Gerry Thornley: Sport is inconsistent, so referee decisions will be too

By reducing TMO’s scope to overturn an onfield decision, reviews can fly in the face of technology

One of the former Irish internationals who now populate the press room recently expressed the view that refereeing did not have an undue bearing on the World Cup. That the results would have panned out the same way regardless.

It’s a nice thought, and it’s one you’d like to share, but there’s a counter argument which, given Wayne Barnes’ three scrum penalties against Ireland and never mind how several rucks might have been viewed in Ireland’s final drive, says that the New Zealand-Ireland quarter-final might have had a different outcome with a different referee.

No doubt many French people would have the same feeling about their team’s quarter-final defeat by South Africa, as would many Fijians after their quarter-final loss to England.

The heightened use of technology was meant to reduce this problem, if not eradicate it, but much like VAR in soccer, in some ways it has only fuelled controversy. This is in large part because – even if with the benefit of countless replays – so many decisions remain subjective.


Things reached a sorry, if inevitable, impasse when the outcome of the Scotland-France game last Saturday hinged upon the replay-assisted verdict of the referee Nic Berry and the TMO Brian MacNeice in the final play of the game.

In all probability, the Scottish flanker Sam Skinner grounded the ball but in the absence of definitive proof, decisions like this are not made on probability, all the more so when Berry said his onfield decision was no try.

This protocol, at the behest of World Rugby, is designed to speed up decisions and grant match referees more authority where before the latter would usually have asked: “try, yes or no?”. By reducing the TMO’s scope to overturn a referee’s onfield decision, reviews can fly in the face of technology.

Another clear illustration of this occurred in the France-Ireland game in Marseille when referee Karl Dickson and one of his touch judges deemed that the onfield decision in the 53rd minute was that the French lock Paul Gabrillagues had scored a try.

It was probably a wrong call. There was no evidence whatsoever of Gabrillagues grounding the ball on the line. The TMO, Ben Whitehouse, should have advised Dickson to change his decision. Fortunately, that had no bearing on the outcome, nor the erroneous call by Whitehouse preceding it to penalise Jack Crowley when the Irish outhalf had clearly won the ball legitimately in the air.

Even cricket, which is far more scientific and can call upon a “snickometer” and “ball tracking”, can have the exact same outcome to an lbw decision when the ball is clipping the top of leg stump depending on whether the umpire’s onfield decision is “out” or “not out”.

But, in rugby, it would be far more preferable for TMOs to overrule referees if that is the evidence in front of them.

Then rugby might review more of these decisions correctly. And that’s all we can ask. Because no matter how many times former players or coaches or managers declare: “all we want is consistency”, that is never going to happen. Sport is inconsistent. Officials are inconsistent, just like players. Heck, life is inconsistent.

Of course, the problem is that the bigger the furore about a decision such as Skinner’s “non-try”, the more it is commented upon, written about and dissected on television, radio, podcasts, mainstream media and social media. And the more TMOs and referees are going to be paralysed by the certainty of impending analysis.

It also serves managers and coaches especially to intensify the debate around officials and their decisions, and in doing so, deflect from analysis of their own team’s performances.

In the immediate fallout of the Murrayfield endgame, to Finn Russell’s credit, he struck the right balance when commenting:

“Personally I believe it was a try at the end, but it’s up to the referee to decide that,” the Scottish outhalf said. “We can’t let the referee decide what happens in a game. It’s up to us to play better and make these matches a victory.”

Indeed, as Brian Clough was wont to say, if you want to make sure you win a game go 2-0 up instead of 1-0.

And when the dust settled and the Scottish squad reviewed the game, they will privately admit that at the very minimum Duhan van der Merwe should have been yellow carded and France awarded a close-range penalty when blatantly offside after collaring Gael Fickou with what might also have been deemed a seatbelt tackle.

Furthermore, Russell and Gregor Townsend will surely regret how Scotland messed up the restart reception after going 13-3 up in the first half, how Russell engaged in that tedious game of aerial ping-pong after the hour mark when only 16-10 ahead, and most of all when not scanning outside and realising they had the numbers for a walk-in try before Skinner was denied a clear grounding.

In all of this, Scotland’s performance was not true to themselves and particularly the spirit of Russell and Townsend as players. “Never die wondering” and all that.

Remember that wondrous lobbed pass in his own 22, leaving Jonathan Joseph to what must have looked like a meteor from outer space, which released Huw Jones before Russell’s deft little basketball pass for Sean Maitland to score in Scotland’s 25-13 win over England in 2018? Where was that Russell last week?

When they have finished seeking an apology and admittance of wrongdoing by World Rugby, and if they really dissect their performance last Saturday, then Townsend, Russell et al will come to the realisation that they were every bit as culpable as the officials for losing to a French team which, though they dug deep, were there for the beating.

In which case, looking ahead to next Saturday’s intriguing Calcutta Cup match, how last Saturday’s endgame in Murrayfield panned out might be bad news for England.

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