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Nigel Owens on what he would do to improve football's controversial VAR use

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Rugby referee Nigel Owens and Peter O'Mahony (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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Nigel Owens was confined to bed this weekend, illness resulting in the popular referee from Wales missing out on the Clermont vs Ulster Heineken Champions Cup match he had been appointed to.


However, that didn’t prevent him from having quite an extended opinion on how the rival sport of football has become mired in controversy following the English Premier League’s adoption this season of video technology. 

Video assistant referees were brought into the Premier League for the 2019/20 season with a clear objective: to help make difficult decisions easier and eradicate clear and obvious errors. 

However, halfway through the season, the technology continues to cause more and more controversy and it sparked further heated debate on Friday night when David Moyes’ West Ham United had an injury-time equaliser at Sheffield United ruled out by VAR. 

A Liverpool fan who admitted he tunes into the BBC’s Match of the Day programme whenever possible, Owens revealed in his weekly column that he is frequently asked about the introduction of VAR to football following rugby’s use of the TMO [television match official] for quite a few years. 

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“My reply is always the same,” he wrote. “That the modern game – be it football or rugby – is so incredibly fast that if you want to get the big decisions correct, then you need technology to help ensure that.”

Tackling the ongoing controversies that are affecting football’s use of VAR, Owens proceeded to make a lengthy assessment under seven different headings.

Offside controversy: “The officials, including VAR, cannot be blamed for this one. You are either offside or you are not. There is no grey area. In football, provided you directly influence the game, that is the rule. That is what VAR is judging on.


“Once you go to them [the VAR or TMO] to review something, it ties the referee’s hands in applying empathy and the decision has to be a technical one. Is he offside, yes or no, as the rule stands? So don’t blame the referee or the VAR officials, they have to go by the letter of the law.”

Is VAR being over-used?: “There is no doubt in my mind that VAR, and the TMO for that matter, is being over-used. Every goal is checked at the moment, for example, and that’s probably a little bit too much.

“That applies in rugby as well. We as match officials need to get the majority of our on-field decisions right and use the technology as back-up rather than to make decisions for us.”

The time it takes to make decisions: “This is one of the big issues in football at the moment, with claims it takes up to three minutes before a decision is made. A goal ruled out, or a penalty award. People get fed up with it, and understandably so.”

Refusal to look at pitchside monitors: “While the referees may be under a Premier League directive, this is one that I cannot fully understand if I’m honest. Look, if you are the referee, you are ultimately the one responsible for making key decisions. You are the one who will be receiving the flak.”

The lack of a big screen: “Rugby referees have the advantage of being able to look at any contentious incident up on the big screen. That doesn’t happen in football and I’m not sure that is fair on the fans who have paid good money to attend the game yet are left in the dark about VAR decision-making.”

The passion being taken out of the game: “This you could argue applies to rugby, as well as football, when a try is being checked and then potentially ruled out. But by showing the incident up on the big screen, the fans become part of that excitement and the passion isn’t lost.”

Don’t shoot the officials: “This is not a question of rugby getting it right and football needing to learn. Definitely not. As I say, I feel we still use the TMO a little too much in rugby and, of course, we had our own issues in the early days.”

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