rules explained

Rugby union matches see each team field 15 players on the field with a bench made up of eight replacement players. But there are two different substitutions that allow each team to make multiple changes throughout the match.

Teams can either make permanent or temporary changes. Temporary changes are usually made for blood injuries or a head injury assessment. Those changes will be undone when the injured player is back on the field, although the substitution automatically becomes permanent if the injured player doesn’t return within 15 minutes.

If a permanent substitution is made then that player may not return to the game. All substitutions can only be made during a stoppage in play and with the permission of the referee.

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But the amount of replacements available to teams in rugby union have come under scrutiny in recent years. Iconic rugby referee Nigel Owens wants to see that number cut down to as low as four available replacements.

“I think we need to look at substitutions,” Owens said last year. “There’s too many substitutions in the game. Whether you reduce them from eight down to five or four? Or at international level, do you just have them for replacements rather than substitutions? So, the only time you can come on is when a player is injured; you can’t come on for a tactical substitution.

“I think that will help the game. It’ll prevent all these changes and players coming on in the second half. You can have eight players coming on in the second half – more than half a new team – fresh, fit and playing against seven players from the opposition that have been on the pitch for 60 minutes, and they’re just coming on fresh for the last 20 minutes.”

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