TMOs prepare for slice of history
August 31, 2012
Television Match Officials will have increased power in this season's Aviva Premiership © Getty Images
Whether they like it or not, the occupants of ESPN's space-age Outside Broadcast truck parked behind Twickenham's North Stand this weekend will be the guinea pigs at the start of a rugby experiment which might just revolutionise the way the game's policed.
Because amongst a raft of law changes which are being tested in the Aviva Premiership for the first time this season, the one giving more power and responsibility to the Television Match Official is the one that seems to be exercising most players, coaches and officials in the countdown to a new campaign.
The vastly experienced Graham Hughes has got the TMO's gig for our opening match of the season between Wasps and champions Harlequins. So when he takes his familiar seat half an hour or so before kick-off behind match director Steve Docherty and executive producer David Tippett, he'll be preparing to make a slither of history.
For the first time ever at this level of the game, the man watching his little television live with us will have the ability to guide and influence the decisions of referee Greg Garner in a way that's never been possible before as his scope of influence grows.
The disconnected voices of people like Hughes, Trevor Fisher and Geoff Warren - the three who'll be looking after this weekend's televised games on ESPN and Sky - have become familiar additions in recent times. But up until now their rulings were restricted to the moment a try was scored, or "the act of scoring" as we came to know it.
Now their all-seeing eye will be able to wander back over anything in the build-up that's worthy of note. If the referee has an inkling a player had foot in touch on halfway, that there was obstruction on the ten-metre, that the ball went forward on the 22 or that it was knocked-on five metres out, then let him ask the question of his mate with the TV zapper.
Perhaps equally significantly, the TMOs have been given the go-ahead for the first time this season to be pro-active. If they pick up serious acts of foul play - those worthy of at least a yellow card - that have been missed by the ref, press the talkback button and tell him.
Referees have been busy visiting all twelve Premiership clubs this week explaining how it will work in practice, while ESPN and Sky spent time at Twickenham with the RFU's head of refs Ed Morrison fine-tuning how it will work on screen.
It seems the simple desire driving this season-long experiment is that those in charge get every chance to get more of the critical decisions right. Why should the game put up with the kind of howlers that have punctuated recent seasons if video technology can cut them down? Why should those of us on the telly and those of you on the sofa know things that the chap with the whistle doesn't?
What Ed Morrison and the RFU don't want though is for the underlying principals of refereeing to be undermined. He's made it clear to his top men this week that they are still in charge of the game. While they'll now have significantly more help from the TMOs to crack the big calls, this isn't an excuse to abdicate responsibility and turn in their badges.
The best will still make the bulk of the decisions themselves based on instinct and experience, without delay. Refer every try to your mate in the TV truck and you won't be looking after many more Premiership matches in the future.
And if defending players think they can save themselves a try by surrounding a referee to make their point, they've been told this week to think again. The RFU are not going to tolerate "soccer-style" negotiating committees. Quite how long that holds however remains to be seen and coaches are busy developing appeals procedures that might creep under the gate.
So ESPN's mobile mission control centre will be sitting right in the thick of it at Twickenham on this opening weekend and Greg Garner and Graham Hughes are first into the laboratory.
This game of ours will always be speckled with gloriously grey bits. No manner of high-tech wizardry will ever make it 100% error-proof. What we can expect Premiership referees to be doing less and less of from this weekend though is missing the black and the white.
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Nick Mullins is lead commentator for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN