The Television Match Official – For Greater Good or Undermining the Referees?

It has been an astonishing opening weekend of the Rugby World Cup 2015.  England got the job done on Friday evening at Twickenham, Japan stunned the Springboks, Uruguay were competitive for about 10 minutes and Argentina nearly did the unthinkable.

However despite the 41 tries that have so far been scored, combined with one of the biggest upsets that has occurred ever in sport, the talking point that will unite the casual fan with the die hard will be that of the Television Match Official.

I always feel that in England there is a definite split between those who watch rugby and those who watch football. There are seldom people who follow each sport as avidly as the other and the arguments always rage on between which sport is “played by real men” or “takes too long” or “there’s too many stoppages” combined with the age old saying that “Football is a Gentleman’s game played by thugs and Rugby is a thugs game played Gentlemen.”

However this weekend has bought the different sports into a stark contrast in relation to the debate on Video Technology.  We have one sport where fans and journalists wish it was used a lot more, and another where they are saying it used far too much.  The truth is in both cases the balance has been lost far too much.

I fully appreciate the facts on both sides.  No referee at the Rugby World Cup wants to make ‘that‘ mistake, and in football they can’t see the requirement for it in terms of equality of the sport for all involved. Whether you agree or disagree is besides the point, one thing both sports need to do is to learn from each other.

On the football pitch you have a much faster paced game where strong decisions need to be made within a couple of seconds of the incident occurring.  There are far fewer situations on the football pitch where you have time to double check something compared to those made on a rugby pitch because the game of rugby is often a lot less frantic. Conversely on a rugby pitch, for those very important decisions that can change matches, they have the luxury of asking an objective viewer on the situation.

After the England game on Friday night I believed that this was a non-argument.  I remember listening to the radio on my way home and the discussion point of the use of the TMO seemed extremely insignificant to me compared to the fact that Sam Burgess was now apparently a starter for giving away a penalty and being able to make one pass, or that England’s bench had now played themselves into starting positions by virtue of not playing.  These issues I had a much bigger problem with compared to the TMO.  However as the weekend progressed my opinion very quickly changed – I was not even frustrated by the fact the match took 100 minutes; the more rugby I get to watch the happier I am.

But the final straw came to me when I was watching the France V Italy match on Saturday evening.  I had watched the final moments of the wonderful Japan match where I did not see too many issues with the use of the TMO in the closing stages. I then went to the gym and returned for the turgid game that was France V Italy.  I was frustrated enough by the rugby on show, however the moment that sent me over the edge was when an assistant referee decided to tell the match referee that he had seen a neck roll but they had to “go upstairs” to view the severity of it.

Now I have spent enough time on the sporting field to know that if you have seen something very dangerous, your gut tells you the severity of it – watching it in real time from about 15 yards away within the subjective context of the match, and when it is your job to know, you should know, especially if you are an assistant referee at a World Cup event.  If you have to “go upstairs” you have already answered your own question.  It wasn’t that bad.  Which the TMO then went on to decide for himself after four replays.

And here lies the problem.  The officials have become too scared to make a decision in fear of the video proving them wrong.  I wonder if Sam Warburton’s send off at the last World Cup has been hailed through the refereeing fraternity as the biggest injustice to a side in the history of rugby – and yes it was an odd decision – but that can sometimes happen and that’s fine.  I wouldn’t say that decision was wrong. I wouldn’t say it was right.  It was the opinion of the referee at that moment, on that day, at that match.  That is what the referee is and always will be in both football and rugby.  I understand that it was hard on Wales, and especially Sam Warburton – but that is what sport is sometimes.

If you can’t be that person, or make those decisions right, wrong or indifferently then why be a referee?  The entire point of becoming a referee is to make key decisions, at key moments on the field of play.  If you become scared of doing that you have lost your ability to manage a live sporting event.  Its very similar to the the Yips in cricket or golf – once you lose it, you can’t get it back.  This is a road that I fear the IRB are going down – and is also a road that FIFA are very scared to even turn towards: and you can see why.  It feels like the day is slowly coming where a rugby match is entirely run by a man watching a video screen and the players refereeing themselves to a degree.  It’s ludicrous.

I know that the  officials at this World Cup will bring it full circle.  It won’t be because the matches are lasting for over 100 minutes, nor will it be because the journalists and the fans are constantly talking about it. It will be because the referees are more than good enough to referee a match of rugby.  I am always on the side of the neutral, of the referee.  I will always commend the courage of referees in any sport.  To be the person that can make or break the hopes of an entire village, town, city or country always takes a special human being and it is never as easy as it looks sometimes.  So give them a chance.  Judge them once the World Cup is over, but always think to yourself could you do that job…and if you couldn’t then just accept it as part of the sport and move on.

Main Photo