What football can learn from rugby to make VAR better for fans – by ITV’s brains behind the camera

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'In rugby or cricket, you don't feel alienated from that process as a paying spectator, you are part of it,' says ITV's Paul McNamara

A VAR record was set at the weekend when it took more than five minutes for referee Jarred Gillett to conclude that Tomas Soucek had committed a deliberate handball; West Ham United manager David Moyes was predictably seething. It was merely the latest drama involving the beleaguered and controversial review system and there is no prospect of any let-up in a process that is, for many, spoiling the national game as a television spectacle.

There can be few people in British sport with a better view about the incidents and the issues than ITV’s Paul McNamara, its senior live director for major events.

Last week alone, McNamara directed the England v Ireland rugby classic at Twickenham, the horse racing at the Cheltenham Festival, and then the epic Manchester United v Liverpool FA Cup tie that gave ITV the biggest television audience of the year so far with a peak of 8.6 million as the game went into extra time.

‘I have the TMO sitting next to me in the broadcast truck’

So can football learn from rugby union in the way it handles the controversial officiating moments? McNamara reckons so, and explains some key differences in how the sports are broadcast and officiated at the most crucial moments.

“With the rugby internationals, I have the TMO [television match official] sitting next to me in the broadcast truck. When there is a review, we cut the commentary feed in the truck so he cannot be influenced by Nick Mullins or whoever is doing the ITV commentary. The TMO will ask me for replays, and he’ll explain to us and to everyone watching that he is checking for the knock-on, or whatever it might be.

“Obviously I don’t say to him, ‘Well that’s it, isn’t it?’ I’ll give him one of the camera angles, then another, or maybe the VT coordinator [video tape coordinator, who suggests to the director the best shots for broadcast] will say, ‘Hang on, there’s this other one here’. When he’s ready, the TMO will say, ‘OK, I’ve got enough to make my decision’. I’m not trying to editorialise or influence his decision. He’ll have as many angles and as long as he needs.

“So I’ve got maybe 16 operators, they’ve got a couple of angles each, there’s not really going to be anything that gets missed, touch wood. We use specialist crews for each sport and the camera operators really know their stuff. Someone will come up from the bottom of a scrum and they’ll know who committed the infringement, they know what they’re looking at. And the communication in rugby is pretty good: people in the stadium know what the ref’s checking for, the viewers know what is going on.”

‘In rugby, you know what they are checking; in football you do not’

Nobody is claiming the system in rugby union is flawless but it is surely better than football’s VAR. The viewer at home might think that the football TV bods are getting some sort of inside track to help them bring the national sport to the punters, but it is not so.

“We don’t have a relationship with Stockley Park. I’ve never been there, I don’t know what kind of set-up they have,” McNamara says. “We just get a feed from them and they run in the replays, I cut to the screen on the touchline when the ref goes over to it. I’m just reacting like the viewer is. We don’t know any more than the people at home.”

Jamie George - What football can learn from rugby to make VAR better for fans – by ITV's brains behind the camera

Could football communicate better?

“Yes, I think so. In rugby, you know what they are checking; in football, it could be a handball, or a tackle in the phase before, you don’t quite know as a viewer. It’s frustrating when you are in the stadium, you are following the ball, you don’t know. It wouldn’t hurt to be informed, would it? I am sure they have their reasons but the communication process has clearly been seen to have issues.”

The end result is confusion and delay and an inevitable sense of unfairness and bafflement. McNamara, who has directed live sport for 30 years and was previously the executive producer of the BBC’s Match of the Day, feels these are avoidable failings – for the experience of viewers at home and fans at the ground alike.

“In rugby or cricket, you don’t feel alienated from that process as a paying spectator, you are part of it. I feel sorry for the people in the stadium: take that Tottenham 1-4 Chelsea game earlier in the season. Nine VAR checks, 12 minutes added on in the second half. I preferred football as it was, before VAR. I don’t think you can sort everything out in life, can you? Things are not black and white. Not everything is absolutely certain.”

‘A good day is where nobody comments on the coverage’

You could argue that one by-product of VAR has been to pull too much focus from the action onto the televising, which would be anathema to the self-effacing McNamara.

RWC Final itv 19.00. Been an incredible 8 weeks working with brilliant talent,crews ,studios, outside broadcast providers. An amazing team effort.
In the directors' box - Paul McNamara

“A good day at the office is where nobody comments on the coverage at all,” he says. “You want to give the viewer the best seat in the house, you want them to leave the broadcast thinking they’ve had a great experience but they’ve not noticed why. We’ve all had that feeling watching live TV and you’re like, ‘Stop showing endless shots of the crowd’ or, ‘Why are you focusing on the English not the Irish players?’

“You’ve got to find the balance in the story, so maybe somebody scores but another player has made a mistake, or the goalie lets one in but you know that there’s a situation where the keeper on the bench has been left out for him, or there is an under-fire manager and you want to see the chairman up in the stands.

“You have to give people all the angles, be fair to all of the story, and you’re trying to do it without people chucking their pizza box at the TV. Basically you want to get in and get out without people noticing the coverage.”

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