Tipping point: time to rethink the TMO

18 November 2018  |  Rich M

In 2011, an obscure book called “The Making of a Fly” was listed on Amazon for $24 million. Two separate sellers had set their technology to adjust prices by a tiny margin based on their competitors’ pricing. The result is an out-of-control, tech-dominated system that produces daft results. Rugby’s relationship with technology and the TMO has reached a similar tipping point. It’s time to rethink the TMO.

Frankly, no amount of rearranging the deck chairs is going to rectify the issue. The post-match tedium of analysing and debating TMO/referee decisions, is, well, tedious. Rather than endless micro-adjustments to the laws, it’s time to be brave and totally change the relationship with technology.

Check, check, check, TMO

Recently, the Farrell and Lawes decisions in the Autumn Internationals are the epitome of the problem. Indeed, there is no consensus between experts on the veracity of those decisions: even now. Officials are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Players and coaches are reaching a point of passive acceptance where they just shrug their shoulders and exhale at the inconsistency. Eddie Jones leads the way in his resigned, accepting attitude. But it’s not ideal that a leading coach has given up on the process.

Rugby is not a black and white game. There are 30 players all trying to subtly manipulate the laws, deceive the officials and obfuscate reality. At break neck speed, the referee cannot be expected to get every decision right. Even with 100 replays. In tennis, the laws, players and variables are far fewer – the ball was either in or out and Hawkeye is the arbiter. Done.

That’s just cricket

The recent IRB directive to detach the TMO from direct influence is correct. But it doesn’t go far enough. We must look outside of our own game for inspiration. Cricket have used technology with great success, more consistency and far less whinging. What cricket has got right is the legitimacy of the umpire decision. The game has accepted the fallibility of human judgement – officials make mistakes. Each team has a number of challenges to ‘review’ the referee’s on-field decision using their TMO equivalent.

If Rugby had cricket’s approach, Courtney Lawes’ offside would have been a ‘stay with on-field decision’; if NZ had a review left to use. In these scenarios, the margin of debate is so small that there is no such thing as a single truth. Technology has to prove, beyond doubt, that the referee was wrong. Most importantly, the fate of the review is in the hands of the Captains who must use them wisely: a skill in itself.

Players are constantly badgering referees to ‘go upstairs’ in a desperate bid to reverse an outcome. A cricket style review system would alleviate this. Three officials should run the game to the best of their judgement and be empowered to be decisive. Currently, we have confiscated their freedom to run a flowing game. TMO interventions would occur in the event of a review used by a team if they think a call is incorrect. Or, for try-related ambiguity such as a grounding. Acts of foul play can be swept up by the citing system post match.

Liberation army

We want to leave linesmen free to call forward passes and obstruction lines as they see them. Not to clip their wings and send everything to the TMO (the least qualified official). And we want referees to call high shots, crooked feeds (yeah right) and ruck violations. This system would provide more clarity to the professional rugby community. We can all accept that referee mistakes will balance out over a season and each team has a ‘get out of jail’ card to challenge the big ones.

Once the sellers of “The Making of a Fly” realised that technology had overshot its original brief, they adjusted their systems accordingly.  One thing Rugby is good at (compared to other sports) is quickly adjusting the laws to address an issue. But tinkering with the laws won’t rectify this debate. We need a fresh cup of coffee, not a reheated old one. Time to rethink the TMO.