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.