Yesterday I read about the law changes for the Super Rugby competition of 2013 – nothing earth shattering but there were some interesting changes.
For those who watched the New Zealand ITM Cup last year two of the law experiments they used will come into play in Super Rugby. The first one is the 5-second ruck law which basically states that if a ball becomes available at a ruck for a team they will be given 5 seconds by the referee to play it. Failing this, the opposition will get a scrum.
The second law amendment has to do with the scrum where the engage call changes from; ‘Crouch, touch, pause – engage’ to a three-worded ‘Crouch, touch – set’.
There was also some changes to the quick throw-in law at line-outs which in my opinion is really irrelevant but all things considered, the above changes seems to be a positive move in the right direction.
The other, more contentious law amendment is the extended powers that will be given to the television match official, or the TMO.
Currently the TMO can only make calls for events or situations that happens in the in-goal area, or in the act of scoring a try. These powers had a limited influence on the game and with video technology always improving and angles upon angles being replayed to the television audience, referees became more exposed for either bad decisions, or things they could not see.
There was an outcry that the IRB should allow the television match official extended powers because as was said and written, if we have the technology, why not use it?
Last year some amendments were tried in competitions like the Currie Cup where the TMO could be called upon to look at possible dirty or foul play and identify culprits, and also to go back a couple of phases when a try was scored to see if a forward pass or any other transgression might have been missed by the referee.
In principle it all seems a good idea, but there are some folks out there (like me) that are not too keen on the idea of giving TMO’s more power, especially since they still could not get their calls right in a limited capacity 100% of the time.
I mention 100% for a very specific reason, because this is after-all the intention of using technology and some guy sitting in a box looking at replay after replay isn’t it, to eliminate human error in decision making from the guy on the park, or have I got this wrong?
To digress for a moment, I heard an interesting comment made during the recent cricket test against the Kiwi’s where the subject of DRS (decision review system) or cricket’s version of the TMO came up. If you follow cricket you will know that India seems dead-against this system or one specific area of it where a LBW decision is reviewed and technology is brought in to ‘predict’ the path of the ball after it struck the batsmen.
Their argument, which is a fair one in my opinion, is if a system which everyone admits is not 100% accurate in predicting a likely outcome, why use it at all?
The commentator made two very important points which is something I believe we all forget at times. Firstly, the use of technology in sport was developed for broadcasting purposes to add an extra dimension for viewers, not as a tool for officials to assist them in making decisions. Secondly, although the technology has been refined to assist in this aspect of sport, its purpose was never to remove decision-making powers from match officials on the field of play, but only to help eliminate the bad decisions.
Considering the above I have a few reservations about giving TMO’s extended powers. Top of my list is the actual technology available to TMO’s and their own competence. In the years we had the limited TMO powers in play we still saw a number of strange, if not outright ridiculous decisions made by these officials. Part of it I put on the competence of the folks in the box which we can control, but another part of it is the actual technology which is not at a level to make 100% correct decisions all the time. It got to a stage where if the on-field referee referred a decision, the guy upstairs seemed to think he had to make a decision even though most of it was based on guesswork.
Following on to the above we also started seeing on-field officials cop out of making decisions way too easily and refer just about everything, knowing that if they do accountability for their decisions are removed, and by removing accountability away from individuals you remove responsibility and any accurate way to measure competence.
All of this does not even touch on the frustration factor when television officials are called into play. While we get slightly irritated sitting on our couch after 50 replays at least we have audio from referees and commentators who are in touch with producers to keep us in the loop of the progress of the decision, but consider the poor souls sitting in the stands not even knowing what exactly has been referred and having to sit for 5 minutes or longer while producers and officials fall over themselves to get the right footage and all the right angles.
With the extended powers now given to TMO’s these problems are amplified ten-fold, because unless broadcasters puts up cameras along the length of the field one meter apart there is simply no way a forward pass, or off-side lines can be judged 100% accurately which means more guesswork from TMO’s trying to interpret whether the actions of a player was one of someone passing backwards looking at his hands… This does not even take into account the time it will take for producers to find specific instances in play (two phases back for tries scored or anywhere on the field for foul play) which the referee first has to communicate to the TMO who only then speaks to the producer.
The solution the commentators suggested for cricket was that technology, or the television match official, should only be used when you can have a 100% accurate decision made or when you can overturn or correct a blatantly bad decision by the on-field umpire – none of this prediction or guessing stuff. A principle rugby’s brains-trust would do well if they followed suit.
Rugby is of course a hell of a lot more dynamic than cricket which makes the accurate use of technology or TMO’s even more challenging, and I am not for one second suggesting we do not use technology to improve the game, but if we are going to continue to guess and accept human error as part and parcel of the game, I’d rather have the guy with the whistle in his mouth make those mistakes than wait 5 minutes for a guy sitting in a box to do the same.