The women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland came to a thrilling climax this weekend with New Zealand’s Black Ferns XV reclaiming the title from holders England. The competition was an entertaining sporting display by highly-skilled, well-trained, committed amateur athletes, juggling the commitments of daily life while training for sport at the highest representative level. For the nations still developing women’s rugby, it was an opportunity to have quality game time with the top tier teams and a chance to raise the sport’s profile. Hopefully the rugby associations of all the nations involved will provide their full support to the women’s fifteen-a-side game, with development schemes which encourage women and girls to play. This is particularly important at a time when there is a danger of fifteens being neglected in favour of the sevens format, due to its inclusion in the Olympics and its perceived marketability. Hopefully too, more television networks and sponsors will recognise the value of the long game, lending financial assistance to clubs and players, and helping attract interest and viewers. But with any injection of support, and raised financial stakes, come changes in expectations, transforming aspects of the sport. One of the positive features of the current women’s amateur game that I hope can be preserved is the refereeing seen throughout this latest World Cup.
During this tournament, the on-field referees placed limited dependence on the video referees (TMOs), confidently relying on the assistance of their touch judges, and only asking for video confirmation in the most difficult of calls. There was a liberal application of penalty tries for goal-line infringements, and a sensible application of ‘benefit of the doubt’: an attacking maul marauding half a metre across the goal line before piling onto the ball should be awarded as a try even if the referee, or cameras, cannot ACTUALLY see the grounding. Contrast this with Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup match where an All Black’s try was granted by the referee on the ground only to be disallowed after the TMO interceded as there was no footage which showed a clear grounding of the ball. The referees and touch judges in the women’s competition also seemed to place a greater focus on one of the key fundamentals of the game, the forward pass. Too often this is let slide by touch judges and referees in the men’s game in order to keep the play flowing, perceiving that this is what the crowd wants.
Video referees undoubtedly have an important role in rugby, particularly in terms of safety. They have the ability to pick up dangerous tackles and foul play, often off-the-ball where incidents may escape the attention of the on-field officials. However the current situation in the professional game now sees TMOs intervening in the action on the field and making calls on sequences of play and tries without being requested for assistance by the match referee. This is resulting in long hold-ups but, more seriously, an undermining of the authority of the on-field referee. Team captains now regularly try to pressure the referee to send a decision to the TMO when they are unhappy with the on-field decision.
Undoubtedly, the financial investment in the professional game has put pressure on the sport to keep supporters happy, and the use of the TMO is a means by which to make the game seem fair. Viewers, all with their own opinions and analysis about every aspect of play, make a heavy investment through tickets, merchandise and betting, and are viewed as customers who must be kept satisfied. However, the frame-by-frame replay of portions of play take time and give an unrealistic view of what occurred. The grounding of a try which looks perfectly fine in real time may show a hand slipping from the ball in the final fraction of a second. What is the point of such pedantic distinctions? And while this situation all came about from a fear of the on-field referees making mistakes and receiving criticism, viewers regularly disagree with TMOs’ decisions too. For the future of the sport, professional rugby needs to look to the current amateur game where the balance of control remains very much in the on-field referees’ hands, with the TMO focussing on player safety and lending assistance with match decisions only when requested by the referee. And this also requires an acceptance by audiences, as well as coaches and players, that the authority of the referee is absolute, and the ultimate decisions they make are final, whether they are correct or made in error.
27th August 2017
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