The 6 Nations game between France and Wales had been controversial from pretty much the first minute. The controversy was heightened late in the game as 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.
Here is the timeline of events, with the focus on the player subject to the HIA (Atonio).
77.30 France have a scrum on Welsh 10m line and win their ball.
77.51 Atonio jogs over to ruck
77.56 Atonio clears Welsh player out at ruck
78.10 Atonio picks the ball up at French ruck and attacks Welsh defence. No obvious contact made with his head in the tackle and he gets up and back in French attacking line.
78.46 Atonio hits another ruck, no contact with his head and he immediately gets up
79.01 Atonio joins another ruck to secure ball (not to clear Welsh players out) and immediately gets up. Slimani is filmed in the stand in his tracksuit.
79.23 In a break in play, 3 French medics/water carriers come on to the pitch. Several French players are briefly spoken to by the medics/water carrier as the water is handed out; this includes Maestri who then walks over to Atonio and starts a conversation with him.
France choose a scrum. Would the French captain choose a scrum knowing his tight head has suspected concussion? Or has the incident that led to the suspected concussion not yet occurred?
79.27 The scrum forms but Barnes calls for a French free kick before the ball is fed. Maestri says something to Barnes about a shoulder but it’s not clear from the audio what he is saying. France choose to have another scrum
79.37 Atonio packs down for the scrum. Scrum folds and Barnes calls for a re-set. Atonio gets straight up.
79.47 The team doctor arrives at the scene and goes straight to Atonio. It’s not clear what was said but Atonio’s gesture seems to suggest he was fine. Just as the front rows go down Barnes blows his whistle and tells them to stand up.
Looking back at the footage, just as the front rows are binding together, Barnes’ eye is caught by something on the touchline that he looks at for several seconds:
If we look at the wider view immediately before this scrum we can see a French doctor crouched down and an official (the “4th official”?), who are both roughly in Barnes eye line.
We can’t tell who Barnes is looking at but the 4th official looks back to the area of the replacements bench and seems to be putting his hand to his chest as if to turn on the officials’ microphone.
Immediately after Barnes blows his whistle he turns to Atonio and says “Are you injured?”. This is surprising given Atonio himself is packing down for the scrum. The call for the injury must have come from the touchline, and probably from the 4th official who has come down towards the scrum.
Barnes asks Atonio again “Are you injured?”. Some of the conversation is inaudible but we can hear Atonio say he has a “sore back”, Barnes then says “You are OK, then fine” and steps back to reform the scrum.
Barnes then looks back to the touchline and says “He’s not injured”. We can’t say for sure, but it seems logical that he was saying this to the 4th official on the touch line. The camera then shows Slimani on the touchline ready to come on.
Barnes can then be heard saying “He’s just telling me he’s not injured”, which again is probably directed to the 4th official. The scrum then reforms with Atonio still on the pitch.
79.50 The scrum sets with Atonio still in play. The scrum slowly folds and Barnes blows for a reset. Atonio gets up straight away and receives a few words from Barnes about his scrummaging height.
80.02 The French team doctor is now back on the pitch and approaches the scrum. Barnes can be heard saying “He said he is not injured”. The doctor can be seen gesturing to his [the doctor’s] head, indicating a head injury. Atonio starts to walk off the pitch.
Our commentary team helpfully talk over the next bit of the conversation between Barnes and the medic, but Barnes can be heard saying “You are taking him off for a head assessment?”.
The doctor then tries to explain to Barnes (in English so there may be issues with translation), that Atonio had “a shock [touches his own head]….and I see him”…he then says “You see me” and points towards the scrum, probably with the intention of saying to Barnes he has been looking at this injury for a while.
Barnes then says to the medic “Do you think he needs a head assessment?”, with the medic glancing away and then responding “yes”. The change is then made.
Atonio is then seen heading down the tunnel on his own, without any medical support or assistance.
This incident needs to be immediately reviewed by World Rugby, with the French Rugby Union being asked to respond to the following questions:
- When did Atonio suffer the head injury that required the HIA?
- Who identified the need for the HIA and what symptoms did they observe in the player that meant he required an HIA?
- If the signs of concussion were observed before the player was finally removed why wasn’t he taken from the field when concussion was first suspected, as per WR protocols?
- If the concussion incident occurred before the final scrum why did France continue to allow a player with suspected head injury to scrummage?
- Why did the player say he was not injured?
The issue of the long term impacts of concussion is arguably the most serious facing the game. Any breaches or exploitation of the HIA guidelines and protocols – brought in to protect the players, should be severally punished, whether this applies to coaches, players or medical staff.
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