A Calamitous Climax in Murrayfield

After I described last week at the Millennium Stadium as a farce, I hardly expected to be trumped in the very next match, but how wrong I was!  A dramatic end to the game for sure, but the tension could, and should, have been ramped up yet another notch.  It was truly farcical how nobody knew whether the match had ended or whether there would be one last play once Scotland scored their try after battering away at the Welsh line!  At home we could all clearly see that seconds remained after Laidlaw’s conversion and that Wales should have restarted, yet on a difficult day for Glen Jackson, he opted to consult the TMO who duly gave him the wrong information!

How does Rugby Union, and in particular the Six Nations keep on doing this to itself?  The clock in the corner of the screen, generally seen around the grounds too, is meant to avoid this kind of problem, but it doesn’t.  The thrills and spills of a dramatic final play were allowed to proceed in 2010 where Wales showed impressive ball retention skills against a short-handed Scottish defence before Shane Williams dived under the posts to seal the result.  And who can forget the infamous “10 seconds” Chris White accorded to Wales in Rome in 2007 when James Hook quickly kicked to the corner in the hope of securing lineout possession and crossing the whitewash to win the game, spurning a kick at goal to draw.  As Wales prepared to throw, White proceeded to ask TMO Geoff Warren for a time check before blowing for full time, to the consternation and dismay of those in red.  The man with the whistle, as things currently stand, is the sole arbiter of the watch yet it seems as though on pitch officials are happy to defer to someone else when it comes to timekeeping.

On the same weekend as the missing seconds in Scotland, a similar overtime scenario played out in the Super 15 competition 6,000 miles away in South Africa.  As the Sharks chased a win against the Cheetahs in Durban, the ball was kicked into touch with the clock reading 79 minutes and 55 seconds.  Unlike in Murrayfield, the on-field referee Rohan Hoffmann – without needing to consult the TMO – clearly and correctly explained to the players that although the clock had turned red by the time the line-out had formed, there would in fact be time for a last play.  This duly took place with the final whistle eventually blown at 81.30.  In South Africa, unlike in Scotland, the officiating team did a great job and without any fuss, demonstrating the distance Super 15 officials are ahead in terms of organisation and decisiveness compared to their Northern Hemisphere counterparts.

Other sports, and in particular Rugby League must look at instances such as the one last Sunday and snigger.  They have adapted their game beyond compare over consecutive seasons, now stretching to TMO’s explaining decisions to the crowd, much like an NFL umpire in the USA.  In Rugby League, timing is clear, a hooter sounds when the time is up and no-one is under any illusions as to whether there will be a “next play”.  In Ice Hockey, there is a buzzer for the same reason and we have even seen hooters used in Southern Hemisphere Union games, so why not introduce it now to the Six Nations?  This is really the only sure-fire way to eliminate all element of doubt come the end of the match.

Having said that, it still requires a time-keeper with a diligent eye and precise hand to stop the clock at the right time and restart it again on the referee’s say-so.  Many sports manage this simply enough, so surely it would also prove a resounding success in the Six Nations as well, although you have to wonder given recent timekeeping history!  The viewing public seem more aware of the clock and the laws surrounding the end of the game than some of the officials who call time when there are seconds still to play.  Correctly and accurately implemented however, there is no reason to believe that the introduction of a league-style hooter would be anything other than a positive innovation, and one which referees like Glen Jackson would surely also welcome.

Asking Questions of TMOs.

Refereeing a game of rugby can seem like a thankless task at times, faced with the criticism from the stands, two sets of players who only ever see things their own way and living with the pressure of making match-altering decisions in a split second.  Even though it sometimes may not appear so when I am on the sideline with my coaches hat on, I fully appreciate the difficult job referees do, and the old adage that there would be no game without the ref is undeniably true.   A person whom I really admire is ex-referee and former Head of Elite Referee Development at the RFU Ed Morrison.  I respected him during my career as a player because of his great empathy for the game of rugby and in now taking the time to now make TV appearances on BT’s Rugby Tonight show to explain the laws he is helping fans with their own understanding of our sport.  In my view this programme in general is a refreshing change to the way rugby is presented on TV and in stark contrast to the rather dated output on offer elsewhere.The game is much tougher now of course, play is much faster and players far more “professional” and cunning, sometimes using deception to outwit a referee.  That is why it is vitally important the referees and assistants work closely and efficiently together as team and also why I absolutely agree with the introduction and use of Television Match Officials.  The TMO’s were not introduced to stop tries being scored, although I often ponder how the course of history would have changed had they been in situ in days gone by!  Would the 1976 Grand Slam have been French had a TMO helped to send JPR Williams to the stands for his charge on Jean-François Gourdon?  Perhaps the World would never have known Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation celebrations if Derek Bevan could have checked Abdelatif Benazzi’s grounding in the semi-final.The TMO involvement in the game is now a vital part of proceedings, and with their participation there is much less excuse for error.  Yet how often do we see the wrong calls still made, or decisions not even referred to the TMO, even when an element of doubt does exist?  Just recently Thomas Waldrom scored a try against Harlequins from an offside position in front of Mitch Lees who charged down Ben Botica’s kick.  Waldrom gathered and showed good pace to sprint to the in-goal area but the try should never have been allowed, yet the officials on the field could see no wrong, nor did they seemingly have the doubt that should have persuaded them to consult Geoffrey Warren in the TV truck.  When even commentators on a highlights show then failed to point out something so blatant, I was left contemplating the fact that not everybody knows all the laws of the game who maybe should.  As coaches we sometimes say that these decisions balance themselves out over time so it is perhaps ironic that just a year ago in a crucial Aviva Premiership game at Adams Park the TMO scrubbed out a perfectly legitimate Henry Slade try that would have meant Exeter qualifying for a European play-off rather than Wasps.  He later apologised for the error and despite the wheel turning full circle this season the primordial outcome should be that we get every decision right first time around.In fact, very few people at all speak up when these kinds of errors are made, as they still continue to be.  There are so many 50-50 calls in the modern game it is imperative to get them correct as often as humanly possible.  With the involvement of TMO’s, we should be improving our game, but are we?  How often do we now see the on the field referee staring a big screen and making his own call?  If this is the solution then what is the use of a fourth qualified official?  They are slowly becoming little more than glorified VCR operators, rewinding and forwarding footage for the man in the middle to steal the limelight for himself.  Surely if we are going to have the position of Television Match Official in Rugby Union we should value their input more, consult them whenever there is any doubt whatsoever, and act on the objective advice they give from a position detached from the action and the pressure of the players, coaches and fans.  Quite when they should be consulted is a another question altogether, and is sure to face further scrutiny in the wake of Jonathan Kaplan’s comments about the South African TV coverage of the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand.  Kaplan believes multiple replays of Liam Messam’s challenge on Schalk Burger that were shown on the stadium screen by South African producers directly influenced Wayne Barnes’ decision to review the incident and subsequently award the match-winning penalty to South Africa.  The incident had been missed by the match officials during play and without these replays, the kick would never have been given and the outcome of the match altered.  What kind of precedent this sets and how home broadcasters will act in future will therefore also now become a hotly-debated topic in the rugby world.