Wayne Barnes sets dangerous precedent by allowing TV producers influence games

Referee had no business referring either of two recent controversial incidents to the respective TMO

The last time South Africa played a match, four weeks ago, they ended a five-match losing run against New Zealand and in the process ended the All Blacks' unbeaten sequence of 22 games thanks to a late Pat Lambie penalty that, strictly speaking, was both a correct punishment for the crime committed yet also a profoundly flawed decision. It also highlighted the increasingly flawed way technology is being used in rugby.

With less than three minutes remaining at Ellis Park, the Springboks knocked on with the score 25-24 to New Zealand and Wayne Barnes awarded the All Blacks a scrum. During a break in play due to an injury, the big screen repeatedly showed Liam Messam catching the head of his counterpart as a back-row replacement, Schalk Burger, with a one-armed 'tackle'.

Presumably these TV replays were controlled by South African television and amid much booing from the home crowd each time the incident was shown, the Springboks’ captain Jean de Villiers complained to Barnes about foul play against one of his players. Barnes, remarkably, in turn went to his TMO to ask if there was anything he should look at. There appeared to be confusion between the two officials as to what exact point they should be referring back to before eventually the promptings of big screen and crowd alike drew them to the incident.

It has to be said Barnes had had a very good game up until this point. His decision-making had been clear and decisive, and generally his decisions had been on the money too. But this appeared to be a clear case of pandering to the home TV producers, crowd and captain.


The penalty

In any event, Barnes awarded the penalty against Messam. Although Burger had dipped into the tackle, that Messam had swung a stiff left arm in an upward motion meant the decision was correct, and Pat Lambie kicked the 54-metre penalty to earn the 27-25 win which, on balance, the Springboks also deserved.

To their credit, both the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and their coach Steve Hansen (for whom this was only a second defeat in his 37 games at the helm) maintained that Messam was unlucky, accepted that the decision was correct, that no blame should be apportioned to Wayne Barnes and that South Africa deserved to win.

But none of that is the point. The real concern about this episode is how the home TV broadcaster influenced the outcome of the game through their actions. In a contact sport such as rugby, numerous incidents of this nature happen throughout the course of any game. Would the Ellis Park giant screens have relayed an act of foul play by a Springbok had the home broadcaster seen such an incident? By doing what he did, Barnes opened up a huge can of worms, whereby home TV broadcasters can now influence key decisions by match officials.

Incredibly, a fortnight later, Barnes again undermined himself and referees everywhere in the game between Toulouse and Montpellier on the first weekend of the European Champions Cup.

With the score at 3-3l and Montpellier on top, they worked a blindside move from deep in their own half which culminated in fullback Benjamin Fall sending Samisoni Viriviri over for what should have been one of the tries of the season.

None of the officials had seen anything untoward, including Barnes, who had awarded the try and was walking back from the in-goal area for the ensuing conversion. Whereupon, the Toulouse captain, Thierry Dusautoir, approached Barnes and claimed he had been obstructed at the original scrum. Incredibly, Barnes contacted his TMO again and asked him to go back to the original scrum.

Dusautoir had been tugged, marginally, having broken from the scrum illegally. It assuredly would have been a try anyway if he had obeyed the rules. Instead, Barnes decreed that the ‘try’ should not be awarded, but that Dusautoir be penalised for breaking off the scrum too early, so penalty 80 metres back to Montpellier. It was ridiculous. Dusautoir looked almost embarrassed, as if he had been rewarded for chancing his arm. Even Guy Noves, the Toulouse coach, looked sheepish. His counterpart Fabien Galthie bore a look of stunned bewilderment.

Perhaps these incidents show the potential flaws were the International Rugby Board to adopt a challenger system akin to tennis or cricket, although there's every chance that if he had been limited to one or two challenges per game, Dusautoir wouldn't have dared to waste one on such a flimsy premise.

No business

But until such time as a challenger system is introduced, Barnes had no business referring either instance to the TMO on appeal by the home captains (with the help of the home TV broadcaster and crowd in the first example).

One ventures that were a ‘challenge’ system introduced (limited perhaps to one per half by each team, and whether involving the coaches or not) there should certainly be a very short time limit so as to curtail the influence of television broadcasters and crowd alike.

The advent of the TMO and his expanded role has increasingly undermined referees and their assistants, while making them less secure in their own adjudicating.

This season’s Leinster-Munster game lasted 106 minutes – 52 minutes for the first-half and 54 minutes for the second – yet the ball was in play for only 36 minutes, with injuries and recourse to the TMO taking up the remainder of the game. Do the maths. And if the game continues like this, what are the odds of ‘ad’ breaks during the stoppages?

The IRB had countenanced the introduction of 'captain's challenges' but decided it couldn't be trialled and adopted in time for the 2015 World Cup, and therein lies another problem; the snail's pace at which IRB bureaucracy moves.

Until such time as a captain's challenge is adopted, referees would be best advised to ignore them as much as possible for, ironically, in recent weeks, it could be argued that nobody has undermined referees' own fading authority than one of their own. gthornley@irishtimes.com