Rugby TMO lessons for Football’s VAR

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The application of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in football has resulted in nothing but controversy since its introduction to the Premier League. So is there anything to learn from a more mature technology, such as the Rugby TMO?

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VAR decision incidents and contention

It is tempting, when introducing any new technology, to use it as it was designed for. And while trialing it, to try to eradicate all errors. Finding the positives, and the negative values. And to satisfy the supporters and naysayers.

In sport, that is just not realistic.

In rugby, the main intervention points for a TMO [Television Match Official] are for an act of scoring or foul play. These incidents will affect the scoreboard, requirement for a ruling on disciplinary actions or, sometimes both. Obviously, these are important to get right as they can hugely affect the outcome of the match.

Naturally, many VAR incidents focus on penalty decisions. However, the technology also adjudicates on offside calls, which are much more contentious in football.

This increased number of incidents is probably a major factor in its varied reception. Coupled with a new variation of the handball law, it’s not hard to see why players and viewers are becoming confused.

Referee’s say must be final

While the technology is there to ensure the correct decision is made, it is fundamentally able to overturn an on-field refereeing decision.

Watch this clip below; showing highly respected ref Nigel Owens deal with the fourth match official (TMO) highlighting a possible infringement. He clearly doesn’t feel undermined or threatened by the intervention.

He owns the decision and gets the game re-started as soon as possible.

As it stands in football, on-field referees seem to be bystanders in the process.

In earlier use, officials were able to watch replays on a monitor on the side of the pitch then come to a decision. However, this is not being used in the Premier League currently, despite being available. This already seems like a step back in progress, even though the earlier trials were not perfect either.

Indeed, Fifa’s new chief of global football development, Arsène Wenger, described the lack of pitchside screen use as his “most important worry”.

Make VAR decisions more ‘human’

Currently, VAR is just that: an anonymous system represented by letters.

Conversely, the person appointed Rugby TMO at each match is listed by name as part of the referring team of each match. These are also specialist officials who generally do not also referee on the pitch – although they may have done so previously.

Many football referees probably wish for anonymity, but it is not helping integrate the technology into the game by having an unknown party intervening without any accountability.

Ensure the crowd are informed

One of the main reasons to watch sport live, is to see the action take place in front of your eyes. Being there in the moment is what attracts thousands each game. Therefore it is understandably frustrating to be in the stands yet not know what is happening right in front of you.

Given the facilities of Premier League stadiums; particularly when compared to the average rugby ground, it should be possible to provide accurate information to people watching live. Incredibly, it is clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool who are lagging behind, with no adequate big screens to communicate VAR decisions on.

In Rugby, supporters [who have the technology on hand] are able to hear the referee via a radio link. They may also listen via a club app, increasingly used more today at all English Rugby Gallagher Premiership club grounds.

As well when a match is televised, supporters can listen to the referee’s exchange of communication aloud, during TV commentary broadcast live from the stadium. Clear comments and the agreement on judgement, helps to decipher the decision-making process.

This, coupled with replays displayed on the screens in the ground to the incident referred to, can also watch the replays and then view and listen to a decision being made. It allows for a much more informed experience for all in the stadium. It is a lot clearer to rugby viewers why a decision is being checked, on which players are involved and how an outcome has been reached.

In the EPL, sometimes the fans are agasp at the rulings, and it has enraged comments on social media and in post-game discussions. Unhealthy for the sport’s integration of VAR.

Rugby TMO lessons for Football’s VAR

Of course, the Rugby TMO, or indeed other sports’ equivalents such as cricket’s DRS system, are not perfect. There are still times where decisions are questionable, or unclear. By giving the VAR a clear remit like in those other sports, it may become more accepted in football in the coming months.

It would also clarify its role as part of the team of officials. This may not guarantee perfect decision-making, but the experience for viewers would surely be improved.

There’s no quick fix, but there are some quick actions that can be taken.


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