International Rugby
Give the power back to the referee
John Taylor
December 11, 2014
England's scrum was dominant in November but the rules need tweaking © Getty Images
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On the positive side the autumn internationals showed that the northern hemisphere teams look to be closing the gap on New Zealand, South Africa and Australia so we should be looking at a hugely competitive Rugby World Cup with six or even seven teams capable of mounting a challenge.

The negatives centered on the same old problems surrounding the scrum and the role of the Television Match Official (TMO). They are the two areas that slow the game down and diminish the spectacle, frustrating players and spectators alike.

The protocol now in place for setting the scrum is, without doubt, an improvement but there are still far too many re-sets and penalties giving what is essentially a mechanism for restarting the game when a minor offence has occurred too prominent a role.

The Front Row Union should now be on their feet in protest but only last week in the wake of England's victory over Australia, Brian Moore, the Pitbull, the forwards' champion, actually questioned whether winning the scrum battle should be the decisive factor in winning a rugby match.

 
"The game is in good shape but with just a little bit of tweaking it could be an even better spectacle by the time it takes over the world stage next September"
 

Perversely, although stuffed in the scrums, Australia had 70% of the territory and 66% of possession against England so that weakness should not have been decisive on this occasion. However, the question Moore was raising was whether it is right (and good for the game) that scrum superiority results in full penalties that can decide the outcome.

Back in the 80s it was the line-out that was the problem. With a dozen different offences possible every time the ball was thrown-in there were penalties galore and Welsh referee, Clive Norling decided to take matters into his own hands. Arguing that the first offence on every occasion was closing the gap - punishable only with a free kick - he refereed accordingly and halved the average number of penalties in a game instantly.

We need the same sort of innovation now at scrums but this time it will require tweaking the law. They are a means of regaining possession and that is what the offending side should forfeit unless they are offending deliberately to prevent a score - so collapsing in the red zone, for example, would still result in a penalty or penalty try.

I certainly do not want to reduce scrummaging to the farce it is in rugby league but referees are so obsessed with technical details at the moment there is seldom a proper contest in any case.

Whilst scrums take too much time out of the game referrals to the TMO or (worse still) interjections from him prolong it, often pointlessly, and 50 minute halves are now not uncommon. That is one good reason for curtailing the TMO's powers but the way the fourth official undermines the confidence and decisiveness of the man who is supposed to be in charge is, for me, even more worrying because it often causes miscarriages of justice in favour of the defending side.

Referee Nigel Owens halts Beauden Barrett's conversion, England v New Zealand, Twickenham, November 8, 2014
Nigel Owens halts the game to consult the TMO © Getty Images
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There was a typical case in a Champions Cup match last weekend when endless replays failed to show that the ball was actually grounded when the maul went down at the end of a forward drive with the attacking forwards in control of the ball well over the line. The commentator observed, 'Common sense says it was a try but the TMO says "I couldn't see" so it has not been given.' Had the referee asked a different question - 'Any reason not to award the try?' - he would still have had the common sense option but by asking 'Try or no try?' that was taken away.

Conversely, Nigel Owens was criticised for awarding a try to Aaron Cruden in one of the recent internationals without going to the TMO despite being right on the spot and saying 'it definitely touched the line' because slow motion replays from an imperfect angle failed to prove he was correct.

John Mitchell advocated a cricket style referral system in these columns a few weeks back. Whilst it would be one way of stopping the regrettable players' appeals for referrals to take place, particularly having watched a replay (set in motion by a television director) on the big screen, I would suggest it is time for a complete reappraisal of the role of the TMO.

There are big screens on every ground where a TMO is part of the team so I believe he should revert to being a mere facilitator - taking instruction from the referee if he wants a replay but without any say in the interpretation - some TMOs (such as Derek Bevan) have stellar international refereeing careers behind them but others have never officiated at the very top level.

I would also argue that the public should not be allowed to eavesdrop on the conversation between the officials. It is particularly embarrassing when they disagree or cannot understand each other because of a faulty communications system. Give the referee all the benefits of modern technology by all means but make sure he knows he is still the boss.

The game is in good shape but with just a little bit of tweaking it could be an even better spectacle by the time it takes over the world stage next September.

© 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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