Austin Healey Column
Extension of TMO is a 'slippery slope'
September 12, 2012
The scoreboard reveals a decision by the Television Match Official during the season-opening London Double Header © Getty Images
It's been a very encouraging start to the Aviva Premiership with plenty of tries and attacking rugby but the action has had to share the headlines with a series of trials that it is hoped will improve the game but may end up damaging it.
That may be a little unfair as some of the experiments - most notably the removal of the 'pause' element of the scrum engagement sequence and five-second ruck rule - benefiting the game as spectacle and helping to lay the platform for what has been some exciting rugby. But one trial continues to trouble me - the extension of the Television Match Official's powers.
Some people may argue that it is a step in the right direction but I would not agree. The whole issue of the TMO needs to be looked at very carefully and they should be used sparingly and I am worried by the fact that referees have started to question themselves. Suddenly the referee's word is not final and they are stopping the game to seek another official's opinion. It slows the action down and it turns the game into a sterile procedure.
It may only be a trial with other options being looked at in other competitions but I think it's been ill-thought through. All the other rule changes appear to have worked really well - there have definitely been less collapsed scrum this season and the concussion bin is also a very good idea in terms of player safety. But I think if you take power away from the referee, who should be the sole arbitrator of events, then everybody, including the referee starts to doubt themselves. It is a slippery slope.
Let's take a look at the try scored by Wasps' Tom Varndell during their season opener against Harlequins at Twickenham. It was ruled out with the help of the TMO because of a marginal forward pass four phases earlier and it was a decision that arguably spoiled the whole game. That minor infringement did not harm anyone in anyway, it didn't give Wasps an advantage that directly led to the try and who is to say that the try would not have been scored if the pass had gone backwards?
Or how about last weekend when Saracens' Brad Barritt took Sale's Sam Tuitupou out off the ball. The referee thought he saw an offence and deferred it to the TMO who gave his opinion but why didn't Dave Pearson make that call himself? The TMO Trevor Fisher watched three angles that didn't tell the whole story because there was a high angle from behind that I saw which in my opinion showed a professional foul by Barritt that should have resulted in a yellow card. But because the TMO watched other angles we didn't get the right result and that can't be right.
I think they should limit the TMO's possible input on possible tries to the phase before the act of scoring because everything before that has so many cause and effect connotations. I don't think you should be able to go back to the last stoppage because that could be something crazy like four or five minutes before. You are also going to get to a situation where players will have seen stuff going on and will constantly bring it to the attention of the ref. Not necessarily when the try has been scored but when they feel under pressure to get some breathing space and just so it doesn't just look like they are appealing when there has been a try.
In the opening couple of rounds of action we have seen players urging refs to act and if they think they can get an advantage from appealing then that is only going to increase. It is a slippery slope because soon instead of the referee always being called 'Sir' it will be 'Oi, sort this out ref!'.
I just think it is going to cause no end of problems. Let's just have the TMO involved in the act of scoring or just before to look for forward passes and offside just like they do in rugby league where I think they have got it just right. The current trial is also unfair on the top sides due to the fact that it is only being used for TV games. If you are on TV more often than your rivals then you are surely more likely to get a contentious call go against you.
As for the early season result, I said at the start of the season that I thought the usual suspects would soon stretch away from the rest of the pack and with Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens and Northampton leading the table at the moment I see no reason to change that prediction.
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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby