Owen Doyle: TMOs have their part to play but they must not overplay it
Improvements in technology have put referees back in control but TMOs play key sweeper role
Referee Pascal Gauzere gestures to go to the TMOduring the Rugby World Cup Group D game between Fiji and Uruguay at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium. Photograph: Ken Ishii/Getty Images
World Rugby have made a significant and very welcome investment in Hawk-Eye technology. The 2019 model is the most sophisticated ever, and is a real assistance to match officials in reaching clear, accurate and consistent decisions.
It’s actually just like having high definition, full colour, multiple camera CCTV evidence – live and available in real time. It’s that good.But it was not alway so.
In the beginning a different system was in place, and it was capable of high level inefficiency; if that’s an oxymoron, I’m sticking with it. The screen was sometimes the size of a current iPad, and the TMO would then only assist with try or no try events.
The communication system was more than ropey, and sometimes disappeared altogether, leaving a lot of egg on a lot of faces.
A long time ago in Marseilles France played South Africa. France went over in the corner – try or no try? Communication dead as a dodo.
So, a French official was designated to run back through the tunnel and out to the TMO truck in the car park to get the answer. This was a surreal moment, as the crowd waited . . . it seemed an age before he re-emerged – exhausted but beaming widely, thumbs up, try to France. The stadium erupted! Some wags suggested he’d gone only as far as the dressingroom and hadn’t gone near the TMO!
It was so bad that several referees resorted to bringing their mobile phone out with them, so they could dial up the TMO – I kid you not, it was Basil Fawlty at his best.
Bit by bit, the system expanded the TMO’s duties, and this included forward passes. Initially, this proved awfully confusing, with the TMO getting different information from two cameras – one showing the pass backwards. The other forward.
This is called the parallax effect – it is the difference between the apparent position of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight. Try closing one eye and line up your forefinger in front of your nose, now open that eye and close the other . . . yes, your finger has “moved”.
So, where are we now?
The TMO has everything he could possibly need: He has a multi-screen capability, a delayed screen, and a screen which can be split to view several angles at once. And importantly, he has Hawk-Eye technicians to hand who will “drive” the system. And communication is crystal clear.
Now, with all this equipment the next things required are human – a keen knowledge of the process allied to high concentration levels. The TMO is effectively the sweeper for the referee, and if something is missed, then he must pick it up.
It is a role very different from refereeing, and not many former Test referees are too interested in doing it, and perhaps that’s a pity. There is ample evidence though that such a qualification is not necessary, and of the four at this Rugby World Cup, only Marius Jonker has refereed at the highest level.
The relationship with the referee must be one of implicit trust, and the TMOs in Japan will have worked before with all of the referee group. My own view is that four is one or two short, and with 48 matches in total these guys will be worked very hard, 12 matches each.
Any of the match officials – referee, assistants, and the TMO himself – can advise a TMO referral, and this is most seen to clarify scoring and when foul play is involved. Once all the camera angles are available, the TMO has these put up on the big screen. Then the referee must take the lead in the subsequent discussion as he arrives at his decision; the TMO may assist him by pointing out, but not leading, any issue that may not be immediately clear to the referee.
I don’t want to harp on about the incident involving Fiji’s Peceli Yato, but it provides a good example. Not having been advised by the TMO that anything was amiss, either the referee or the assistant referee could have called for a referral. The fact there was an injury should have provided the trigger to do so.
Some of these foul play collisions are sickening, and, while the TMO will see them, he won’t hear them; but the on-field officials will, providing another trigger.
In the U20 World Cup an Irish player was laid out by an Australian forearm, but nobody asked for a referral with the injury trigger sticking out a mile.
A recent wise move by World Rugby is to make it mandatory for there to be a referral when a red card is to be given. In practice, that’s normally what happens but its important to confirm it, and ensure that the process is never rushed. Though, in truth, it can be frustratingly long on occasions when the outcome is obvious.
In 2018, WR reviewed the TMO protocol and got together a high-profile group which was inclusive of referees, TMOs and also coaches – Joe Schmidt and Ian Foster (the All Blacks number two); also Jamie Heaslip to provide a player view.
Importantly, a key outcome is that the referee now must – unless he is completely unsighted – make an on-field decision, So, instead of asking the TMO ‘try or no try?’ or ‘is there any reason I cannot award a try?’ the referee will go to the TMO with, for example, ‘the onfield decision is try, can we please look at that again’? The video angles will then go up, and the referee will lead the discussion to finalise that he’s happy, or not, with it.
As the sharp end of this tournament approaches the importance of accuracy is paramount, it cannot be overemphasised.
TMOs have their part to play. They must play it. And not overplay it.
Owen Doyle is a former Test referee and former director of referees with the IRFU. He will be writing for The Irish Times throughout the World Cup.