When Carlton coach Mick Malthouse handed Chris Yarran the green substitutes vest in round 11, it prompted astute judges into a debate they had not previously thought of.
Should Yarran have taken the surprise selection as a slight on his form and attitude? Or was Malthouse using the sub as an offensive weapon?
The fall-back position was to conclude that Malthouse was sending the player a message, and as it turned out, that was the case.
But those who theorised that perhaps the wily veteran was purposefully holding back one of his most explosive players to let him loose on a Bombers midfield that was tiring weren’t far off the mark, either.
Indeed, that same theory could have been applied to a clutch of other scenarios this year in which key players have waited on the sidelines and then been injected into the fray to help turn the momentum of the game in just 1½ quarters.
North Melbourne coach Brad Scott has noted the shift in the way clubs are approaching the use of their substitute players.
“I suppose initially, and I think most coaches are cut from a similar cloth in that they think about mitigating loss, they thought defensively. How can we cover if we lose a player to an injury?” Scott told Fairfax Media earlier this month.
“So, you were looking at a versatile player as your sub, a guy who could cover you in a variety of different positions. But this year it seems to be, ‘OK, how can we use the sub as an attacking weapon?’ ”
Scott is talking from first-hand experience. He was in the opposition coach’s box in round two when his twin brother, Geelong coach Chris, activated dangerous small forward Mathew Stokes late in the third quarter.
The Roos coach then watched his team’s match-winning 35-point lead dissolve, in no small part due to the 16 disposals, seven inside 50s and two goal assists that Stokes contributed in just 38 minutes.
The premiership forward burst into the match and looked a step quicker than everyone around him, speeding up a game that had been purposefully slowed down by the Roos.
It was the first of many examples in the first half of 2013 that has led clubs to conclude the substitute is having a much greater impact on matches this season.
Collingwood assistant coach Robert Harvey is another who has noticed players coming on later in games – usually in the second half unless the sub is forced through injury – and either swinging the momentum for one side, or driving home the advantage for the other.
“It’s happened a couple of times against us, and when we’ve been able to hold our sub back a bit, our guys have had really good impact when they’ve come on,” the dual Brownlow medallist said. “You definitely notice it a lot more, and there have been a couple of times this year where the comment in the box has been that the sub has really caused us trouble. You can see that guy, he stands out because of how fresh he is. He almost looks quicker than everyone else, so it’s certainly having a big impact this year, no doubt.”
The substitutional variables are many, and it’s only when a player makes a significant splash on a game late that he is truly credited for his work.
But across a season, the raw numbers on the guys in green confirm what the coaches are talking about in match committee.
Champion Data measures the impact of a sub based on the average disposals players gather per every 100 minutes of playing time. In 2012, the figure jumped only slightly on the first-year numbers, from 16.5 disposals per 100 minutes to 16.8.
But there has been a noticeable spike this year, with the number jumping to 19.3 disposals. And that is despite clubs generally waiting longer to pull the trigger on the sub – the average time on ground for a sub this season has actually dropped a full minute since 2011.
So what has changed? The effect appears to be two-fold. We hear every year – from the players, the coaches and the former players who closely observe – how physically demanding the game has become and how that compounds every season.
The AFL has made a concerted effort to slow the game down and fatigue players, however the players themselves (encouraged by their coaches) continue to push their bodies to the limit.
So while 42 of the 44 players are going flat out for close to 100 minutes, two players injected into games for the final 40 minutes will be at a distinct advantage.
“It’s so demanding now, guys are working so hard, that the introduction of a fresh player onto a fatigued player is pretty telling, and more telling every year,” Scott said.
“That’s why heavy rotations were introduced in the first place, to try to get an advantage over fatigued opposition. And it’s probably why an [interchange] cap is being talked about now, to mitigate that.”
The second factor, and perhaps the more pointed in relation to the change this year, is the diversification of players that coaches are choosing to be their impact players.
Rather than the conservative “Mr Fix It” player of 2011-12, clubs are becoming increasingly bolder with their selections.
And in the case of players such as Stokes, Geelong teammate Allen Christensen or Brisbane Lions champion Simon Black, teams are even keeping high-quality contributors in reserve to come on as “super subs” – surmising that the effect that player can have in 1½ quarters against fatigued opposition could be more valuable in the overall picture.
As a rule, the types of players wearing the green vest are far more varied now.
Perhaps the most effective this season has been mature-age recruits such as Hawthorn midfielder Jonathan Simpkin and Port Adelaide’s long-haired running machine Kane Mitchell.
Simpkin, now 25 but only in his second season of playing, proved to be a cut above at VFL level but was not able to find a role at Geelong last year.
But the Colac-raised ball-hunter has shown he can perform at the top level when coming on in the second half this season, with some of the “sting” taken out of the game.
In fact, he has looked more than comfortable, averaging 28.3 disposals per 100 minutes he has spent on the ground in the four matches as the substitute.
That stat line makes him the most effective sub of any who have played four or more games in the green vest this year, however Mitchell – another dominant player at state level – is not far behind.
At 23 and in his first season, the two-time WAFL premiership player and reigning Sandover medallist has made an art form out of coming off the bench and immediately finding his groove, using his elite running power to work over fatigued opposition.
He has started as the sub in six of his eight games – the equal most of any player in 2013, and has averaged 21.7 disposals per 100 minutes, ranking him in the top echelon for subs.
Using the substitute as a mechanism to help emerging youngsters progress has been prevalent since its introduction in 2011, but the impact first-year players have made in games this year has gone to another level.
A lot of that can be put down to the quality of this year’s crop, such as Port Adelaide’s Oliver Wines, Sydney’s Tom Mitchell and Brandon Jack, and Collingwood’s Ben Kennedy, who have all come up big as the substitute.
“It’s an ideal way to bring in young players. They can get a taste of it without you being too exposed,” Scott said.
The next group of players could almost be considered the “prototype” sub.
The explosive outside midfielder that can create opportunities and have impact on the scoreboard, or the specialist small forward who comes on and kicks goals.
Players such as Richmond’s Matt White, West Coast’s Bradd Dalziell, Adelaide’s Jason Porplyzia and a raft of other players fit this mould as a high-energy ace-up-the sleeve.
Harvey notes that part of the challenge can be “keeping them in the game mentally” while they are waiting to go on, but as a general rule statistics say these types of players have been more hit than miss this year.
“That small forward, high half-forward or winger role are pretty hard positions to play anyway, but it’s even harder when you’ve got to sit there all day knowing you are only going to play a quarter and a half,” he said. “So keeping them mentally ready to go is pretty crucial.”
Then there is the management component, using the substitute as a vehicle to reintroduce A-grade talent on return from injury or “off-loading” certain players without taking them out of a game completely.
High-profile players such as Collingwood’s Dale Thomas, North Melbourne’s Daniel Wells and Essendon’s David Zaharakis have all seen green this season.
The last phase is the veterans. And looking into the future, it could be that players such as Western Bulldogs leader Daniel Giansiracusa are showing the way forward for the next major evolution of the sub rule.
In a bid to enhance his longevity, Giansiracusa has embraced an almost semi-permanent role as Brendan McCartney’s go-to substitute in his 13th season.
The 31-year-old has started as the non-activated bench player in four of his 11 games, yet has been able to find a niche, usually bringing life to a sometimes lifeless Dogs forward line, as well as high skill and composure to support the club’s tiring youngsters.
Scott said the concept could be adopted by other clubs looking to prolong the careers of star veterans.
Roos champion Brent Harvey, the master of durability who will play his 355th game on Saturday night, is one such player that could look to make a similar transition.
It is known that Harvey told Scott when the rule was first introduced that he could be the perfect super sub in the latter part of his career – a clever small forward who can kick goals and burn off fatigued opposition.
“I can’t think of a better impact player than ‘Boomer’ coming on late in games,” Scott said. “I think that is the type of player, a guy who can carry the ball, can go up into the midfield, but also come back and kick or set up goals.
“He’s pretty difficult to play on anyway because of his explosiveness. So, if he’s coming on late in games fresh and other opposition players are fatigued, then he’s going to be very hard to stop.
“He’s certainly the type, but right at the moment, we hope that’s down the track a bit. He’s still having such a big impact across the whole game.”
MEMORABLE LATE ENTRIES
Players who turned the game for their teams after shedding the green vest.
MATTHEW STOKES (Geelong)
v North Melbourne, round 2, Cats by 4 points.
16 disp, 7 I50s, 2 goal assists.
In just 38 minutes, Stokes helped the Cats turn around a 35-point half-time deficit by creating seven forward 50 entries and injecting speed and polish into a game that had been slowed to a crawl by the Roos.
DANIEL GIANSIRACUSA (Western Bulldogs)
v Port Adelaide, round 10, Dogs by 9 points.
22 disp, 4 tkls, 3 I50s, 2 goal assists and 2.2
Came on with the Dogs down and immediately provided the spark, setting up a goal for Bob Murphy to put his team in front and then snapped another major himself shortly after to break the game open.
OLLIE WINES (Port Adelaide)
v Collingwood, round 14, Power by 35 points.
26 disp, 5 tkls, 5 clrs and one goal.
Kane Mitchell is Port’s “super sub”, but not even he has put in a performance to match Wines, who came on against the Pies and had an immediate influence at the stoppages before kicking the sealer with an on-the-run shot under pressure early in the last quarter.
TOM MITCHELL (Sydney)
v Essendon, round 10, Swans by 44 points.
18 disp, 6 tlks, 3 goal assists and 1.2
The son of former champion Barry Mitchell announced himself with a stunning debut coming on as the sub, finishing the match with the most score involvements (9) of any player on a night when the momentum changed with his activation.
JONATHAN SIMPKIN (Hawthorn)
v Carlton, round 12, Hawks by 15 points.
9 disp, 3 I50s, 2 goal assists
He is the best in the business when it comes to the green vest, and this was an example of his efficiency. Came on late in the third quarter when the Hawks were down and helped ignite the resurgence with telling plays forward of centre.
THE MOST EFFECTIVE SUBS
M TOG Disp Disp/100 mins
Jonathan Simpkin (Haw) 4 40.30 11.2 28.3
Jason Porplyzia (Ade) 5 38.34 11 27.6
Ben Kennedy (Coll) 5 31.36 7.2 22.3
Luke Russell (GC) 4 50.28 11.0 21.7
Kane Mitchell (Port) 6 43.05 9.3 21.7
Daniel Giansiracusa (WB) 4 53.00 12.2 21.6
Matthew White (Rich) 7 47.07 9.1 19.8
*Statistical analysis of the players Champion Data ranks as the most effective substitutes this season. Minimum four games as sub for qualification.
MOST GAMES STARTING AS SUB SINCE 2011
Shane Savage (Haw) 12
Nathan Lovett-Murray (Ess) 11
Luke Russell (GC) 10
Matt White (Rich) 10
Luke Parker (Syd) 9
Jamie Cripps (WC) 9
Andrejs Everitt (Syd) 9
Allen Christensen (Gee) 9
BY THE NUMBERS
Substitutes are averaging more disposals per 100 minutes than they have since the rule was introduced in 2011.
Season Ave. TOG Ave. Disp Disp/100 mins
2011 43:31 7.2 16.5
2012 41:17 6.9 16.8
2013 42:13 8.1 19.3
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.