Referees need to trust their decisions instead of referring minor incidents to the TMO

Ulster’s game against Zebre last week included perfect examples of what’s fast becoming a time-consuming menace

Referee Nigel Owens looks on during a TMO decision in the second half of the Ireland v New Zealand clash that ruled out an Israel Dagg try. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Referee Nigel Owens looks on during a TMO decision in the second half of the Ireland v New Zealand clash that ruled out an Israel Dagg try. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

If you wanted an example of a real farce, you’d have found one on your television last Saturday as Ulster were playing Zebre away. And no, I’m not talking about the level of analysis coming from me and Frankie Sheahan on the couch. I’m talking about the messing about between the referee Andrew McMenemy, his assistants and the television match official. It was comical stuff.

There were two incidents in particular, one at the end of each half. They were both almost identical. Both times, the assistant called the referee’s attention to an infringement he thought he might have seen. The first was for use of the boot by Mauro Bergamasco and the second was for a swinging arm by Dan Tuohy. At least that’s what he suspected. Both times his words to the referee were, “I think maybe we should go to the TMO”.

Before this season, he would have had to make a decision himself. He would have had to give McMenemy a recommendation and the game would have continued without any sort of hold up. But since the new TMO protocols have come in this season allowing referees to go back and check for foul play, this is what is starting to happen more and more.

Communication system
Referees and their assistants being over-careful and checking every last little thing.

So they went to the TMO. Or they tried to go to the TMO. But the communication system wasn’t working. Eventually, he had to use a mobile phone to ask the TMO to check for an infringement that the assistant thought he might have seen but wasn’t too sure about. On TV you could hear his side of the conversation but not the TMO’s. It was like watching Deal Or No Deal.

The problem then was that neither time could the TMO find any footage that showed what the assistant was talking about. For Bergamasco, all you could see was him trying to pull Mike McComish out of a ruck before somebody walked in front of the camera. For Tuohy, they tried a few different camera angles but couldn’t find the passage of play that the assistant was talking about.

All the while, the referee was standing there with the phone to his ear.

In the end, there was no evidence to back up either claim. So it came back to the assistant for his recommendation. And on both counts, he just went with his initial impression. Penalty against Bergamasco, penalty against Tuohy. All in all, the two stoppages added six minutes and 30 seconds to the game. And we can’t even be sure whether or not the calls were correct in the end.

It was a perfect storm. There were communication problems – both with technology and with a language barrier between a Scottish ref and an Italian assistant. There was a lack of a big screen with would have allowed the referee to come to a decision himself. And there were very few camera angles so you couldn’t tell for sure what had happened in either case. So it all just looked like a complete farce.

Key point
But the key point is that last season the game would have continued and nobody would have been any the wiser. There was no player on either side complaining or looking for a penalty. If the assistant wasn’t sure whether an offence had taken place, the game wouldn’t have been stopped.

Even if he’d decided that he was sure and play had been stopped, it would only have been for a few seconds both times while he told the referee what to award. So much simpler. And quicker.

This is happening far too often now. There are more stoppages and they’re lasting longer. Games are going on for 90 minutes and often more. When Italy played Fiji a few weeks ago, the first half took 59 minutes to play. There were four yellow cards for Fiji and the referee went to the TMO six times. In one half!

Everybody is in favour of more clarity and getting the big calls right. When it comes to making sure that there was no infringement in the build-up to a try, it only makes sense.

When Ireland lost to Wales in 2011 because of the Mike Phillips try, there would have been a lot of trouble saved if Jonathan Kaplan could have gone to the TMO.

Instead he asked the linesman if Matthew Rees has used a different ball and the linesman said no. It was an honest mistake obviously but it cost Ireland the game and if the TMO had been available, it wouldn’t have happened.

So when you’re talking about the awarding or non-awarding of a try, it’s no problem to go back and check for a forward pass or an obstruction or whatever. There’s a natural gap at that point anyway as the conversion is being lined up. But when you’re starting to check for small things, you’re just killing the flow of the game.

It comes down to a lot of the referees and assistants not taking responsibility for their decisions. Referees cop out for fear that they get some little thing wrong. You see it especially with young referees who are trying to make their way in the game and want to do everything to the letter of the law. This is always the danger when you widen the scope of what technology can be used for.

Apart from anything else, it can be confusing for the referee. When Munster played Ospreys last month, Ivan Dineen went over for a try just coming up to half-time but the referee sent it to the TMO to ask had the scrum that started the move been completed properly.

Open play
But the protocols that have been sent out to the referees say you can’t actually do that. The TMO can look for infringements in open play but the scrum and line-out are the referee’s responsibility. If that referee thought there was a problem with the scrum, he should have called it there and then. But he obviously had it in his head that he could go back and check anyway so he let play develop.

It’s understandable in a way because it’s a pressure situation. But once you get away from the simple try or no try decision, you’re going to get bogged down and people are going to lose patience. You can even see it now in France where the crowds are starting to boo and whistle when the game is stopped for a TMO referral. That’s only going to happen more and more.

Going to the TMO for incidents of foul play is where the problem really is. There wasn’t a whole lot wrong with the system that was in place. Of all people, I should know – I fell foul of it enough times. The times when players get away with things are rare enough. If the referee or assistant doesn’t get you, the citing commissioner will.

I know there’s an argument for saying that a citing and suspension still allows a player to affect the game he’s playing in, whereas the TMO can now punish him there and then. But is that really worth slowing the game down to such an extent?

When South Africa played Argentina during the summer, Jean de Villiers was complaining that one of the Springboks players was eye-gouged and he wanted Steve Walsh the referee to go back and check on it. You could hear Walsh say at the time that they’d leave it for the citing commissioner but De Villiers kept at him.

In the end they went back and checked it but couldn’t find anything. So the game was held up and it all came to nothing.

Maybe that’s just an inevitable consequence of the rules. It’s really frustrating and really annoying but maybe for instances of serious foul play, that’s a price worth paying. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere. People can usually tell when there has been a high tackle or a tip tackle or something seriously out of line.

There weren’t too many high -profile mistakes made when it was just down to the referee to decide on the punishment. Welsh people might argue that Alain Rolland could have come to a different decision with Sam Warburton in the World Cup, but even with the benefit of a replay that still comes down to a judgement call. Would there have been a different decision? You can’t be definitive.

Nitty-gritty
When you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of judgement calls, that’s when you find trouble. When England played Australia a couple of weeks ago, George Clancy went to the TMO for Owen Farrell’s try to check had Dylan Hartley obstructed Stephen Moore to make room for Farrell. I thought it was a penalty and the try shouldn’t have been given; the referee thought differently and awarded the try. So technology isn’t going to solve all arguments.

Now if that’s the price you have to pay for getting the awarding or tries right, then fair enough. But this thing of going to the TMO because an assistant thinks he might have seen a swinging arm somewhere along the line three or four minutes ago has to be ironed out. Make it for serious foul play, not pernickety stuff.

Otherwise, these games are going to be going on for close to two hours. People will vote with their feet and start losing interest. The new scrum laws came in because too much time was being wasted setting and resetting them. It would be stupid to fix one problem but then create another.

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