The TMO: Empowering or Under-Mining Referees

The IRB declared rugby union an “open” game on the 26th of August 1995. This brought an end to amateurism and the dawn of the professional era.  A sea of change has washed over the game ever since. Notable changes have occurred in the use of technology and in particular the creation of the Television Match Official (TMO). Embracing technology has been a major triumph for the sport in general.

You only have to look at football for an example where the powers that be have failed to change with the times. Only now, after countless incorrect decisions regarding the ball crossing the line for a goal, has goal line technology been implemented. Failure to be more proactive has cost club sides and national teams dearly.

Rugby union operated a more proactive approach. Video referees came into being as early as 2001. Originally the TMO was only to be consulted in assisting a referee as to whether points had been scored. The scope for which the TMO can assist has increased greatly ever since. Recently you will see that referees are seeking advice on issues of foul play. What I find baffling is that the scope even allows them to query decisions that they have actually witnessed.  Referees are now afforded the luxury of viewing an incident multiple times on a big screen. This scenario is more befitting of the pantomime stage as opposed to the sporting arena. How an official can make a clear and concise decision while viewing a replay on the big screen in front of thousands of supporters jeering and shouting at every indiscretion is beyond me.

I am extremely in favour of technology as long as it is for the betterment of the game i.e. assisting officials coming to the right conclusion. However I feel that a line is starting to be crossed where officials are relying too heavily on the TMO and the game as a whole is beginning to suffer.

A major characteristic of rugby which makes it so revered around the world is the respect shown to referees by players and coaches. Referees are tasked with using their own personal judgement when uncertainty arises.  The IRB and other governing bodies have a great deal of confidence in the officials. Laws and guidelines are set in place to govern the sport but referees are allowed a wide scope when it comes to instances on the pitch. Long may this trust in our officials continue!

It is in this degree of confidence where the problem arises. Referees now have more pressure on them than ever to come to the correct conclusion every time. Video technology assists greatly but has recently created an ever increasing reliance.  Where once a bad decision could be chalked up to human error or a difference of opinion, it now gets lambasted in the press and scrutinised to the nth degree by commentators and pundits viewing replays on their TV. This scrutiny leads to referees seeking more and more reassurance that the decision they are making is the right one. How can a referee be sure he is making the right decision? By passing the buck to the TMO to make the call or by viewing the incident over and over again on the big screen. But at what cost to the game?

Ask any professional player or coach what is one of the most important aspects to winning a game of rugby. The majority will emphasise that momentum is of critical importance. Momentum refers to the attacking team’s ability to maintain sustained pressure on their opponents by having the ball in play for as long as possible. The use of the TMO for instances other than scoring or unseen acts of ill-discipline stifles this momentum. Stoppages in play not only affect the players but the supporters as well. The atmosphere of a game gets eroded with every passing second the watch is stopped. Rugby as a spectacle suffers as a result. Give me a dubious decision over a late tackle settled on the pitch by the officials closest to the action over a time wasting review by the TMO any day.

Human error is a part of rugby, whether it is from players or the officials. We need to protect the game from a worrying trend of increasing reliance on technology. By all means use the video replay in situations where the referee or his assistants couldn’t see the incident properly or have missed it entirely, but only when it is absolutely necessary. Currently the time wasted while officials make contact with the TMO, explain what they are looking for, and wait while multiple replays are shown undermines the whole process. Incidents are being witnessed by the officials and still sent up stairs for further analysis. Why does this need to be the case?

We need referees with the strength of character to make a decision in the moment. They are the ones in control on the pitch. Take for example the red card Sam Warburton received in the 2011 WC Semi-Final. This was a correct decision made by the excellent Alain Rolland in real time. There was no consultation with his assistants or passing the buck to the TMO. It was an official taking responsibility for the situation with only the safety of the player at the forefront of his mind. Rolland should have been lorded for having the courage of his own conviction to make the call. Instead the media sensationalised the red card and the incident seemed to have cost Rolland the privilege of officiating his second World Cup final in a row.

This weekend in the game between England and South Africa we witnessed the poser that is Steve Walsh go to the TMO for a perfect intercept try by Jan Serfontein. A laboured pass by Danny Care allowed the centre to skate under the posts. Walsh, in communication with his assistant, declared that he was happy with the try and that there was no offside offence. The try should have been given there and then. Walsh seemed assured of his decision and should have backed himself. The assistant then advised him to go to the TMO, which he did, and while viewing the incident on the screen came to his original decision to award the try. He then asked for re-assurance from the TMO that his decision was correct. The try was awarded, eventually. This incident was quite innocuous and didn’t delay proceeding too long. It does however highlight the increasing lack of conviction from our officials. Slowly but surely we are seeing decisions move from the referees and over to the TMO.

Forget using the TMO for every decision. Empower the referees and their assistants to make a decision in real time on the pitch. Assistants need to assume greater responsibility. The overriding opinion of them is that they are conservative and reluctant to step in and make a call. If an incident is missed by the referee and seen by the assistant, his opinion should be final. There should be no need to seek a video replay. All it does is undermine the viewpoint of the assistants and create a culture of passing on responsibility to someone else.

Let’s return the power our officials have enjoyed for over 100 years and allow them to judge for themselves what the right course of action is without undermining their decision. Make available the use of the TMO but keep the use to a minimum. Avoid gyrating and criticising them. Praise them for having the courage of their own conviction to make a call and stick with it.


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