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Gareth Southgate looks to his ‘finishers’ at Euro 2024 – just like Eddie Jones with England

England's bench during the 2019 World Cup final defeat by South Africa
Eddie Jones embraced the concept of a 23-man game, giving as much thought to his team of starters and finishers - Clive Rose/World Rugby via Getty Images

You can imagine the tittering and raised eyebrows when the first England rugby team-sheet dropped back in 2017 using the phrase ‘finishers’ for their bench. It has taken almost seven years for the term to be accepted and it no longer demands quotation marks around it.

What we could not know at the time was how much the jazzing up of the perfectly fine ‘replacements’ would catch on, not only in rugby union but across other sports and now with Gareth Southgate’s England.

Unexpectedly it has become one of the main parts of Eddie Jones’ legacy as head coach.

“We pick people specifically to finish the game for us,” Jones said back in 2017, explaining the change. Throughout his seven years in charge of England it was a topic of discussion.

The intended benefits were obvious; it reduced any friction between those in the starting XV and those who were not, designed to remove that wall and, in theory, build greater unity throughout the squad.

Jamie George, who is now the England captain but previously seemed to spend his life as a replacement waiting to come on for Dylan Hartley, said back in 2017: “We don’t ever see ourselves as ‘the bench’. Everyone on the bench would love to be starting, but we are all of the mindset that we’ve got to make sure that we have an impact on the game. Eddie puts a massive amount of importance on us and a lot of pressure and we’ve got to make sure we react to that.”

Jones would later publicly call for numbers on the back of shirts to be ditched, saying the following year: “The only reason we have to put 1 to 15 is because of World Rugby, otherwise I wouldn’t have it. I’d just have a squad of 23. We’d name 15 to run on and eight to finish.”

Even in the final weeks of his time in charge, when England rescued an improbable draw against New Zealand at Twickenham with three tries in the final nine minutes, there was an emphasis on how England had ended the game. Looking back, his comments almost feel defiant. Jones was sacked a few weeks later following England’s defeat by South Africa.

“Our finishers were outstanding and that’s why we talk about them as finishers. We’ve got 23 guys, there is no difference between starting and finishing. When I name it, I just name it as 23 and then they work out what role they have later in the week. Simple as that. You just can talk about [England second-row David] Ribbans’ hat being in the ring and the hat becomes either a starting hat or a finishing hat and if you’re 24th or 25th you’re a supporting hat.”

Jones and Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, are part of the same high performance coaching WhatsApp group, which could explain Arteta’s decision to adopt the terminology with Arsenal last year. Arteta said at the time: “I have to get into [the substitutes’] brains, so far we don’t have anything like it.”

Bath and Harlequins use the term ‘impact players’, which is slightly on the nose, but one team notably no longer describes their bench as finishers: England. Steve Borthwick’s arrival brought that to an end, despite Borthwick having previously been part of the England set-up under Jones as forwards coach for four years. Now, in other sports, it continues to live on.

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