TMOs were supposed to make life easier for referees, not harder

The men in the middle are losing faith in their own eyes thanks to the power of replays

Referee George Clancy checks with the TMO before awarding Gordon D’Arcy’s  try against Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Referee George Clancy checks with the TMO before awarding Gordon D’Arcy’s try against Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


It’s been yet another tough weekend for the men in the middle, particularly for the Irish referees in charge of the derbies at Ravenhill and the Sportsground. Much of the fall-out from both games focussed on key decisions by Alain Rolland and George Clancy, and on their use of TMOs. The latter’s expanded powers were supposedly designed to help referees, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it, least of all when a home crowd is baying at repeated replays on the big screen.

“The better team won tonight but there were three shocking decisions in my opinion by Alain Rolland,” said Alan Quinlan on RTÉ after Ulster’s 29-19 win over Munster, and similarly, Pat Lam and most of the 7,000-plus in attendance in Galway were convinced George Clancy had erred on three occasions in favour of Leinster.

There were almost 14,000 passing judgement on Rolland at Ravenhill (where it is not uncommon for a decision against the home side to result in chants of “cheat”) and back in the studios Brent Pope agreed with Quinlan that Rolland’s call that a ruck had formed in penalising Peter O’Mahony for what seemed a legal steal on his feet in the 71st minute was wrong.

A similar penalty, and particularly the yellow card, against Paul O’Connell, looked equally harsh given he was first onto the ball and Dan Tuohy looked even more culpable in holding on. Just possibly O’Connell had begun to irritate Rolland by being in his ear too much – old habits die hard and all that for the former Munster captain.

By contrast, Jamie Heaslip had used his status as captain repeatedly, which may have been a factor in Clancy not yellow carding him for his late hit on Dan Parks. This could be argued both ways, and in fairness to Clancy, his TMO advised him against brandishing a yellow card.

Likewise, after asking if there was evidence of a “clear and obvious” forward pass for Jimmy Gopperth’s try-scoring offload to Gordon D’Arcy, his TMO advised him otherwise. Part of the problem, as is often the case, was the lack of a camera angle to provide conclusive evidence of a “clear and obvious” forward pass, although it looked for all the world like one.

Different angles
By contrast, Rolland did not go to the TMO after another potent Munster maul had again driven over the line. He couldn’t have been better placed in informing O’Connell “there’s no way the TV cameras will tell me anything different.” Still, it would have been interesting to see different angles.

But therein lies the rub. Referees are now damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. They have not been helped by the new protocol regarding forward passes. It’s made judgements more blurred and inconsistent, and increasingly more tries containing forward passes are being permitted than ever before.

The experiment in extending the use of the TMO was designed essentially to prevent the kind of cock-up perpetrated by Peter Allan and Jonathan Kaplan when allowing Mike Phillips’ try from Matthew Rees’ illegal quick throw at Cardiff against Ireland in 2011. But now referees are using them repeatedly for fear of having erroneously allowed a try. It doesn’t help that players are continually demanding the use of the TMO.

Indeed, perhaps the single most detrimental effect caused by the extended use of the TMO, is how it has reduced the respect for referees. Remember how rugby and its referees were the envy of other sports due to the respect players and coaches had for the game’s officials? Empowered as they were by adding ten metres to a penalty for any dissent, rugby referees rarely had to put up with more than an occasional, polite enquiry from the captain, with the addendum “sir”, and ne’er a word of criticism from coaches afterwards. Not any more.

In their increasing use of video replays, referees are also losing faith in their own eyes or their own instincts. So you have it that an excellent referee such as Nigel Owens went back to “the last but one ruck” to see if there was a fumble at the base (under his nose) as well as possible offside for JJ Hanrahan’s crosskick to Ronan O’Mahony with which Munster beat Scarlets in injury time. The officials also had a better view of that than any camera angle. Of course, it added to the drama, but the post-game wait of fully three minutes and 20 seconds was faintly ridiculous.

Technology envied
Time was when soccer probably envied rugby union its use of technology, but less so this season. Helpfully at least the IRB are considering a change in the revised scrum protocol, whereby the referee will no longer make the verbal instruction to scrumhalves to feed scrums, but rather signal visually.

What more can be done? Aside from greater clarity on what constitutes a forward pass, the game may be better served from this experimental expansion of the TMO’s powers to ape cricket by allowing teams use of official “appeals”, restricting them to, say, two per match, which must be conveyed to the referee only by the captain.

If, as in cricket, a team uses up their two “appeals”, and they thus cannot appeal a bad decision late on against them, then tough. It would reduce the noise levels in a referee’s ears, and also serve to extent the burden of responsibility onto captains, players and maybe coaches, while perhaps helping to restore some measure of respect for the men in the middle.

They need it. They’re losing it.

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