If football can ditch referee technology, why can’t rugby?

Referee Nika Amashukeli (right) positively reviews the try of England's Courtney Lawes during the Rugby World Cup 2023
TMO interventions create plenty of dead time in matches - PA/David Davies

With the Premier League forced to reevaluate the use of the Video Assistant Referee in the wake of Wolves’ stunner of an announcement on Wednesday, bidding to scrap the system after five years, what better time for rugby union to reevaluate its own relationship with the Television Match Official.

Note the emphasis on reevaluate because, as with the Premier League and VAR, the chances of years worth of technology being switched off in an instant feels highly unlikely.

If you dive deep into social media to see what football supporters make of the TMO you will surprisingly find admiration, mainly because rugby fans are able to hear the dialogue between referee and TMO while also seeing the replays of incidents on the big screen – all while football supporters are left with silence.

The TMO has now been part of rugby for 25 years and the game is still figuring out the most effective way to make use of it.

Fittingly, the first-ever use of the TMO in a Test match back in 2000 hinged on a decision by the TMO.  In that match between South Africa and England in Pretoria, Mark Lawrence’s deliberation was described in the Telegraph as “an agonising three minutes... in which the incident was replayed on television several times”.  Lawrence deliberated over whether Tim Stimpson had been illegally impeded by South Africa’s Andre Vos in trying to ground the ball and score.

Given the game is now considerably faster and more complex than it was back in 2000, that extra assistance has arguably never been more important.

As Wayne Barnes told Telegraph Sport shortly before his 100th Test: “We’re going to get some things wrong. We hope we don’t get the big stuff wrong, and I’m a big advocate of technology and the TMO. It has to be used right, to keep momentum in the game, but you want to get the big decisions right and that’s what we’re trying to achieve. Can we get every single knock-on, not straight, breakdown offence? No, it’s impossible.”

How, therefore, is the game trying to improve it? The latest TMO protocol update from 2022 set out the following guiding principles:

  • The referee remains the lead decision-maker

  • The protocol aims to deal in the space commonly defined as “CLEAR AND OBVIOUS”

  • The application of the TMO system must be credible and consistent

The introduction last year of the TMO bunker arguably undermined that first point, with referees favouring the fall-back option of having the bunker to rule whether an incident on the threshold of a red card should be upgraded from a yellow. We have not seen a straight red card in Test matches since then. Placing greater emphasis on reaching the right outcome has, unusually, dented the referee’s authority.

The TMO is never going to be out of the limelight and we are coming off two awkward incidents, the conclusion of Scotland-France - more a protocol issue, ruling on the field that a try had not been scored rather asking ‘is there any reason not to award the try...’ - and audio between the TMO and a TV director accidentally being broadcast during Saracens’ recent game with Harlequins regarding which replays should be broadcast.

There was also criticism of the TMO following last year’s Rugby World Cup final, with the match decried as too stop-start, too reliant on off-field assistance. Four yellow cards were given, with one upgraded to a red for Sam Cane and an Aaron Smith try was also disallowed.

Accuracy versus entertainment is rugby’s 21st century turmoil.

Super Rugby Pacific has been the testing ground for the game’s recent innovations and this year that has extended to the TMO, trying to decrease the number of interventions.

Figures released by New Zealand Rugby earlier this month emphasised how the competition has been trying to cut “dead time” out of the game. “TMO interventions have been reduced to 1.3 per game in 2024 compared to 1.6 last season, and the 2024 interventions have taken an average of one minute and 12 seconds less time. Try checking has dropped by 34 seconds, and managing foul play has reduced by 38 seconds.”

Those figures are encouraging, a sign that the usage of the TMO can be improved rather than ditched altogether.

One way to potentially quash any nostalgic urges for rugby to bin the TMO and leave everything in the hands of the referee again would be to run a trial in a high-profile Test match without any TMO input, and see how supporters react when a major incident goes against their team which cannot be checked and corrected. With frustration, or begrudging acceptance? It would make for an interesting experiment.

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