By Scott MacLean
Television Match Official. TMO. Three words and an acronym that at the very least spark debate amongst rugby fans and at worse inspire absolute vitriol.
The TMO was introduced to try and ensure that decisions at the scoring ends of the field were as correct as possible. However, in more recent times its scope and influence on the events in the field has been steadily increasing, to the point it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s actually in charge of the game; the one with the whistle or the TV monitor.
The nadir of all of this has been the game’s biggest stage, the Rugby World Cup.
What the TMO can currently be involved in is covered off in Laws 6.A.7 (b) & (c) of the Laws of the Game. Critically they allow for the TMO to initiate a review, and clearly at the RWC they seemed to have been given an increased mandate to do that.
That become evident right from the opening game of the World Cup when the contest between England and Fiji was punctuated by regular interjections from TMO Shaun Veldsman to referee Jaco Peyper to ‘check check check’, setting the tone for the opening week. Unfamiliar with this operating practice, Peyper looked flustered, out-of-sorts, and seemingly unable to back himself. Perhaps concerned by the amount of TMO time, he didn’t go upstairs on one occasion he should have when caught out of position, awarding a try to Fiji that actually wasn’t. While the correct outcome of a knock-on in-goal was eventually reached and the try disallowed, it just added to the mess.
That continued through most of pool play as referees – and everyone else – adjusted to this new world order. It’s no coincidence that Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes – more accustomed to this way of doing things through their work in the English, Celtic, and European competitions – visibly handled things better than most, particularly those from south of the equator.
Games slowly ground to halt as the use of the TMO shot through the roof, killing momentum on the pitch, and atmosphere in the stands and interest front of TV’s around the world. Lengths of games went into unchartered territory, with the first half of one pool match taking a ridiculous 59 minutes to complete. Even those who back the TMO calling in for foul play were painted into a corner when incidents like the Sean O’Brien punch on Pascal Papé were missed at the time.
The inevitable conclusion of all this was reached was reached when something happened that couldn’t be referred. Craig Joubert may have been appallingly thrown under the bus by World Rugby suits for his decision, made in a nanosecond in real time, at the end of the Australia v Scotland quarter-final, but he could not have gone to the TMO no matter how critical it was.
I’m not saying the TMO is an easy job, though Veldsman and George Ayoub – two men who weren’t up to scratch for the on-field roles – have somehow managed to be employed as one at the highest level. It’s a pressure role and even Vinny Munro, NZ Rugby’s Referee Development Manager and a vastly experienced man at domestic and international level, found himself at the centre of the furore of the conclusion to this season’s Hurricanes vs Chiefs clash when he failed to notice that the reason Sam Cane lost the ball forward was because Chris Eves batted out of his hands while prone on the ground. Those filling the role at ITM Cup matches, usually experienced local referees, have come in for criticism and scrutiny when having to deal with events viewed on a 20-inch screen rather than on the pitch, and slowed-down to the point where they start looking for the almost imperceptible rather than the ‘clear and obvious’; Waikato’s disallowed try against Taranaki in the ITM Cup being a perfect example.
The issue isn’t all with the people though; it’s also the system they operate within. The current TMO operations have blurred the lines of control too much in the search for perfection, and this past RWC should be a watershed moment that technology cannot solve everything. The TMO shouldn’t be done away with (we saw what happened when the ITM Cup operated without them for one season), but should only be a resource the referee can call upon, ideally where they can also view the footage and drive the conversation.
In many respects, we saw this in the final with the Ben Smith incident. Veldsman waited until called upon by Owens to give his input (on the recommendation of Assistant Referee Barnes), and although the subsequent conversation may have driven Owens from his initial judgment of a penalty only, the way it looked and presented was a vast improvement.
What this RWC showed (and to a lesser extent in the ITM Cup) is that referees who have reached the top by being empowered to make good, instant decisions suddenly find themselves in a land of second-guessing when the man in the box can get themselves involved. What World Rugby need to do is put the game back into the referees hands and deploy the resources they have to enable that and return the game to the free-flowing spectacle it should be. How the Smith incident in the final was handled should be the starting point going forwards.
The question is though, will they do that?
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