The Man in the Middle

Rubber Ducky, are you there?

Rubber Ducky, are you there?

As an occasional listener to sports radio, I’m often surprised by how much complaining is done post-match about the refereeing decisions. The ref got this wrong, he got that wrong ad infinitum. Given that there are many games each weekend in many codes, this allows for the same conversation to play itself out for hours over the course of the season with the names changing and the conclusion staying constant: the decision is made, the result stands. “They can complain all they want but France are going to the World Cup. Get over it.It’s not that this isn’t a discussion that people have, it’s the fact that producers allow so much time to be taken up talking about it. What a turn off – boring! The exception, as is so often the case, is Second Captains where it’s rarely a topic of discussion.

The Mole’s favourite way of thinking about officialdom’s role is summed up by this anecdote about three baseball umpires who were arguing about their job. Each called balls and strikes; each was bragging as to who did the best job. Said one: “I call them as I see them—and no one can do better than that.” The second retorted, “That’s nothing: I call them as they are.” The third paused a moment, and finally added: “They ain’t nothing until I call them—and then that’s what they are.”

In an effort to reduce the inconsistencies between calling them as they are and calling them as the ref saw them, rugby introduced the Television Match Official (TMO) aka “the telly ref” in 2001 to adjudicate upon try scoring decisions when the match official had some doubt. It wasn’t long before referees were going to the TMO for most tries and even then not even getting it right vis the case of Tommy Bowe against Scotland in 2012 which was accurately summarised by Neil F in this Ulster fans’ forum

One of our first posts was about “Bronson” Clancy taking the law into his own hands and ruling on a forward pass from Jimmy Cowen to Izzy Dagg against SA in 2011. Bronson wasn’t allowed to use the technology this way but he did, he made the right call, and everyone seemed happy enough that justice had been served.

The referee’s mandate to call on the TMO was expanded on a trial basis in the 2012/13 season. This was probably a well meaning response to the precedent set by Clancy but smacks of the adage that “hard cases make bad laws”. This has had the effect of referees second guessing their own (lack of) decisions in the event of a “try” being scored but seems really inconsistent, mainly because the TMO is only called on when a touchdown has occurred. What about all the little infringements that don’t get blown because an official is temporarily unsighted but alter the course of a game? Should the TMO intercede and alert the referees to what he saw? How can you make that judgement? It also only applies in the direct build up to a try but what happens if there’s a forward pass inside the 22m that leads to a break of 60m+ metres and from a subsequent set piece a try is scored by the offending team? There are a number of examples that could be imagined and the net effect is that the referee is even more central to the game than ever.

This prominence increased during Paddy O’Brien’s tenure as the IRB Referee Manager and is an example of regulatory capture that is in danger of becoming the status quo.

Regulatory capture is “a form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.”

The increasingly prescriptive nature of the application of the law means that refs dictate the quality of a game to a greater degree than is healthy. The scrum engagement sequence is one example – different referees have different cadences and all of them like their little individual flourishes. The wording around tip tackles is another but the reliance on the TMO and the consequent delays while waiting to hear on some marginal call is too much.

O’Brien gave a quote upon appointment as IRB Referee Manager that embodies the inherent conflicts of interest when appointing a referee manager: “Rugby has been fantastic to me and I’m looking forward to the new challenge of building on the excellent work that has been done over the last few years, and ensuring ongoing consistency and excellence of performance in our match officials.” His objective was excellent performance from match officials – not that the game was enjoyable to play, fairly adjudicated and enjoyable to watch but that the ref’s performance could be graded by other referees. This is regulatory capture and it doesn’t help the game because the enjoyment of playing and watching a fair contest come second to the referees’ application of contradictory laws and use of technology for arbitrary decisions. Screw that! I’d little time for the telly ref before the trial application and consider it a pox on the game now. Please get rid of it IRB!

The SA v NZ game in the Rugby Championship was a super game and many of the comments in the aftermath were highly complementary of Nigel Owens’ officiating. Owens is in this correspondent’s opinion the best referee in the world and the one with the best feel for letting the game flow. It used be said that you knew a referee had done a good job when you didn’t notice him. That epithet is increasingly harder to earn because of the prominence given to the officials. It must be hoped that the TMO’s role is reduced at the end of its trial period.

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22 thoughts on “The Man in the Middle

  1. Went to watch Italy v Fiji on Saturday, 50 minutes after the game had started, we had played 24 minutes. The ref went to the TMO all the time. Ruined the first half! It just means that referees no longer have to make decisions….

  2. Great post Mole, I couldn’t agree more. The ridiculousness of the whole thing was neatly highlighted in England v Australia, when Owen Farrell scored his try and the television replays clearly showed some blocking. I have absolute sympathy with Clancy’s subsequent decision that “there wasn’t enough obstruction”; in real time this is exactly what 99% of refs would have thought. Going to the TMO for it, though, just made the decision seem ludicrous.

    This is in fact a recurring theme these days, albeit usually to a lesser degree: the referee goes to the TMO, watches it himself on the screen, then doesn’t allow the TMO to give advice but rather says what he’s going to do first. I’m convinced this is so that the TV audience don’t hear the TMO advocating a by-the-book sanction and the ref having to disagree and choose something more nuanced/in keeping with the spirit of the incident.

  3. As a rugby ref myself albeit at a low level, I agree with much of what you said. At the top there seems to be a move towards reffing by numbers rather than reffing by feel or by gut.

    Sure you need to know the laws and apply them properly , but at the top they seem to be losing the materiality jugement call. ie: if there is a ruck and red and picking and driving the fact that the winger on the opposite side of the pitch is a metre offside is not material -technically he is off side but to call it would be pedantic, but the fact that he missed it could count against him.

    If we have refs looking for offenses at every situation rather than managing the game and allowing the game to flow all we will have is a pen fest.

    A few weeks ago i reffed an under age game, blue player toe poked a red player who was on the wrong side, no malice and that red player hardly noticed it. now at international level thats a kick and a red card as not to do so will count against the ref in his assessment, I on the otherhand pulled the blue player aside and read him the riot act and warned him to be careful. I awarded a pen and no card, the game finished out with no furthur incidents.

    Refs need to have an empathy with the players and the game, and not to ref the game by numbers.

  4. The question of how technology is used in arbitrating sports is a really interesting one. For example, cricket has embraced a lot of technology (with the Indians being the real hold-out) and is now coming to terms with just how much of it they want. Hotspot (the heat-camera that detects contact between ball and whatever) has been ditched because it became apparent that the margin of error (even though it was small in an of itself) was too big to happily operate and incorrect decisions were being made – sometimes overturning correct ones! – on the basis of this technology.

    Moreover, the review system, like any part of professional sport was beginning to be used tactically by both teams, rather than as a system to “eliminate the howler”, the phrase Sky’s commentary used to describe the point of the system. Professional sport will pretty quickly test the limits of any system and throw up almost every possibility, especially in a stop-start game like cricket, so it’s no surprise that they system’s limitations are getting tested. There was an instance in the last Ashes series where Stuart Broad clearly sliced the ball to the wicket keeper – al lthe sensory elements were there, the sound, the obvious deflection of the ball, fucking hell, it probably smelt out, but Australia had no challenges left and the umpire made a very poor call and didn’t give it out. As the Australian’s had no reviews left, the howler stood – eliminating the purpose of the review system in the first place.

    At least, for the most part cricket has firm rules about what counts as in or out when referring to the Hawkeye system, rugby still hasn’t a bloody clue what he was doing. The Hartley decision (or rather, non-decision) against Australia exposed this – there is absolutely no method of calculating how much of a law is broken. You can’t be a little bit pregnant as they say. There was intentional obstruction, but there wasn’t enough of it. It’s a system we’re all used to in rugby because the laws are consistently being bent or interpreted in one way, because they are pretty much contradictory at times – so a good ref will consistently apply one interpretation, let both teams know what he’s doing by communicating and (ideally) make himself otherwise fairly out of the spotlight. How they telly ref (and Clancy) came to the conclusion that there wasn’t “enough” obstruction, under scrutiny, is totally baffling.

    This weekend threw up a couple of interesting incidents. Ireland’s try was crossed off because the ref had missed what I thought was a very obvious knock-on from Murray at the base of a ruck. England’s try against NZ had several infringements ignored because they seems too minor to cross off a try [Robshaw was offside, trying to play the ball and obstructing an NZ defender while Launchbury picked up and grounded the loose ball] that they seemed to have been unjustly denied seconds previously because the ball couldn’t have been seen by the cameras but was logically grounded. The Scotland game had a farcical situation where it seemed to take about 4 minutes to come to what seemed a fairly simple decision. I turned off the (rotten) game and flicked back on minutes later to find them STILL deliberating over it. Almost as farcical as the jerseys Scotland seem to trot out in these days.

    In a way I don’t mind this experiment, if it leads to the conclusion that I think all rugby fans are making – the re-reffing by television in a certain select circumstances is a total disaster for the spirit of the game and the fans both at the stadium and at home. Let the refs do their job and continue to give them the respect they have always had in rugby. If groundings or kicks need to be double-checked, by all means use it, but the current status quo is not working.

  5. Also should be said that I’m pretty sure I thought Clancy did the right thing at the time when he called that forward pass – opinion has changed now!

  6. This is probably the first time I’ve disagreed with you, Mole. I think refs should have the power to use the TMO pretty much whenever they feel fit, but I agree that they wildly abuse the power they have at the moment, and it does impact the game negatively. In my opinion better training is required to ensure they only use it when it actually is necessary.

    • Could you please define what you mean by when you say “when it actually is necessary”?

      Suspected serious foul play and matters of in-goal/touch in-goal would be my preference. Knock-ons, forward passes etc… should be left to the team of three IMHO.

      • I think that theoretically, everything should be in play for review – how can you say a mistake made grounding a ball is more important than the missed forward pass that led to it? The issue for me is not so much THAT things are available for review; rather, the problem is that refs are so terrified of being demoted that they go to review EVERYTHING, and so aren’t actually trusting their eyes. That’s part of what makes Owens so great, in my opinion – he tends to trust what he sees. Occasionally that has led to issues for different teams, and he doesn’t always get it right, but nobody should expect him to.

  7. Clancy’s exchange and perhaps the entire debate of how much a referee should intervene is summed up in this scene between yoda and Luke skywalker….I don’t know how to put a video on here, but if you google “do. Or do not. There is no try” you will get the clip on YouTube. Perhaps a better man than I on these gadgets could post it for a laugh, please.

    What stands out to me in said incident is the behaviour of everyone: the New Zealand team -they were down by 10 at that stage, but didn’t complain, just soldiered on (a lesson perhaps), the intentions of the referees were clearly honourable, even the commentary by Marshall (a kiwi) was respectful. I think I remember graham Henry came out after the game with a very honourable quote on the whole matter too. To me that just shows the lack of a need for (at least excessive use of) the tmo. Those involved in the game accept there will be mistakes and just want the refs to do. Or do not. There has to be a decommissioning of mindset if you will, that a ref can ever call a perfect game.

    That said, Jesus the wallabies were living miles offside on Saturday, eh? 😉

  8. Mole an excellent post. The fact every rugby fan knows who Paddy O’Brien is sums up where rugby is at. Is there a similar position in association football (I thought you’d appreciate that term mole) and if so who holds it………………..exactly. On a similar point why does everyone know who John Delaney is and what the f@ck is he doing on the late late last friday. I doubt the head of the Spanish FA has ever appeared on Señor Tubirdios Friday night chat show

  9. Some good discussion here, but this from montigol made me pause: “Almost as farcical as the jerseys Scotland seem to trot out in these days.”

    Huh? They’re the ONLY nation that’s wearing anything close to a traditional jersey at the moment. Proper collar, no piping of any kind, navy blue with a bit of white on collar, logo, sponsor.

    On the referee issue, those poor buggers are damned by the fans whatever they do. I reckon a good place to start would be to make every single top flight coach and tv pundit to do a referee’s course and do about a dozen games at various levels before they can even utter the word ‘referee’ in public. All well and good to make live calls from a high vantage point, relatively unobstructed by people bigger than you, and then again from multiple angles in slow motion over and over if you so choose. The ref gets one very good look at it – if his view’s not obstructed, if he’s even looking at a certain incident, having to pay attention to a handful of others at the same time, and hoping that his ARs and the camera operators can cover the rest of it. It’s refreshing to go back and watch broadcasts with Bill McLaren (God rest his soul, for I fear we shall never hear a man like him again) that are nothing but positive.

  10. Why can’t the TMO act like a linesman. If he sees an infringement he notifies the Ref who takes appropriate action. No use of the replay function, no need to pause the game – no delay. Continue to stop the game for try reviews but remove the right to say try or no try – the ref calls it and only conclusive evidence can overrule. So if the ball is by all probability grounded then the TMO can only overrule if it clearly isn’t

    • Nah, that’s unworkable. Given that the TMO can realistically only with one feed at a time, and keeping up with live play doesn’t have time to call the replays back, it puts far too much power over the outcome of the game in the hands of the home broadcaster’s director.

  11. Context. That’s what the TMO strips out, for good and bad. Video referee is ideally suited for binary distinctions – feet in touch, grounding etc – that can be made even after taking a clip out of its original context and playing it backwards in super-hi-def-slo-mo-vision.

    Obstruction, near-knock-ons, interference in rucks, off-the-ball man-wrestling and the like aren’t suited to the TMO because of course an obstruction looks worse when you’re re-watching a clip and actively looking for it, having just admitted out loud that you might have missed it.

    Human error is part of any game, for players, coaches and referees. And if Luke Marshall can’t ‘go upstairs’ for another chance to stick his arms out before letting Quade Cooper run past him, George Clancy shouldn’t be allowed a mulligan on subjective obstruction calls because he ‘wasn’t sure whether there was enough of it’.

  12. Context. That’s what the TMO strips out, for good and bad. Video referee is ideally suited for binary distinctions – feet in touch, grounding etc – that can be made even after taking a clip out of its original context and playing it backwards in super-hi-def-slo-mo-vision.

    Obstruction, near-knock-ons, interference in rucks, off-the-ball man-wrestling and the like aren’t suited to the TMO because of course an obstruction looks worse when you’re re-watching a clip and actively looking for it, having just admitted out loud that you might have missed it.

    Human error is part of any game, for players, coaches and referees. And if Luke Marshall can’t ‘go upstairs’ for another chance to stick his arms out before letting Quade Cooper run past him, George Clancy shouldn’t be allowed a mulligan on subjective obstruction calls because he ‘wasn’t sure whether there was enough of it’.

    • This comment was worth making twice because it’s on the money! Binary distinctions is the phrase I should have used above. Cricket has them: Out, not out – the only two things you can be. Rugby is far more fluid for the most part. Where it is binary, the TMO can make sense, but even the forward pass idea is pliable “thrown backwards” “momentum” etc.

    • Thanks Mole. Long-time reader, first-time etc.

      I’m from the same school of thought as Trouble. The ref can call on the TMO for try groundings at his discretion. Otherwise, each captain can call on the TMO twice a game to check on knock-ons, offsides, violent play etc. with no charge for any successful challenges.

      I’d let the captains use their challenges any time play stops, so not just when a try is scored, but they have to specifically identify what they want the TMO to look for, and not just a general scan of the previous 3 minutes of videotape. Ruck and scrums are excluded from video review, as otherwise the TMO would be faced with a choice of multiple offences to pick from.

  13. Years ago decades ago the best ref in the world in the last year or two of his career started to ref in the spirit of good rugby and would wave the odd wobbly play on in the interests of a good game, it was about then he stopped being a good ref.
    Paddy O,Brien started the rot in forcing refs to use the laws to make the game better. It has in fact made it so difficult for refs the mess at scrum is the best example. The non reffing of the laws at scrum has made the thing more likely to fold, harder to clear the ball to the eight, harder for the scrum half to clear it. The refs should just apply the laws as written and O,Brien should have never interfered in that process

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