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Referees and consistent real-time calls

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Referees are failing to make consistent calls in real time

As is tradition for big games, a huge amount of discussion post the England v New Zealand match has centred around Sam Underhill’s late try being scraped due to Courtney Lawes charge down being from an allegedly offside position.

Whichever side of the argument you fall on – onside or offside – it’s unlikely that any amount of evidence is going to make you cede your position at this late stage.

Whether the call was correct or not, however, should no longer be the major point of discussion; the try was ruled out, the All Blacks held on to win the match and both teams will now be preparing for their next matches.

Instead, we should be discussing the general role of the TMO in matches and whether the rules around when the TMO can be called upon should be modified.

Ultimately, referee Jérôme Garcès called upon the help of Marius Jonker because England managed to touch down and seemingly score a decisive blow – but what would have happened if Underhill’s run hadn’t finished with a five pointer? Say that Beauden Barrett, the last man in defence for New Zealand, had managed to haul Underhill into touch five metres out from the All Blacks’ try-line – would Garcès have still sought Jonker’s opinion on whether or not Lawes’ charge down came from an offside position?

The safe bet is that Garcès would have let the match continue as it were, with Dane Coles having to throw in for an All Blacks’ defensive lineout – five metres out from his own try-line. We can only guess what would have happened from there.

A game of rugby can change in the blink of an eye – especially one as precariously balanced as this past weekend’s match. Small decisions can have big consequences. Why, then, are TMOs only making calls on big decisions, like whether or not a try should be allowed, when lesser calls can also change the course of a match?

Eagle-eyed viewers will be quick to point out that defensive lines are offside so regularly and it makes little sense to only penalise a team for being offside when it results in a big gain to said team. There are many small offenses regularly occurring in any one game of rugby that all add up over time but are not being penalised. Perhaps, then, we should be giving the TMO free reign to check for some of the offenses that should be fairly easy to spot from their viewing room.

The TMO is already allowed to alert the referee to any foul play they spot on the field – would increasing their powers negatively impact the game in any meaningful way?

An alternative, mooted recently by English head coach Eddie Jones, is that rugby could eventually employ dual referees in a similar vein to rugby league. Each referee could focus on one team – or one could focus exclusively on the offside line – ensuring grader awareness over what’s happening on the field without the need to slow down the game to regularly consult with the TMO.

Continue reading below…
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This approach has many upsides and places a greater onus on the men closer to the action. If players are creeping up over the offside line regularly throughout the game, they should be punished consistently – it should not take a potential try to raise the referee’s awareness of any illegal play.

Using dual referees is the type of solution that could, if deemed appropriate, be replicated at all levels of the game. No matter what powers we grant the TMO, this solution is never going to impact lower levels of the game where TMOs are not utilised.

In general, the use of TMOs is becoming more and more intrusive to the game – and taking rugby further and further away from its simple grassroots. After all, how much time did Marius Jonker spend analysing footage before he was willing to make a decision on the Underhill try in the weekend?

Of course, we don’t want to scrap the TMO altogether – but a balance must be found between having the right calls made in a game, and simply letting a rugby match flow. Perhaps the answer is to restrict not just when TMOs can intervene in a game, but also the powers they have available to them.

The Underhill decision took so long to make partially because it was a call that came down to miniscule details – multiple slow-motion replays had to be employed by Jonker in order to confirm where Lawes was standing when Perenara pulled the ball out of the ruck.

Slowing down game footage can obviously be useful, but restricting TMOs to only using full-speed replays would mean refereeing decisions have to be made only on what the eye can actually see.

Limiting the time that a TMO has access to replays for would also ensure quicker decisions and a better flow to the game. More often than not, results are no more conclusive after two minutes of examining footage than after the first check or two – so why are we wasting time that could be better spent?

At the end of the day, refereeing is a subjective thing. There is too much discretion offered in the laws of rugby and too much happening on the field for top referees to consistently make the same calls – at some point in time we will have to accept that the ‘right’ call is not always going to be made. Once we do, we’ll be able to spend less time thrashing through slow motion replays and more time making the most of the on-field action.

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Referees are failing to make consistent calls in real time