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To refer … or not to refer

Sandra McDonnell consults herself on the vexed issue of video technology

For my sins – including leaving my husband and kids to fend for themselves at no small cost to the quiet order of the McDonnell kitchen – I spent much of yesterday glued to the BT Sports television channel, watching first the English Premiership Final between Saracens and Northampton Saints and then Jonny Wilkinson’s triumphant swansong in France’s Top 14 play-off final.

The former was something of an epic – I’ll leave readers to read the newspaper reports for the details – but suffice it to say that Saints won their first-ever Premiership title after 20 minutes’ extra time. At 17-20 down with five minutes left, they needed a just a penalty or drop goal to win because, having scored two tries to one, a draw was enough. To the amazement of most watching, as the clocked ticked past full-time, instead they instigated a 24-phase all-out attack which ended with a converted try under the posts to prevail 24-20.

For this observer, however, the story was one of rugby’s use of the TMO [i.e. video technology].

Never mind that, in modern rugby, squint line-out throw-ins and scrum put-ins regularly go unpunished, contrary to the latest referee directives.

Also that – to the observer in the stands and at home on television – ‘flat’ passes abound because the arcane rules upon what constitutes a forward pass depend not upon whether the ball actually goes forward or not, but exclusively upon whether the passer’s hands appear to move ‘backwards’ or not after the ball leaves them (the former is okay).

The issues yesterday arose from the vagaries involved when a referee has the option to refer a move to the TMO.

videoWhen the TMO system was originally introduced, it was confined to the decision as to whether or not a try had been scored or not (most often to do with the grounding). If the referee’s vision of a possible try was obscured, or he was unsure, he would refer the decision upstairs. The TMO’s authority was then limited by the question the referee asked.

If he said “Is there any reason I cannot award a try?”, he was clearly minded to award one … unless the TMO could spot something that meant he shouldn’t. But if he asked “Try or no try?”, or “Was the ball grounded?” or “Was the ball grounded correctly?”, he was indicating that he was leaving it to the TMO official to decide the issue.

This season the system was altered and extended so that, as regards the scoring of a try, the referee could ask the TMO to review not just the grounding of the ball but the entirety of the move leading to the try. In other words, had there been anything at all (e.g. whether an imperfect grounding, a knock-on, a forward pass, ‘crossing’, or even blocking of a prospective tackler) that meant the try should not be awarded.

It also allowed the referee to stop play at any time in the match – i.e. not only in the action preceding a possible try – in order to check a potential breach of the rules, for example a possible spear-tackle or instance of foul play.

The controversial aspect of the rules this season is the inconsistent way in which the TMO referrals are conducted.

Sometimes, once a referee has referred something upstairs, he ‘steps back’ and leaves it to the TMO to decide the issue.

On other occasions, having watched on the big screen in the stadium the same footage that the TMO has at his disposal, the referee ‘takes back’ the decision from the TMO by saying words the effect (for example) “That’s it, I don’t need your decision. Having seen the video I’m satisfied that was foul play …” and he then awards a penalty to the aggrieved team and sometimes even issues a yellow card (or worse) to the perpetrator.

The inconsistency lies in whether, having called in the TMO, the referee then accepts, or ought to accept, that he has effectively passed the issue ‘upstairs’ for a definitive decision … or whether (as sometimes seems the case) he presumes that he – not the TMO official – is still in control and is simply taking a look at the video coverage for his own purposes.

This is sometimes complicated by instances where, once the video footage has been played from every angle, the referee begins a discussion with the TMO, e.g. “Bill, having seen the video, I’m of the view that, whilst it is a penalty for foul play, there wasn’t sufficient in it for me to issue a yellow card. Do you agree?” and, almost invariable, the TMO does.

That’s the background.

Yesterday, on the flow of play, either Premiership team in the Final could have won (it was 14-14 at the end of normal time).

You could certain have argued that, on the day, neither deserved to lose after a long, hard season – and indeed Final, which for the first time ever had to resort to extra time – in which both clubs had undoubtedly given their all.

Yet Saracens had two tries disallowed after TMO interventions and both instances were ‘interesting’.

FarrellThe first occurred when Northampton were leading in normal time and Saracens were making desperate efforts to get back in the game. A break was made from halfway on the left-hand side of the field, ending with Owen Farrell crossing the whitewash and then, in the act of kicking the ball away in celebration, either injured himself or succumbed to a severe attack of leg cramp.

However, from my view on television – and that of all Saints fans at the game – the last but one pass in the move, from Alex Goode to his wing, was definitely forward – possibly by as much as five to seven yards. The BT Sport video replays seemed to confirm it and their pundits, reviewing the sequence ‘live’ on air, commented that Saints had been hard done-by.

Nevertheless, the referee (J.P. Doyle) had immediately awarded the try – so, travesty or not – we all presumed that was the end of the matter.

But it wasn’t. As Farrell, still in agony, was being tended to by a physio behind the try-line and (as a result) Alex Goode made to take the conversion attempt in his place, the TMO official called up the referee on his ear-piece and said he would like to check for a ‘forward pass’.

Doyle duly made the ‘square (television) box’ sign with his hands and – after the video replays – he and the TMO official agreed that the try should be disallowed. The irony is that, had the TMO official’s intervention occurred after Goode had taken his kick, the try would have stood.

On the second occasion, apparently after protests from Saints players, Doyle referred the Saracens ‘try’ to the TMO, asking for confirmation not only that the grounding was okay but that there had not been a ‘blocking’ manoeuvre by Saracens Number 8 (Billy Vunipola) on Dickinson – his Saints opposite number – which prevented Dickinson making a tackle on Saracens winger Chris Ashton who had made the initial break. The TMO said the grounding was fine but that there had indeed been a block on Dickinson … and therefore the try should be disallowed.

This Premiership Final demonstrated that further work needs to be done on the use of video in rugby refereeing decisions. Specifically, further clarification is required on three points.

Firstly, on whether the referee ought to consult the TMO official on every occasion a try has been scored. Quite often they do so even when – to the naked eye – there seems nothing to suggest that a try has not been scored. Yet, in the instance of the Farrell ‘try’ mentioned above, referee Doyle did not go to the TMO, but awarded the try straight away. The issue here is whether the referee is in sole charge of the match … or should the TMO perhaps always be involved when a try is scored, just to ensure that no material (i.e. score) injustice has occurred?

Secondly, on whether the referee remains in charge of all officiating match decisions even if he seeks a review of the video footage, or whether – in so requesting – he effectively passes over the specific decision to the TMO official and will simply implement whatever the latter decides.

Thirdly, on whether (and in what circumstances) the TMO official can intervene, as it were ‘from the sky’, at any time during a match in order to point out something the referee has – or may have – missed.





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About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts