Super Rugby Pacific: Crusaders captain Scott Barrett calls out 'smart' mouthguards after new technology's controversial debut

The advent of the 'smart' mouthguard in Super Rugby Pacific has quickly caused a stir, with players and pundits alike left confused and frustrated by its interruptions in Friday's competition opener between the Chiefs and the Crusaders.

World Rugby has invested over $3 million in the development of the new mouthguards, which send notifications to pitch-side doctors when a player is impacted above a certain threshold to detect potential concussions.

Currently being used by teams in the northern hemisphere's Six Nations tournament, the initiative made a dicey debut in Hamilton, with Crusaders lock Quinten Strange and Chiefs midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown were each pulled from the field for head injury assessments (HIA) wearing looks of bemusement.

After Strange had earlier departed with eyebrows raised, Lienert-Brown was pulled during a critical stage of the contest, with the Chiefs mounting an assault on the Crusaders' tryline late with the match in the balance.

He eventually - and very reluctantly - made his way off the pitch. Fortunately for the Chiefs, his absence wasn't costly, with a pair of late penalties helping them earn a 33-29 win in a replay of last year's final.

Speaking after the game, Crusaders captain Scott Barrett pulled no punches with his assessment of the new technology.

"Honestly, I think it's a step too far, for a player when you're getting dragged [from the game] and you're looking around going 'what actually happened?'," said Barrett.

Scott Barrett after scoring a try.
Scott Barrett after scoring a try. Photo credit: Photosport

"Obviously, we want player welfare and that's paramount, but I think if you're influencing the game when key players are going off and they don't know what for I think that can be frustrating for a player.  

"It needs to be a happy medium somewhere within."

Valued at $500 each, the mouthguards have an in-built accelerometer and gyroscope buried on the back inside the rubber material and communicate via bluetooth with an app monitored by the pitchside doctor.

They were trailled by the Black Ferns during last year's WXV competition with similarly circumspect results, as a handful of players were pinged off the pitch within minutes.

Earlier this month, Scotland hooker George Turner became the first player to leave the field for an HIA triggered by his smart mouthguard during a Six Nations test against France.

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan played down any supposed controversy surrounding the mouthguards.

"We're all well aware of the protocols," said McMillan.

"Obviously Anton [Lienert-Brown] didn't feel like he needed to come off but clearly stuff the medical team saw on the sidelines indicated otherwise, so he came off.

"The tough thing for us was that the game was right in the balance. You're making decisions around 'do you exhaust your bench? Could it go to extra time? Do we need to save somebody?'

"Really, those decisions got taken away from us because of the head assessments."

Chiefs players celebrate victory.
Chiefs players celebrate victory. Photo credit: Photosport

Both Lienert-Brown and Strange passed their respective HIAs.

"At the end of the day, we all want to protect players, and this is another mechanism we can use to ensure that, where we can, we're protecting our players in a pretty physical game," McMillan added.

"There's going to be instances like tonight that occur all through the season. But if it means that we're looking after players then so be it."

Beyond the aforementioned teething issues, a pretty decent game of rugby took place.

In another classic encounter between last year's champions and runners up, the Chiefs' 27-10 lead at the interval was rapidly erased in the second half, as the Crusaders flipped the script on the first 40 minutes.

But the hosts scrapped their way back late to earn the spoils in the latest in a series of nail-biters in what has become Super Rugby's premier rivalry.

"That's Crusaders, Chiefs games," McMillan said with a shrug.

"They always go down to the wire. Nobody gives an inch. Nobody backs down. The most pleasing part for us was that we found a way in the last couple of minutes."

Fullback Damian McKenzie ignited the Chiefs during their rampant first half, but the All Blacks' departure early in the second stanza took with it plenty of sting from the locals' attack.

McMillan insists the call to pull him from the game was more a precautionary measure than a result of any serious injury.

"He just got smacked in the ribs," McMillan explained.

"He was sore at halftime and felt confident and wanted to go out there, but shied away from contact which obviously indicated that he wasn't 100 percent.

"It's game one. As much as we wanted to win it, there's no point breaking him this early."

Quinn Tupaea's long-awaited return from a season-ending injury was cruelly cut short, with the Chiefs midfielder leaving the field clutching at his jaw resulting from what McMillan described as "head on hip" contact. He'll undergo further tests to determine the severity of the injury.

Both teams now travel to Melbourne for the Super Round, where the Crusaders face the Waratahs on Saturday and the Chiefs take on Brumbies on Sunday.