Rugby's Concussion Laws in the Spotlight

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Rugby’s concussion protocols and substitution laws are back in the spotlight after an incident in Saturday night’s Crusaders v Chiefs opening round Super Rugby match that saw the Crusaders forced to play reserve halfback Leon Fukufoka in the forwards for the last 10 minutes following flanker Reed Prinsep’s departure from the game. LWOS writer and rugby referee Scott MacLean looks at what unfolded.

Rugby’s concussion laws in the spotlight

Within moments of making his Super Rugby debut in the 68th minute the highly-touted Prinsep clashed heads attempting to tackle a Chiefs opponent and crashed to the AMI Stadium turf, already unconscious. Not seeing him move as a breakdown formed next to him, referee Chris Pollock stopped play. After several minutes delay while he was treated – led by Crusaders and former All Blacks doctor, Dr Deb Robinson – Prinsep was stretchered from the field, and we here at Last Word On Sports wish him a speedy recovery.

What happened concurrent to that however highlights a flaw with World Rugby’s laws.

The number of players in a match, including substitutions, is dealt with under Law 3 with Law 3.14 specifying when a player who has already been (tactically) substituted can return to the game:

• For an injured front row player
• For a player with a blood injury
• For a player undertaking a Head Injury Assessment (HIA)
• For a player who has been injured as a result of foul play (as verified by the match officials)

In the Prinsep case there was no issue as to foul play, no blood, and he isn’t a front rower.

Having only just been replaced by Prinsep, the Crusaders ran flanker Tim Boys back onto the field, only to then by told by Pollock and his match officials they couldn’t do this as none of the four allowances under Law 3.14 applied. In discussion with Crusaders manager Angus Gardiner referee Pollock advised that “He’s (Prinsep) injured”; in effect using the discretion available to him under Law 3.10, which gives the referee the power to prevent an injured player from continuing.

With Prinsep unconscious, the HIA process would seem to be a moot point as he would have failed it; remembering that the HIA is in place to prevent potentially concussed players from suffering further injury. However, had Prinsep been taken for an HIA, which he would clearly have not passed, then the Crusaders would have been able to use Boys again; he would have been a temporary replacement that would have become permanent. Because Pollock – and this is no criticism of him – determined Prinsep was injured, the HIA process didn’t come into play.

Unable to return Boys or any of their other substituted players to the fray the Crusaders had to use one of their remaining unused players to replace him, a choice that came down to replacement prop Michael Alalaatoa or halfback Fukufoka, who got the nod. Had the Crusaders already used all their players, they would have had to continue down a man.

Adding to the level of absurdity, as observed by Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder, was that if Fukufoka – or any other non-front rower – had then complained of concussion-type symptoms and gone for an HIA, then he could have sent Boys back on.

Ironically had this occurred in a New Zealand provincial match, then Boys would have been able to return, as the amendments to Law 3 under our Domestic Safety Law Variations (DSLV) apply at all levels of our rugby, including the NPC level. That variation specifically provides for a substituted player to be used as a temporary or permanent replacement.

What World Rugby needs to do urgently is make an amendment to the HIA process. Where it’s clearly evident that a player has suffered a head injury that would make the HIA redundant – as in this instance – then a substituted player should be able to return to the match. Perhaps they could go as far as to adopt New Zealand’s DSLV’s.

No one disputes that player welfare is paramount at all levels of the game, but it’s also hard to argue that the integrity of the game wasn’t affected on Saturday night a bit as well.

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