Head Injury Protocol back in the Spotlight
Paris , France - 3 February 2018; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland speaks to referee Nigel Owens during the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris, France. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The last few minutes of the Six Nations match at the Stade de France had tension, controversy, and heroism in equal measure as both France and Ireland sought to get their campaigns off to ideal starts.

Jonny Sexton’s magnificent 83rd minute drop goal deservedly won the game for the visitors, but its the actions of the hosts and use of the head injury protocols in that same period that have attracted scrutiny.

Head Injury Assessment protocol in the spotlight again

Twice in the match French players went off for Head Injury Assessments (HIA). At best these could be described as dubious with both seemingly suffering knee rather than head knocks. In particular, the application of the HIA in the final minutes to replacement scrum-half Antoine Dupont allowed Maxime Macheneaud; a noted goalkicker, to return to the fray.

For some, it seemed like a rerun of the infamous ‘Bloodgate’ saga. For some, a blatant misuse of rugby’s laws, and something the French have previously been rapped on the knuckles for.

Inconsistency of approach within the Laws

The scope for such manipulation however lie within the Laws of the Game itself. The difference between the application of the HIA protocol (and the blood-bin rule) is that the player can be temporarily substituted, even by a player who has themselves already been substituted from the game. An injured player cannot, and if a team has already used all their substitutes they must play the remainder of the match down a man. That was the situation that confronted France when Dupont went down.

Two years ago Last Word on Rugby wrote about a situation that unfolded in a Super Rugby match. Although there’s no suggestion of any impropriety in that incident the issues then largely remain in place today. There’s a clear and obvious disparity between the HIA and blood rules, and those that apply to injuries.

What solutions are there? One might be to adopt (as an example) New Zealand’s Domestic Safety Law Variations (DSLV) that relate to Law 3. Under those, a player who is substituted can return to the field for a blood injury, as an injury replacement, or while a player undergoes an HIA (which applies in the top-tier Mitre10 Cup only).

They also further deem that a player who leaves the field – unless for blood or an Head Injury – and is replaced by an already-substituted player cannot themselves re-enter the game. That prevents the practice of ‘rolling subs’ occurring.

While purists who remember times when international rugby ‘didn’t allow replacements at all’ or capped it at two (and only then for injury) might disagree. But, having a consistent approach applicable across all scenarios seems sensible.

Something for World Rugby to address

Its worth noting that in the weekends events referee Nigel Owens took advice from both the match doctor and the fourth official before allowing the Head Injury assessment-based substitution to take place. Owens could also have taken the same route Chris Pollock did in Christchurch two years ago. He might have declared that (in this case) Dupont was injured instead, but it seems that; despite his own penchant for the spotlight, that wasn’t something that even Nigel decided was worth the scrutiny.

As it stands, the Six Nations have opened an investigation into what transpired and given that France has been reprimanded less than 12 months ago, any wrongdoing is likely to; and should be, heavily punished.

However it should also highlight vagaries in the games laws, that could easily be resolved. And with it, remove the scope for any misuse.

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