TMOs under the spotlight
Give power back to referees
John Taylor
June 5, 2014
JP Doyle takes instructions from the man upstairs ...but has the TMO become too powerful? © Getty Images

J.P. Doyle was the man blowing the whistle in the Premiership final last Saturday but was he really in charge?

The three pivotal decisions in the match were made by Graham Hughes, the Television Match Official, a shadowy figure dressed in blazer and flannels tucked away in a room surrounded by screens showing every angle of every play captured by the TV cameras.

I believe all three decisions were correct but that is beside the point. This was as close as you can get to refereeing by remote control and rugby has to decide whether this is the route it wants to go down.

The dramatic deciding try was relatively straightforward. Doyle was unsighted so asked for help in deciding 'try or no try?' Using all the cameras Hughes felt able to judge the ball had indeed been grounded on the line - never mind that it came down to millimetres, this was a classic use of the TMO, the absolute justification of why he was added to the cast of match officials.

The other two incidents were very different because it was the TMO who intervened and instigated the investigation. Alex Goode's pass was undoubtedly forward in the build-up to Owen Farrell crossing the line but it was missed by Doyle and his assistant referee running the line on that side. Similarly, there was a clear obstruction as Saracens opened up the Northampton mid-field. Doyle again missed it but on the referee's audio link you immediately heard Hughes saying, "check, check, check".

In these two cases he effectively took over as referee. Doyle, refereeing the biggest match of his career, deferred. Referees normally insist they are not allowed to justify their actions but, unusually, he later commented that "accuracy" had been the watchword at all the pre-match briefings between the officials. "The whole point of the TMO is getting the big decisions right in the big games," he added.

Saracens chief executive, Edward Griffiths begged to disagree, describing the use of the TMO as a "shambles" - he is certainly right that it is totally inconsistent and the referees themselves appear unhappy with the way things are going.

Last week I was at the annual SOS KitAid Charity Golf Day which doubles as a sort of end of season party for the referees and in the evening Wayne Barnes, one of the assistant referees on Saturday, chaired a Q & A session. One of the first things he raised was the TMO protocol. Tappe Henning, the South African former international referee now in charge of the refereeing programme in Scotland, was adamant that they are becoming too powerful and argued they should only be allowed to give judgement on whether a try had actually been scored if asked to do so by the referee. The reaction suggested wholehearted agreement from nearly everybody in the room.

A bottle is thrown from the crowd towards referee Tim Wigglesworth after a Premiership match ... but the man in the stands too often is the one making the calls © Getty Images

Welsh referee Nigel Owens was one of the first to try to reclaim referees' rights by taking back the responsibility for the final decision after referring something to the TMO. Providing a big screen is available he will always have the final word once he has had a chance to review the action.

It makes complete sense. I do not want to be disparaging about Hughes but he was never an international standard referee yet appears to have carte blanche to over-ride the decisions made by those judged to be the best in the world.

There are also other unsavoury side effects. Rugby has always been very proud of the way players show respect to referees but the questioning of their decisions is definitely on the increase and the introduction of the TMO has encouraged that. We now have some players rushing up to referees making the sign of a television screen asking for referrals.

One suggestion has been to give captains a limited number of referral requests in each game as in cricket. I believe that is the start of a very slippery slope and should be resisted at all costs.

Accuracy is important, of course, but the assistance a TMO may provide must have limits and the man on the field with the whistle must be the man in charge. Some referees are now so worried about getting it wrong they will refer almost every try scoring incident to the TMO for confirmation. Games are getting longer and longer particularly at the very top level and the IRB now has a duty to clarify the protocols and reduce the power of the men in blazers.

Henning has it right. We need to look back to the reason for introducing the TMO in the first place. As a referee you look foolish if television replays show clearly that you have got it wrong when it comes to awarding or not awarding a score so it is sensible to use the technology available to make sure that does not happen. It also has a role to play in preventing foul play but if you go any further you really are on the road to refereeing via television and, surely, nobody wants that.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist

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