Why you should care
You can teach your football-loving friends a thing or two about the sport of rugby, starting with this term.
Kevin Waite is bleeding so profusely that his shirt is soon soaked. He jogs off the pitch to consult with his coach as the ref calls for a blood substitution. An EMT on the sideline of the collegiate rugby match tries to apply gauze to the head wound, but it soon becomes clear that Waite, who needs to go to the hospital and get his scalp stapled up, won’t be returning to the pitch from the blood bin.
But wait — what the heck is the blood bin?
In rugby, blood bin — or blood replacement — refers to a temporary substitution for a visibly bleeding player.
And by temporary, we mean the player is allowed to leave the pitch for up to 15 minutes to receive treatment.
Waite, who was the president of Williams Rugby Football Club at Williams College in Massachusetts for four years Stateside and played two more years at Cambridge University in the U.K., experienced his very first trip to the blood bin in his second-ever rugby match. “That was my introduction to the sport. I was hooked!” he says.
Waite adds that while many rugby blood injuries, such as bumping noses, don’t hurt much, they sure can look bad. “Then you get a great war story. You have staples in your head! It gives you street cred with your team.”
Now that we’ve explained its graphic name, why is the blood bin such an essential part of rugby?
In rugby union play — where a normal squad consists of 22 players, seven of whom serve as substitutes — a blood replacement allows a player to be temporarily subbed out. As long as players can clear the blood off their face, shirt, knees, they’re good to return. But if the blood keeps flowing, the move converts to a normal substitution. The other substitutions in rugby union, as in soccer, are permanent; once you use ’em, you lose ’em.
In rugby league play, the blood substitution counts as one of the 10 swap-ins teams are allowed. However, if the circumstances leading to the injury involve misconduct, the replacement is free.
While blood injuries aren’t particularly easy to fake, teams have done it in the past to gain an advantage. The most infamous case is referred to as “Bloodgate,” in which Harlequins wing Tom Williams faked a blood injury to gain a substitution by biting into a blood pack. An investigation revealed this was, in fact, the fifth time Harlequins had faked an injury of this nature.
“It’s not the easiest get-out-of-jail card there is,” says Waite. “But it does give you a little bit of a breather, that’s for sure. And the chance to mop up all the blood that’s running down your face.”
Waite’s poor mother was present when, another time, a bloody nose sent him to the blood bin. His trips there were much more frequent when he played in the U.S. than in England. (Many Americans come to rugby from American football and bring a head-first tackling style with them, he explains.) “From then on, I think my mother was petrified of rugby.”
In addition to policing teams that try to abuse the blood sub for tactical reasons, measures must be taken to protect the other players on the field from diseases. “I support enforcing rules that decrease the likelihood of spreading blood-borne pathogens,” says Nicholas Regas, a rugby All-American in 2010 at Claremont McKenna College in California, who is now a pediatric resident physician. According to Regas, guidelines from the Australian National Council on AIDS, Hepatitis C and Related Diseases (ANCAHRD) disallow a player who has been sent to the blood bin twice in one game from returning to the match.
So is the blood bin, from its nomenclature to its usage, quintessential rugby? Bloody right it is.
“Rugby players pride themselves on mental and physical toughness,” says Regas. “So, aside from drinking beer out of a filthy rugby boot, the blood bin is about as rugby as rugby gets.”
Curious to see these blood subs in action? Check out the Rugby Championship, an annual international rugby union competition that runs through Oct. 6.
* Correction: The original version of this article misstated a rule regarding substitution for rugby union play.