Finishers had a good tournament last year and our words nerds expect it to get off the bench this season too. It’s not just a new word for substitute, or a beefed-up version of an impact replacement. Seeing the rise of the 23-player game, the ever-savvy Eddie Jones borrowed a concept from cricket and used it to galvanise the England team. Finisher has a meaning in rugby already, but it’s usually collocated with ‘good’. A good finisher is a winger (usually) who has an inherent sense of where the try line is and how to get over it. George North proved his finishing skills against Ireland back in March. Dan Luger was the first exceptional finisher I came across. Despite his injuries, he scored 24 tries in 38 matches for England. Including one to win the game at the death against Australia in 2000.
The new rugby meaning of the word comes from one-day cricket. Finishers are “the thinking-man’s choice” says Rob Smyth of the Guardian. They are those late-middle order batsmen coming to the crease with a head full of the scoreboard, required run rates, fielding positions and stroke possibilities. They are players like M S Dhoni or Michael Bevan who can deliver “genius to order” and are responsible for scoring what the team needs. By maintaining a cool head, finishers guide the team to victory with “deft boundaries and furious running between the wicket”. In cricket they win the game, but the term appears in baseball too, where finishers are: “a relief pitcher who can protect a lead on the last inning or two of the game”.
Both of these meanings appear in the rugby version. Like their cricketing and baseball cousins, Eddie Jones’s finishers understand where the game is at. They are alive with the possibilities of winning, getting a bonus point, or staying in control of the lead.
Take the Number 8, James Haskell. Hass is always bursting with his 80-minute game, as sure as his biceps are straining at his shirt. He ups the tempo, commands the breakdown and gets over the gain line. Danny Care was last season’s scrum-half finisher. After Ben Youngs had marshalled the troops for an hour or so, on came Care with his unpredictability to confuse a weary opposition and bring a spark to the final quarter. These are no substitutes for the real thing. These are men who arrive on the pitch at the right time, with the right skills to do the right job.
In Eddie Jones’s England team, to come off the bench is not about proving team selection wrong, or being second-best to the man who’s gone off for a head injury assessment. It’s the finishers job to bring life to the field, to have influence and spur on the 80-minuters. As Jones says; “it’s a game of 23. We pick people specifically to finish the game for us”. Note the sense of ownership in the use of the pronoun “us” rather than less possessive, definite article “the team” or just ending after game. Jones’s grammar shows us that finishers belong just as much as starters.
The rise of the 23-player game and the coach’s knowledge of cricket has brought finishers into rugby. The use of a new term to describe these players creates new sense of contribution and purpose. England’s results, particularly under pressure, shows the value they bring. Of course, the England team’s success at using finishers comes from their depth of talent. And there’s no substitute for that.