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Player safety is priority for South Africa after HIA calls, insists Rassie Erasmus

South Africa’s director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, says he and his coaching team called for multiple head injury assessments during the second half of Sunday’s quarter-final triumph against France because “there is life after rugby” and they are serious about prioritising the safety of their players whatever is at stake in the match.

Pieter-Steph du Toit, Duane Vermeulen and Bongi Mbonambi were all removed from the action under World Rugby’s HIA protocol during an attritional second half at Stade de France, with the Boks shading a thrilling contest against the hosts thanks to Handré Pollard’s long-range penalty.

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The back-rowers Du Toit and Vermeulen were both able to return to the action having passed head injury assessments. Du Toit left the field on 61 minutes and returned 14 minutes later, while Vermeulen spent 10 minutes off the field from 51 to 61 minutes.

In a media briefing on Monday, Erasmus was unsure whether the HIA for the No 8, Vermeulen, was requested by the matchday doctor or by the Springboks’ team doctor. World Rugby confirmed that the team doctor, the matchday doctor and the referee are permitted to remove a player for an HIA.

“We really care about our players and rightly so,” said Erasmus. “I think it was [William] Servat, the French forwards coach, he said [before the match] he hoped the medical team and the HIA people are ready, because there’s going to be a lot of bumps and bruises.

“And obviously you could see when Pieter-Steph made a head contact, we had to do a HIA there, it was straight head-to-head, and then the same, I think Duane Vermeulen was actually called by the matchday doctor.” Clarification has been requested from the Springboks and World Rugby on who requested the Vermeulen HIA.

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Rassie Erasmus on the pitch before South Africa took on France in ParisRassie Erasmus says player safety is more important than any World Cup game. Photograph: David Winter/Shutterstock

“Then I think Bongi was definitely … he got a bad knock against his head,” Erasmus said of the hooker who was removed from the action with five minutes remaining.

“For us to take those players off, the chance is always there that they might not pass the HIA. Luckily for us, all of them passed their HIAs, and I don’t think there’s anything else to discuss about it.”

South Africa opted for a 5-3 split of forwards to backs in their replacements and were left with no bench cover for Mbonambi at hooker after Deon Fourie’s introduction in the back row for the captain, Siya Kolisi, after 46 minutes. Fourie switched to hooker after Mbonambi’s HIA withdrawal with Vermeulen, Du Toit and Kwagga Smith in the back row.

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“I’m not sure if they [France] had any HIAs,” Erasmus said. “But yes, for us, the players’ welfare – I mean one game, although the World Cup is important, and quarter-finals and semi-finals are important – there’s life after rugby.

“As World Rugby, and with all the court cases and all the different things that are going on currently around concussion, we certainly as a management team, with all the courses and stuff that we’ve done, when we see a possible HIA, which we do see, we’ve got a couple of [alternative] camera angles.”

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Erasmus said that in the 2019 World Cup final, the Springboks coaches noticed a problem for Mbonambi and removed the hooker for an HIA, which he failed. “You can remember in the World Cup final, Bongi Mbonambi, I think in minute 17, nobody saw the HIA, but we in the coaches’ box saw the HIA. We called for the HIA, and he didn’t pass.

“We’re not going to leave a player on the field if we feel there was possibly head contact and the possibility of HIA. And the process has been the same for at least for the last two years.”