In this article, I will outline a debate that could significantly change our game. I will set out arguments for and against the introduction of rugby league style interchanges. I will also touch on other rule changes that are worth debating.

The article will also briefly discuss the way TMOs are used, how to avoid time wasting and how to deal with players who ask for yellow cards for the opposition.

The argument for interchanges

HIA substitutions

The current Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocols are open to abuse. We all understand it is necessary to take players off if they have a suspected head injury. Players will hide head injuries if they cannot return after passing an HIA. However, the current system is not working. The problem is, HIA substitutions are better for your team than normal substitutions.

France v Wales 2017

During the 2017 France v Wales game Uini Atonio complained of a sore back but told the referee he was OK to continue. The French medics claimed he required an HIA, much to the incredulity of those watching. This allowed the superior scrummager Rabah Slimani back on. Without the HIA, the match would have reverted to uncontested scrums. Alternatively the weaker scrummager Atonio could have stayed on. By asking for an HIA the player didn’t appear to need, France gained a competitive advantage.

France v Ireland 2018

This year in the France v Ireland game, two French players suffered serious knee injuries. In both cases, an HIA was ordered by the match doctor. He is French, which shouldn’t affect anything but does leave the door open to suspicion. It is important to remember that the team medics attending the players in both cases did not order the HIA. Both times they informed the referee that the injury was to the knee.

In the first case, the HIA allowed the medics time to work on debutant fly-half Mathieu Jalibert with the prospect of sending him back on. Unfortunately, his knee injury proved too severe to return to the field. The HIA made no difference. However the second incident, replacement scrum-half Antoine Dupont also suffered a knee injury. The match doctor again called for an HIA. The starting 9, Maxime Machenaud, was allowed back on. If not for the HIA, France would have been forced to use one of the remaining replacements rather than a player who had already left the field.

They would have been without a specialist scrum-half. France gained a competitive advantage by claiming a player needed an HIA when it appears he did not.

Closing the loophole

This loophole must be shut. HIA substitutions must not follow different rules to normal substitutions. A match doctor or team medic has no choice but to order an HIA if a player tells them he hit his head or feels dizzy. If the rules are advantageous when an HIA is called, players will start claiming to need one when they don’t. Teams may also ask doctors to order HIAs for every injury. This will erode confidence in the integrity of our game.

If that means we need to change the ordinary substitution laws then so be it. Rugby must have a single universal protocol for all substitutions that is appropriate for HIA cases.

From The Shed

Check out the following video if you want the actual low-down on what happens around HIA. In fairness, it’s worth watching just to see Steven fail the test.

Front row substitutions after yellow cards

Front row substitutions also have different rules. A front row who goes off for tactical reasons may return to the field if his replacement is yellow carded. This is an attempt to avoid uncontested scrums. However well-meaning, this law has caused controversy.

Wales v Georgia 2017

In November 2017, playing Georgia in Cardiff, Wales were 7 points up with little time remaining. Thomas Francis was the replacement tighthead for Wales. He got a yellow card for a reckless ruck clearance near his own line. Georgia had obliterated the Welsh scrum all game and a penalty try would tie the game. Wales claim that while their starting tighthead Leon Brown was substituted for tactical reasons, he developed cramp while sitting on the bench. They did not replace Francis, and so the match went to uncontested scrums, denying Georgia their best chance of a famous draw.

Closing the loophole

This creates a problem. To close the loophole for HIAs, we need one rule for all substitutions. Players who pass an HIA must be able to go back on. To close the loophole for props, however, the simplest way would be to say nobody can come back on once they have left the field. This would be unfair to players who pass an HIA.

Conclusion

To protect the integrity of the sport, there is only one option: a set number of interchanges like in Rugby League. Once the interchanges are used, no replacement can come on to the field. This would also mean match doctors must be 100% above suspicion of bias. In the France v Ireland game, the doctor was French. Would an HIA have been called for Conor Murray instead of Antoine Dupont? I hope the answer is yes. I hope the match doctor saw something moments earlier to justify both HIAs.

The argument against interchanges

Harder collisions

Injuries are on the increase in our sport. The ball is in play longer, and more collisions take place. The first concern for the lawmakers in our sport must be how a change might affect the injury situation. If we introduce interchanges, it may close the loopholes around HIAs and front row substitutions after yellow cards. However, it may also increase the potential for injuries.

When players are fresher, it is only logical they can hit harder. It is also logical that bigger impacts will lead to a greater chance of injury.

Bigger players

Players these days are much bigger and more athletic than they used to be. Interchanges would allow players to play in short bursts. This would mean some players can afford to be larger and more explosive. Other players would be smaller and conditioned for endurance. These factors combined mean that interchanges offer the possibility of bigger mismatches in size.

Mismatches

In addition to increasing size mismatches, interchanges would also mean some players are much fresher than others. This could also potentially increase injuries. A tired player may not get his tackle technique perfect, and as a result is at greater risk of injury, as shown in an article I wrote here.

Space on the field

Imagine your team has worked extra hard on their fitness. Their game plan is to wear down the opposition, using the bench to raise the tempo and finish the opposition off. This might sound familiar to All Blacks or England fans in particular. As opposing players tire, space opens up on the field. A lot of the tries from these teams come right at the end of the game. Interchanges would somewhat negate this. The opposition could rest fatigued players and bring them back to finish the game. As a result, we would miss out on a lot of tries and the spectacle would suffer.

Conclusion

Interchanges have the potential to do more harm than good. They could lead to more mismatches between tired and fresh players, bigger men and harder collisions. This, in turn, could lead to more injuries. It would also potentially damage the spectacle as space would no longer open up as teams tire. The only solution is to enforce the existing rules better.

The TMO

As you may gather from the two-sided argument above, I am not certain of the best way forward regarding substitutions. However, overusing the TMO is something I am very sure about. I believe we are stopping the game too often in search of the perfect decision each time. We simply need to accept referees make mistakes and get on with it. Under the old system, a TMO was only used for serious foul play or to check if a ball was properly grounded. I think we should revert back to this. Nigel Owens said on Brian Moore’s Full Contact podcast he would like to go back to the old system too.

Asking for a card

Many people have seen this clip of Wayne Barnes and Ma’a Nonu. Nonu asks for a yellow card for an opposition player, which Barnes does not like. The way he handled the situation has earned Barnes widespread praise.

World Rugby should issue a new directive to referees. Asking for cards is unsportsmanlike and reflects badly on rugby. Card waving gestures will be caught on camera, and card requests will be picked up by the referee’s microphone. A one-match ban should follow.

Timewasting

In a recent Clermont v Montpellier game, Ruaan Pienaar kicked a match-winning conversion. However, he wasted so much time doing it, the video went viral. It can be seen here. While the rules remain as they are, Pienaar was well within his rights to seek advantage for his team. I think time should stop once the referee signals a try, and restart once the referee signals the kicker. That way Pienaar could take as long as he likes, it will not affect the game. This solution may also be effective at reducing time wasting around the scrum. Perhaps we can pause the match clock between the reset signal and subsequent scrum feed. This may necessitate timekeepers but will save a lot of frustration for spectators.

In closing

I hope you enjoyed the article. Please leave a comment with your opinion on substitutions or the other topics I covered. I would love to find out what the 1014 community thinks!

Author: Daniel Pugsley

I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Couldn’t agree more Dan. I think the French in particular have been edgy on this issue. The HIA and injury against Wales last year. But. Even in club rugby. The match director will intentionally blow up unseen errors and potential fouls on the screen of the home side and ignore the ones for the visiting side. Which I find pretty disgusting to be fair.

    • Hi Conor, I totally agree with you about the home town incident replays. I’m not sure what World Rugby can do about that one as the TV directors aren’t linked to the teams and don’t really come under their remit.

  2. Thanks for raising the need for attention to these issues. I played my rugby during the days when substitutions were limited to first half injury only. Yes, there were occasions that that caused second half problems for teams that lost players early in the second half. While at the time I wasn’t cognizant of the reason behind the rule it made sense to suck it up and rely on temmates to playout the match with extra effort. I suggest reverting to this type of rule including for HIA.

    Given that in ancient times refs always could send a player off solely at their discretion (I suffered that ignominious punishment once), I say revert to that and eliminate the yellow card. I also believe the TMO should only be used to verify tries. Foul play should be dealt with on the field by the ref or after the match through review.

    Scrums and lineouts take too long to set and execute. Safety obviously is a consideration for scrums, but I wonder if we create more injury problems by setting scrums so low that props can’t hold their weight up under huge pressure. Scrums came together without a real stoppage in play back in the 70’s. You don’t me to get started on lifting in lineouts! The focus should be natural athleticism and continuous play.

    • Hi Will, it’s an interesting idea getting rid of the yellow card. I have to say on balance I’m in favour of it but I can see your argument too. One thing I know they will never do is take up your suggestion of allowing people suspected of head injury to play on. The potential for litigation alone is far too high for that. HIA’s are never going away, and I also think they will never say HIA’s have to stay off either because it will encourage players to avoid them.

      • Apologies for the confusion. I am suggesting that players suspected of HIA should go off immediately replaced with a permanent replacement if available. No leeway at all for suspected head injury. The HIA protocols are not perfect and players need to be protected for sure.

  3. Reduce the number of subs by one or even 2 but keep the requirement to have a full front row. This should open up space in the game later on.
    TMO for tries and suspected dangerous I.e fighting or tripping incidents only.
    Asking for cards should be a penalty reversal. Will stamp that out quickly

  4. Stopping the clock more often could mitigate the fatigue v fresh legs issue with interchanges and would mean games last longer and there fore the fitness profile would be more appropriately skewed toward endurance over power…
    Not probably by enough though

    • Hi Oglewis, I agree it might help, if we also took up Paul’s suggestion of reducing the number of subs then I think together these measures would mitigate a lot of the argument against interchanges.

  5. Great post and most informative,
    Personally I feel the idea that any player, who it is felt may have suffered a blow to the head, of sufficient force to require a HIA, should never return to the field of play, regardless of the outcome of the assessment.
    Why, because any HIA is not sufficient in itself, to determine if the player has sustained a head injury.
    All an HIA can do, is determine if a player is showing signs of a head injury at that moment in time.
    Twenty minutes or so later when the player is back on the field, their brain [meninges] may swell, or they may have a small bleed.
    Allowing players post HIA, to return to the field of play , rush about and potentially sustain further blows to the head, is at the very least risky, and possibly even reckless.
    I realise what I am advocating is a tough call, however it would stop the abuse of the current system, and most importantly, would help protect players from the cumulative effects of severe blows to the head.

    The conduct of Physicians who are responsible for player welfare needs to be of the highest order, and any conflict of interest or failings in this area needs to be dealt with harshly.

    Question, Should it now be mandatory for all players to be wearing protective headgear ?

    • Hi Graham, thanks for the interesting comment! Apologies for the lengthy reply I am about to write but you raise two very important points.

      I think the sport may be headed in the direction you describe re HIAs. I think this boils down to how much trust we can place in the accuracy of the HIA process. At the moment I feel players perceive that a passed HIA means there is no brain injury. As you and any medical professionals who talk about HIAs consistently point out, a passed HIA is no guarantee of anything. The only caveat I would have is that right now a culture is developing where players are expected to admit to head injury so that they can be checked, knowing that a return to play is possible if they pass the HIA. If we say any suspected head injury cannot return to the field, will a player admit to the possibility of a head knock in an important game?

      Regarding your headgear suggestion, it may seem counter intuitive but I believe headgear makes concussion more likely. 2 examples for this are recreational snowboarding / skiing, where wearing a helmet statistically increases the chances of injury due to relative perception of danger, and American Football. The current headgear allowed in rugby has not been shown to reduce concussion at all, it is there to prevent problems like cuts & ear damage. The only protective equipment shown to help reduce concussion is a mouthguard, but they are mandatory already.

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