The use of the television match official (TMO) has been extended in rugby and, it seems, the time spent TMO-ing around has also lengthened.
People want the TMO because ‘we want to get the right decision’. Yes we do, but what is the cost to the game and the way the game is run?
This getting the right decision refers only to the scoring of points and the identification of foul play. It’s not for all decisions, which may be just as well.
It may be just as well if you watched Italy play Fiji in that ramshackle game in Cremona. In that match when there had been 14 minutes of playing time, there had been 11 minutes and a bit more of TMO time. That was ridiculous, though things improved after that. Even allowing for language differences with an Welsh referee, assistants from South Africa and Uruguay, a TMO from France and an Italian producer, it all took far too long. During that time the Fijian fullback Metuisela Talebula, all on his own, scored an obvious try, slamming the ball to ground. That, too, took up excessive TMO time.
That is one problem with the TMO – time taken.
Language was not the only problem when Scotland played South Africa at Murrayfield. True, the referee was French and the TMO was Irish but it took over three minutes to decide that Bryan Habana had carried the ball over and that Scotland should feed the five-metre scrum.
That is another TMO problem – poor communication.
Poor communication may be part of the extended powers of the TMO. No longer is he just deciding the two try things – yes or no and any reason why not. Now the communication is far more diverse.
And there is just the subtler possibility of the entry of buck passing into refereeing.
Things were different, as old referees will be quick to tell you, when there was no TMO and touch judges watched the touchline and attempted goals. That was it. They did not have speakers. They were not required to give running advice.
Now referees are in a position to abrogate powers. They don’t have to be too sure with important forward passes, knock-ons, offside or obstruction. They make a square in the sky and seek advice while sipping water and sometimes looking at a big screen with the full limelight on them.
Have a look at a maul surging towards the line. The old referees will tell you that the try is the day’s most important decision. When a try was imminent, they had to be in in-goal to judge. That has changed. Now you see a maul driving at the line with the referee behind them watching backsides in the sure and certain knowledge that he can again draw his square in the sky and share the responsibility.
That cop-out may just be another TMO problem.
But, heavens, do you not like it when a player squeezes over in the corner and not even the best-positioned referee and the best-positioned assistant referee can tell you for certain if it was a try or not? Now guesswork goes out the window and the TMO has a vital role to play, one that only he can play.
Perhaps we should limit rather than extend the powers of the TMO and the assistants and make the referee work harder. Or get two referees onto the field.
It is worth thinking about.
By Paul Dobson