The 2017 6 Nations saw arguably one of the most controversial incidents in professional rugby’s history, when France met Cardiff.
Late in the game, as the French were attacking the Welsh tryline, the French prop Atonio was replaced by the starting prop (Slimani), who had earlier been substituted in the game. The change was made under the Head Impact Assessment (HIA) protocols; brought in to protect players in the event of suspected head traumas, and not as a means to bring stronger players back on to the field at crucial moments of the game.
At the time it seemed pretty clear what had gone on, and we tweeted:
A disgraceful day for French rugby and the serious issue of concussion in rugby. #FRAvWAL
— rugby (@theblitzdefence) 18 March 2017
The timeline of the controversial prop replacement was covered in a popular blog article at the time.
Someone who also felt the French had done something wrong was Rob Howley, who said this at the time:
Pretty strong words and an unequivocal stance. Fast forward 8 months and we now find Wales embroiled in similar controversy, but this time the accusing fingers are pointing at Wales.
Let’s look at the key developments in the controversy:
55 mins: Wales replace their loose head prop (Nicky Smith) and their tight head prop (Leon Brown), who had endured a difficult game in the scrum on his test debut. Tomos Francis replaces Brown. Both replaced players seem to walk and jog off the pitch without any evidence of injury.
81.23 Georgia, trailing 13-6, attack the Welsh line, just metres out, when the referee (Reynal) penalises the Welsh tight head Tomos Francis and issues him with a yellow card. Wales should ordinarily bring back on their starting tight head, assuming he is not injured.
81.27 The camera cuts to the Welsh coaching box. Rob Howley is inside the room while the other coaches are looking at the screen or the pitch. There is no discussion at this point.
81.52 We see both Welsh props standing on the touchline with their kit off, alongside Wales’ Performance Manager Paul Stridgeon with the ear piece.
As the footage shows, Stridgeon suddenly turns around and seems to look up towards the coaches box. His right hand then goes to his microphone as if he is going to communicate and he then walks in front of Brown but continues to look up towards the coach’s box. Brown then looks at Stridgeon as he talks in to his microphone.
Frustratingly the producer cuts away from that picture and shows us the Francis infringement again. Even more frustratingly, we can hear the odd word from the referee but Jonathan Davies talks over the top of him.
81.52 The camera shows the Welsh box again, but this time there seems to be a couple of conversations going on. Howley seems to be the only one of the management team with an ear piece, we assume to communicate with the bench.
The referee calls a scrum. Incidentally, the Georgian starting tight head prop returns to the field. How has this happened? Has the reserve prop been injured? He seems to limp off but have Georgia also tried to manipulate the rules by bringing back on their first choice tight head?
Again we see the Welsh box and Sean Edwards talking in an animated fashion to Howley. Robin McBryde has now put his head set on as well.
The referee tries to form the scrum but realises that Wales are still a prop down. He then starts to look back towards the touchline. He must receive some information from the 4th official because we can hear him say, “so it’s uncontested scrum”.
This time we can’t hear the referee’s important words because Eddie Butler talks over the top of him. Reynal seems to suggest that Wales will play with 13 (perhaps he is thinking of the French league where if a prop can’t be replaced, they forfeit that player).
The Welsh coaching team are now looking impassively at the pitch. The referee informs the Wales’ captain Lydiate that they don’t have enough props, and that the game will move to uncontested scrums, although he still wants Wales to move to 13 players.
Wales’ replacement hooker Dacey seems ready to come on and there is again chat in the Welsh coaching box, but this seems linked to the issue about the referee wanting Wales to go down to 13 players, rather than the replacement of Francis.
It’s pretty incredible that an elite referee doesn’t know the test match rules around replacements but that’s another issue.
Warren Gatland told us after the match that Leon Brown had been taken off as a tactical change and not as an injury replacement, but he added that “…we knew he was cramping up a little bit”.
Gatland also stated that: “I can promise you there wasn’t anything from our point of view in terms of trying to manipulate the laws or anything like that. If Leon had have been fit, he definitely would have gone back on the field.”
Gatland attended today’s presser where he added a few more details about the incident:
“…from the box we said Leon is to go back on, and the message came that he couldn’t go back on, he’s been cramping up..”. Gatland also said that there were a number of occasions in the game where they could see Brown cramping and stretching, but it wasn’t an injury replacement because:
“we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there. They just said, look he hasn’t recovered from that”.
Did Brown have cramp?
If we look back at the footage we can see that in the 54th minute of the game Brown comes together with a Georgian player and he seems to be in some discomfort as a result. With around 53.49 on the clock, Brown seems to be hobbling alongside the referee.
Here he is holding his foot in a manner consistent with calf cramp.
Questions to ask
If Brown did have cramp, why wasn’t he taken off as an injured player, rather than a tactical switch?
If Brown did have cramp at the point when Francis went off (nearly 30 minutes later), why did he stand on the touchline seemingly ready to play?
What did Gatland mean by this – “we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there.” ? Get out there, when? As another impact player late in the game?
Who made the call to tell the box that Brown had cramp? The player himself as he stood on the touchline?
How did Georgia’s starting tight head also come back on to the pitch?
What was the sequence and content of the discussions between the box and Stridgeon? The limited camera views seemed to suggest that the box first made contact with Stridgeon as he was with Brown, but Stridgeon replied without speaking to Brown. Had Brown already said to Stridgeon he was suffering from cramp?
The rugby authorities needs to look in to this incident and with more urgency and application than it did with the French farce. The game’s integrity is rapidly eroding at the professional level and we need to do what we can to retain it.
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