World Rugby has come under fire from one of its leading referees for introducing the television match official “bunker” at such short notice before this year’s World Cup.
French referee Mathieu Raynal also believes that officials should be able to explain their decisions to the media after a match.
World Rugby, with backing from its match-official body, introduced its new ‘bunker’ system – where referees refer incidents of foul play that meet a yellow-card threshold to a secondary TMO for further analysis and evaluation while the match continues – during this summer’s Rugby Championship and warm-ups ahead of the sport’s showpiece event in the autumn. The World Cup itself was then plagued by controversial refereeing decisions. A handful of officials, such as Englishman Wayne Barnes, received death threats.
Raynal, who refereed England’s victories against both Argentina and Fiji at the World Cup in France, has bemoaned the lack of transparency created by the bunker.
“I think it was probably a mistake to put the bunker in at the last moment just before the World Cup without practising it and using it more,” said the 42-year-old after being named as France’s best referee at the French rugby awards this week. “That was a mistake. It was tough, too, because you send a situation to the bunker, they come back to you with a decision, and you cannot explain to the world why you made that decision.
“Before that, we could put words on the footage and could take people by the hands and they followed us until the final decision. That was interesting in terms of communication and explanation. Now, with the bunker, we cut this relationship with the people in front of their TVs or the people in the stands, which was difficult.
“I said, before the World Cup, when we discussed how we should communicate in front of the press if there had been a mistake that changed the game. My view on that is we have to keep it very simple – I go and sit on a chair, and explain, ‘OK, guys, I made a mistake. The game was so quick, I made a mistake of judgement. I’m not sorry about it, as my job is to referee and mistakes can happen, but I am sad about it – but it is what it is. What do you want me to do? I will not jump off the top of a building because I made a mistake on the field.’ It’s the life of the referees.
“I hope we will keep the relationship between the coaches, referees, players and fans as simple as we can. It’s easier when you say to fans, ‘Yeah I made a mistake.’ What can we do after that?”
A World Rugby spokesperson told Telegraph Sport: “The bunker was born from outcomes at the 2022 ‘shape of the game’ meeting where coaches, match officials and administrators were unified in exploring ways to enhance accuracy of foul play decisions, while reducing game stoppage time.
“Change can be difficult to adjust to and we commend the match official team for embracing the concept in a professional manner.”
‘We must be careful about where we go as a sport’
The bunker – and the TMO generally – has developed into one of rugby’s biggest talking points, with former Australia head coach Eddie Jones claiming recently that the “use of the TMO is fraught with danger”. Raynal, however, would not be so quick to remove the presence of the official in the truck.
“It would be interesting to see a game without a TMO,” the Frenchman said. “After one mistake people would accept it, after two mistakes they’d start to complain and then after three mistakes they would ask for the TMO to be brought back. We cannot fight against mistakes or avoid refereeing mistakes. We just need to accept it, and we’ll lose less energy fighting for zero mistakes in a game.
“You can put a drone up, something in the ball, experts everywhere, 20 bunkers, but that won’t change the fact that at some moments you have to accept mistakes by referees. The game is very quick, we make decisions in a split-second.
“In rugby we forgive player mistakes, forgive coaching mistakes, but we never forgive refereeing mistakes. We accept that, but people need to understand that our sport is more important than victory or defeat.
“Rugby has to think about that, what they want exactly in the future, and what sort of sport we’re going to give to our children. We still have a sport that’s full of values – but it’s starting to change a little bit. We have to be careful in the next few years about where we go as a sport.”
The change regarding the sport’s values refers to the increasing trend of social media abuse. Telegraph Sport revealed last week how World Rugby had become the first sports governing body to take action against fans responsible for extreme online abuse of referees by passing dossiers of evidence to law-enforcement and government agencies – with 200 incidents identified across seven different countries.
“Obviously we cannot accept [social media abuse],” Raynal said. “We don’t accept it on the street, so why do we accept it on social media? I fully agree with Wayne [Barnes] on that. We have to be stronger. The laws and government have to be stronger on that, I think. That’s really important for referees – and sport, too.
“A part of you enjoys the World Cup because it’s a World Cup. It was in my country. It’s a big event in the world. But another part of you doesn’t like it because, as a group, we don’t like to be in the middle of controversy. I don’t like to see friends in the storm of social media. We try to do our best. We don’t say we are perfect. We cannot fight against the power of the footage, the power of slow motion and the power of social media. Even if we try our best, we cannot fight against that.”
Despite the increasing vitriol, however, Raynal has no plans to follow Barnes and hang up his boots just yet after winning his second successive best referee award at the Nuit du Rugby this week.
“It’s a huge honour to be elected referee of the year by the players, the coaches and the other referees,” he said. “It means a lot to me but more for my son. He’s so happy about it.”
Cockerill in running for Georgia role
By Charles Richardson
Richard Cockerill has emerged as a leading candidate for the vacant Georgia head coach role, just days after being sacked by Montpellier.
Telegraph Sport has learnt that the board of the Georgian Rugby Union will meet on Friday to discuss its vacancy, with Cockerill’s name a stand-out on the shortlist. Should he win the race, the 52-year-old would follow in the footsteps of his former Leicester team-mate, Graham Rowntree, who was part of the Georgian coaching ticket for the 2019 World Cup.
After leaving his role as England scrum coach at the culmination of the last Six Nations, Cockerill signed as an assistant to Philippe Saint-André in Montpellier. Both Cockerill and the French legend have left the French giants, owned by Mohed Altrad, this week, however, after a derby loss to Perpignan left them bottom of the Top 14, with one win in seven.
Controversially, Bernard Laporte has been lined up by Altrad as a replacement for the duo, arriving in Montpellier as a director of rugby alongside a new coaching team.
The former France head coach and ex-World Rugby vice chairman resigned as president of the Fédération Française de Rugby in January after being found guilty of an illegal conflict of interests, insider influencing, and four instances of passive corruption, each one “guided by a bias towards” Altrad, who is a close friend. Laporte is appealing the ruling.
Rene Bouscatel, president of France’s top league the Top 14, said: “It’s a question that only concerns those at the club and Bernard. It’s their business. I respect him on a sporting level, but it’s their business. In French law you’re innocent until proven guilty. We can think whatever we want but that’s what it is.
“It’s a choice that was made by Montpellier. It’s very good that someone with the skills and experience of Bernard comes to the club. It’s a club problem. Everyone makes their choices.”