I write this Post as a current officiating rugby union referee (D2/D3 Men's Club, 2nd XV Men's College, 1st XV Women's College and top High School games as well as some 7's). I have also been a State level Youth Administrator of the game and I still help coach High School boys' rugby.
For those not familiar with rugby, TMO is the Television Match Official used in major rugby games (premier domestic leagues in rugby playing nations, international competitions like Super Rugby, the 6 Nations and all test matches) to assist the on-field centre referee with various key decisions in the game via video replay. The problems with how the TMO is now used have been brewing for some time but came into sharp focus during the 2023 Rugby World Cup Final between New Zealand and South Africa on October 28th at the Stade du France in Paris. When a team wins by 1 point in a low scoring game that featured the All Blacks playing 2/3rds of the game with only 14 men, any controversial referee call is going to come under the spotlight. Let the record show that the ABs put forth an amazing effort playing so much of the game one player down. The record will also show that missed kicks and not taking points on offer cost us victory in a winnable game but rightly, many NZ fans have focused on the role the TMO played in the game. To have unofficial confirmation from sources inside World Rugby that the disallowing of Aaron's Smith's try due to a knock on four or five phases back was in breach World Rugby's TMO guidelines explicitly limiting the review of retrospective actions in the run up to a potential try to only two plays, has merely added fuel to the already raging referee fire. As a personal aside, I do not blame Wayne Barnes for what happened. He made a few mistakes, and the Springboks got the rub of the green but he has been a stellar referee at the top of his career for many years (the 2007 NZ v France quarter final notwithstanding) and he acquitted himself well in the NZ v Ireland game. The most controversial calls were foisted on him by the modern TMO system.
The TMO problems
No one with any reasonable involvement with rugby believes the TMO should be scrapped. Video replays have become an integral part of almost all major sports and technology has greatly assisted referees and umpires across the sporting world. But the use of TMOs in top rugby games and indeed the whole TMO infrastructure has suffered from ‘mission creep' and what began as a very useful aid to refereeing quality has become a multi headed hydra that is now overshadowing the game. The issues are:
Refereeing rugby properly is not easy as any refs reading this will attest. Playing the game for years and avidly watching the game and even having a good understanding of the Laws do not prepare you for the complexity of being a centre ref. Like golf, getting good at refereeing rugby only comes from lots of refereeing rugby. All unions across the world have an extensive network of senior or retired refs who give back to the game as Referee Coaches mentoring young and up and coming refs. It takes a few years before a ref can competently referee at even a senior club and high school level and rugby playing nations have a careful grading system of referee skill and quality to aid in the assignment of games. Many parts of the rugby playing world suffer from a shortage of quality experienced refs due to attrition and lack of up-take due to on-field abuse of refs. This is sadly a problem with all major sports.
Once you get good enough to be on a senior National panel refereeing the kind of games that are televised and a TMO is assigned, you have earned your stripes making thousands of close and tough calls. There are a number of games just below the professional level where only experienced referees are assigned as Assistant Referees (as opposed to an untrained Touch Judge) and in many senior games, the centre ref and the ARs are miked up and can communicate with each other. In only about 10% of the games I referee am I miked up and in maybe 30% of the games I have the benefit of an experienced AR such is the dearth of refereeing talent in most US states. Having experienced ARs and being miked up makes it possible to properly and fairly adjudicate almost all tricky situations (foul play to the head, groundings of the ball in the in-goal, forward passes and off the ball foul play). For the calls you miss or get wrong, there is a widespread unwritten understanding that all good refs make some mistakes and mostly that players, coaches and fans take the inevitable mistakes as part of the game. I know if I've made a mistake, I find it best to admit to it to the captain and coach and that diffuses most tension unless the mistake influences the outcome of the game (which is rare). Refs also find subtle ways to even any imbalance arising from a poor call because so many calls, particularly in and around rucks and mauls (and to a lesser extent scrums and lineouts), can be arbitrary and could be called either way. The truth is that the Laws of the Game are so many and complicated that at almost every breakdown and set piece, if you were applying every single Law all the time, there could be some infringement you could blow up. Refereeing rugby is more art than science and, over time, you learn to adjudicate the more serious and obvious infringements and concentrate on allowing the game to flow. It's a difficult and delicate balancing act that takes years to perfect.
New National panel refs bring this experience to the highest level games they must now officiate and suddenly they have the luxury of video replay. At first they call on the TMO in only the most gnarly, tricky and consequential calls but, over time, conscious of many more loud fans in stadiums, the pressure from top level players on the field, coach criticism and something novel to a new national panel ref, media scrutiny. Thus the price of a bad call in a Premier division, ITM Cup or Super Rugby game is much higher than a D1 Men's Club match or a Secondary Schools final. Over time, senior international level refs gradually have become acculturated to the use of the TMO and they begin to lose some of the instant decision making instincts that served them well at lower levels of the game. Whereas before the team of three refs rated themselves to handle all decisions, because the ARs adjudicating at this level are drawn from the same pool of senior referees, they too become decision averse and will allow the centre ref to defer to the TMO. So, what began as a back up reference tool for an on-field ref, it has morphed into the main go-to tool for almost all tricky decisions. The problems with the TMO are not just World Rugby policy (that I will get to later) but a more deeply ingrained problem of excessive reliance that has become deeply embedded in the culture of rugby's top referees.
The next problem (that is more easily fixed IMO) is the gradual expansion of the use of the TMO and also the rising power granted to TMOs. This latter issue is the most problematic. In the early years, the TMO was limited to decisions around a possible Try (the “Try – No Try” call). A referee could go back maybe to one phase of play to see if say the pass to the try scorer was forward. As time went on, World Rugby opened up the use of TMOs to more disputed incidents most particularly for high/dangerous tackles. Here again mission creep evolved in two phases: 1 – the use of the TMO for high tackles morphed from being a back up to the centre ref and ARs double checking to see if an incident warranted just a penalty or a card to the TMO proactively advising the centre ref AFTER the centre ref had made a call. This greatly changed the way a centre ref viewed borderline tackles and the spectacle of lengthy and repeated replays stopping games sometimes multiple times for many minutes. 2 – to counter the criticism of the lengthy delays of multiple TMO replays disrupting the flow of games, World Rugby used a bunker system at the 2023 World Cup. This added an additional layer of off-field intrusion in that a panel of 4 or 5 TMOs were holed up in an offsite location and became responsible for reviewing any referred dangerous tackle where a yellow card was awarded, and the centre ref did not have the time to do on-field multiple replays to judge the severity of the card. When a carded player was referred to the bunker, this group had all the time in the world to replay an incident endlessly to gauge severity and increasingly, yellow cards were upgraded to a red card. Red cards are a serious matter. Outside of very lopsided games, very few teams who lose a player for the rest of a game, depending on how far into the game the red card award occurs, go on to win. As a referee you never award a red card lightly and indeed, I have only awarded at the most one per season versus probably averaging 15+ yellows per season depending on how many games I get assigned. The increasing number of red cards comes as a consequence of World Rugby's more stringent guidelines around high tackles as an attempt to improve player safety. Whilst it has likely had some impact as players and coaches are much more conscious of high tackles, the impact of more red cards has disrupted games more profoundly.
These various phases of mission creep of the TMO are strangling the game and the end result was the awful spectacle we witnessed in the RWC final. Almost all my South African mates and fellow refs and coaches have not been too triumphant about their victory and some privately admit that the circumstances of the game and the refereeing controversies left an unfortunate taint on the victory. Whilst there can be some pretty shocking refereeing amongst the lowest grades and youngest age divisions as those games are the training and proving grounds for newer less experienced refs, most who participate in senior level games accept refereeing mistakes as part of the game. The TMO has morphed into a capricious and arbitrary intervention that lacks consistency. TMOs are diving so deep and far back into the game in the pursuit of absolute adjudicatory perfection that it is stymying the spontaneity and flow of top-level rugby and undermining the authority of the centre referee.
Something needs to be done and done quickly. The NZ v SA final was the ugly culmination of a gnawing creeping trend. More people are beginning to realise that men's/boy's rugby is a game in decline. Yes, there are the odd new markets where it is growing (the US used to be a strongly growing market, but that growth has stalled and is now patchy) with the only consistent strong growth coming from women's/girl's rugby. There are many reasons for this decline that might keep for another Post but the problems with refereeing at the highest level merely adds to the woes. Here are some recommendations as to Law changes that begin with reforming the TMO
Use the TMO like other sports
In looking at the use of video replay technology in the world's major sport such tennis, football (soccer), American football, cricket, tennis, basketball and rugby league, a common theme is usage is mostly restricted to using the video replay function as a backup to the main referee/umpire and is augmented by the ability (usually restricted) of teams to challenge an on-field decision. The rugby TMO should be:
- Mostly a backup to a centre referee's on-field decision with NO TMO ability to intervene and advise the centre ref either off their own bat or retrospectively on any incident. This forces referees to work as they used, with the ARs to decide on almost all issues.
- In the “Try – No Try” decision, being able to review no more than one or two phases before the try.
- Scrap the bunker and limit the centre ref to no more than 3 TMO repays of a single incident of dangerous play. Almost all yellow and red card worthy events are relatively clear cut.
Other desperately needed Law changes
These are my suggestions and there is some overlap with an article doing the rounds published in the Daily Telegraph by UK rugby writer Charles Richardson:
- Stricter enforcement of the 5 second warning at the base of the scrum or ruck. Half backs routinely delay the process of passing the ball out. It should be a free kick for first offense and penalty for each thereafter akin to how you police early shoves in the scrum.
- Limit mauls to one stoppage where the team in possession has to get the ball out after one time the maul ceases forward momentum. Mauls have become too one sided in favour of the attacking team where only the most experienced and disciplined teams can avoid a defensive penalty for a maul infringement.
- Likewise, scrums are being used to milk penalties with increasingly more frequent tactics of the team with the put-in trying to force a usually minor defensive error that results in a penalty. Make all scrum infringements (except dangerous or cynical play) a free kick.
- Intercepted passes. Current World Rugby guidelines are a nightmare for referees to enforce with great inconsistency with some refs yellow carding the most innocent of attempts. Yellow cards should be reserved for only the most blatant and cynical swat downs with most attempts either a penalty or “play on”.
- Scrap the Mark. It's an archaic and time-wasting tactic.
- Red cards for 20 minutes as was trialled in Super Rugby this season and reserve a black card (off for the remainder of the game and automatic one game suspension) for what red card offences used to be for, the most blatant, vicious and dangerous of hits like deliberately shoulder charging a player, high speed malicious tackles straight to the head, stomping on the head and punches to a player or ref.
- Keep goal line drop outs only for held up in goal. The current Law is confusing and leads to poor kicking incentives around the ball being kicked into the in-goal area.
I'm not overly hopeful that there will be much change. World Rugby are notoriously arrogant and inured to criticism. The financial success of the 2023 RWC (essentially full stadiums for all games) will be the thing that matters most to them and they will all be patting themselves on the back. The appalling draw that pitted the top four nations on one side of the Pools resulting in brutal quarter finals from Pools A and B and easier quarterfinals from Pools C and D, even there the reasons given were weak and inadequate. If FIFA can wait until the result of regional games across the world before announcing the Football World Cup draws then World Rugby can announce a draw after rankings reflect things like that year's 6 Nations and the Rugby Championship results as those two competitions cover the top 10 rugby playing nations except Italy.
There is a malaise in boy's/men's grassroots rugby that is masked by the big tournaments and competitions at the international and national level. Crowd numbers are dwindling and, outside the glamour schools in rugby heartland countries that self-select top rugby talent, lower tier boys competitions and team numbers are shrinking rapidly. There are various factors at play but the confusing Laws and the inconsistent administration of the Laws are part of the mix and are a relatively cheap and pain free fix. Here's hoping.