Give TMO more power

Referees lives would be a lot easier if they could make more use of the TMO, writes Gavin Rich in SA Rugby magazine.

Imagine the following scene: your team is defending in the dying minutes of an important final, the opposition sweep across the field and through your own players and go over for a try. You imagine that you might have seen a knock-on somewhere in the movement, but you are not sure. You glance nervously across towards the row of lights near the dug-out where the coaches sit. A feeling of partial relief sweeps over you as the green light indicating a coach’s challenge to the referee ignites.

But a nagging feeling still gnaws at you. Was it a knock-on or wasn’t it? Sometimes living in hope only to see those hopes dashed can be worse than living in the despair that comes with a last-minute defeat. As the drumbeat fills the air around the stadium, adding atmosphere to the occasion, thousands of people at the venue and millions more watching on television join you in the suspense.

Eventually, after your fingernails have been gnawed to the bone, the crowd gives vent to a throaty roar as the referee waves his arms to cancel out the try. He runs back to the spot where the knock-on occurred and blows the final whistle. Your team wins, the other loses, and there is no controversy.

Sound like a perfect world? I’d say it sounds as close as you can get to rugby nirvana, and Dick Muir would be coaching the Super 14 champions right now had this system been available for last year’s final.

It might be part of rugby soon, for the IRB has made it known that they are investigating the possibility of implementing such a system. According to IRB chief executive Mike Millar, the organisation is reviewing other sports in search of ideas to take some of the human element out of match-day decisions.

Millar said the IRB is taking a keen interest in American football, and that the tennis approach, giving coaches a limited number of challenges per match, was being looked at.

Yet rugby nirvana may not exist, because now you are invited to imagine a different scene to the one sketched above. This time it’s your team attacking, there are two minutes to go and your guys are all over their opponents in pursuit of the elusive few points needed for victory.

The enemy really seem to be in complete disarray as the referee calls for a scrum just a few metres from the tryline. It is your team’s ball. As the scrum is forming, and the obviously out-of-breath opposition team start to commit to the set piece, there is a flourish from the terraces. The light is on and this time the defending coach wants something in the build-up looked at.

You strongly suspect he is buying time, buying breathing space for his team, giving them a chance to regroup. But you can’t do anything about it, because the coaches have a right to challenge refereeing decisions, and the quota of three allowed to each team has not been used up yet.

It takes a few minutes for the TMO to check the footage. In that time the defenders hatch a plan to hold out, grab their breath, the game is effectively slowed down, and your team’s chances of victory sail out the window.

So it’s not a perfect world after all, and even the extensive use of technology wont be without its potential drawbacks. Like everything else in life, the clever people, and the desperate people, will find a way to abuse it.

“We don’t want to slow the game down so we need to strike a balance,” said Millar. “There’s also the question of how far back we go. Do we disallow a try if there has been an infringement 10 phases before it is scored?”

Jonathan Kaplan, however, says a limited opportunity for coaches to challenge refereeing decisions is long overdue. The challenge system is something he has been thinking about for a couple of years.

“It is something I mooted a long time ago and is similar to the system currently being employed in Gridiron [American football], where the coaches get an opportunity to throw down a yellow flag in front of the officials to signal that they want something to be looked at,” says the top referee.

“The detractors will say that this introduces more of a stop-start element to the game, and we are of course trying to move away from that. Rugby union is supposed to be about continuity. But we also have to accept that we are now in an age where more and more money is coming into the game; people’s livelihoods are affected by results.

“There is pressure on modern sportsmen to be more professional and sports to become more professional. It is inevitable that in cricket we will soon see an even greater use of technology to help the umpires than we are already seeing. It is part of making sure that everything is done as professionally as possible.”

It was Kaplan, though, who also pointed out the negative of permitting too many challenges within the space of one 80-minute rugby match: “I do see the potential for the system to be abused, and if there are too many challenges permitted, then it will give the coaches an opportunity to save up their challenges and use them towards the end to slow the game down,’ says Kaplan.

“I would hate to see any change made that would enable coaches to be able to manipulate the pace of the game. The good thing about the ELVs is the pace that the game is being played, so let’s not do something that will slow it down unnecessarily. Three challenges may be too many. I would like to see it limited to two.

“It is all about finding a balance between the old amateur needs of the game, and it is continuity that makes rugby such a great product, on one side; and on the other side the professional needs of the game which demand that if technology is available, then we should use it.”

Kaplan is adamant, though, that the introduction of a limited challenge system will not detract from the match-day experience for paying spectators.

“Those who were in France for the World Cup would agree it is possible to find a way for the referral from the on-field ref to the off-field ref to add to the drama and tension of the occasion. During the World Cup they introduced a drumbeat during the three or four minutes that the incident was being referred, and it helped build up the tension and feeling of anticipation.”

Pressure is not something that Kaplan is afraid of. Indeed, it is one of the reasons he is addicted to his job, and he says he worries sometimes that he won’t be able to replicate or re-create that pressure when he has to one day face a life without refereeing.

But he does acknowledge that not all of his contemporaries thrive on the pressures of being easy targets for coaches, players, the media and the public. “It is very tough to bear, because referees don’t tend to go to the press to have a moan, and we tend to be expected to just take it on the chin. You have to have a thick skin in order to handle the criticism. Obviously, limiting the influence that a single referee can have on the game will cut out some of that pressure.”

Kaplan is in favour of the introduction of a two-referee system to minimise the potential for mistakes to be made.

“I was part of an experiment conducted in Stellenbosch a couple of years ago and, like everyone else who was part of it, I thought it was a resounding success. I don’t know why it was not implemented at a higher level, maybe it was a cost factor. Having two pairs of eyes will always be better than one.

“They have a couple of onfield refs or umpires in gridiron, and I don’t think it detracts from the spectacle or the overall package that spectators are presented with.”

Former top SA referee Freek Burger was instrumental in the Stellenbosch experiment, but he says it was by no means new. The concept of having two referees on the field has been toyed with since the 1980s.

“It actually started with Wynand Mans and Doc Craven well over 20 years ago, and we are still trying it out at Stellenbosch,” says Burger. “The challenge of the two-referee system is that you need to get two people who can work together, and much depends on finding the right combination, like getting a tennis partner in doubles. The concept of the assistant referees, which has been introduced with the ELVs, was supposed to be a step towards taking the decision-making away from just one guy, but so far I haven’t seen it work like that.

“The assistant refs running the touchline are in the perfect position to help the referees who are in the middle of the field. With the right communication between the assistants and the referee, this is the way for rugby to go, and it will improve the product.”

Burger would rather see the introduction of extra referees than too much of an emphasis on coaches appealing to TMOs. He does, however, reckon that the TMO should be used during the match to adjudicate on issues relating to foul play. Burger is currently working at Alan Zondagh’s Rugby High Performance Centre in Riebeeck Kasteel. In his former designation as Saru’s manager of referees he recommended to the IRB that the TMO be given the power to order players off the field during play.

“At the moment we have a situation where a player does not face the immediate consequence of his actions,” says Burger. “He knows that if the referee does not pick him up doing something wrong but the television monitor does, then he only really needs to answer to it the following Monday if he gets called in front of a citing commissioner.

“But what about the impact that particular player has on the game he is playing in at the time he commits the offence? Surely the sanction should be immediate, as it would be if the referee or touch judge picks him up transgressing? I would like to see the citing commissioner called in during the game so the penalty against the player can take immediate effect.”

At the same time, Burger is not so sure that yellow cards, particularly those for more minor repeated transgressions, should be allowed to have as big an impact on the game, and the result, as it is now. Yes, the player must be punished, but should the team be punished to the extent that it almost becomes a certainty that it loses the match, as is the case sometimes when a team is forced to scramble when a key player is sent off at an important juncture of the contest and it is reduced to 14 men.

“I suggested a while ago that players who are yellow-carded should be sent off for the rest of the game but that they should be replaced,” says Burger. “Both teams should always have 15 players on the field, and the viewing public is sold short if that is not the case. Obviously it will hurt the team in a more subtle way in that you would not be allowed to reinforce the bench when replacements are sent on for guys who have been carded. If you don’t maintain discipline, your team will end up running out of players on the bench, and obviously that can have a big impact.

“My concern is just that it should always be a fair contest. Some of the yellow cards being handed out at the moment are for such minor infringements, yet they lead to such a big mismatch on the field. That’s not right.”

By Gavin Rich

This article first appeared in the April issue of SA Rugby magazine. The May issue is on sale now.